Evangelicalism is more than theology -- it is a culture, and a new books opens a window
Evangelicalism would like to make a claim that it is defined by its theological distinctives – the Bible, the cross of redemption, personal conversion, and an active discipleship. Add to that something about being interdenominational, and then you have it. But you don’t.
Many who believe in those four or five features have no desire to be connected to evangelicalism, and many evangelicals may believe those features but what rocks their boat is political engagement and the culture war.
Not that long ago some evangelical leaders were intent on drawing some deep lines in the sand to say who was and who was not an evangelical. Longer than that ago America had the House Un-American Activities Committee, which died in 1975. It died in part because it was becoming increasingly difficult to define what was American and hence too what was Un-American. The same has happened with the word “evangelical.”
So the battle of Who’s a true Evangelical? is one that some wanted to fight but that battle is lost and the cat’s out the bag. How so? Evangelicalism is a culture, and the best of new schiolarship on evangelicalism is exploring this more culturally sensitive approach. Two books come to mind: Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason and now – the focus of a new series on this blog – Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s wonderfully titled Jesus and John Wayne.
It is now unreasonable to expect the majority of evangelicals to vote for anyone other than the GOP candidate. What that tells us, in part, is that evangelicalism is embedded in a political culture as much, if not more (!), as in a theological culture. Some were shocked when such a vast majority voted for Trump but my response then is what it will be in November and then four years after that: “Evangelicals (the majority) simply are not going to vote for a Democrat.”
Kristin Kobes Du Mez offers a singularly pointed contribution, a masculine Christianity, and here’s one of her own summaries:
Generations of evangelicals learned to be afraid of communists, feminists, liberals, secular humanists, “the homosexuals,” the United Nations, the government, Muslims, and immigrants, and they were primed to respond to those fears by looking to a strong man to rescue them from danger, a man who embodied a God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity.
Hence, the feeble but obvious moral cleansing of Trump by so many Christian leaders.
Hence, too (she doesn’t go there at this point), the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as a response to the ERA and the feminist movement. What other group talks so much about Manhood and manliness? Or Womanhood and femininity? (I’m waiting.)
But her point of the vote for Trump is not for what I have myself believed: pragmatics. I reasoned: Who else would evangelicals vote for other than a conservative? The furnace of the Reagan years and the turning of southern Democrats to the GOP and the rise of the Moral Majority – and more – led to an alignment. True.
But Du Mez contends the support of the “masculine” candidate, Trump, was written into the culture of American evangelicalism.
But evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad. By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them. [My emphasis]
This is a critically important insight into the nature of today’s evangelicalism. Gone are the years of Billy Graham and Franklin himself has been captured by these cultural forces. Gone are the days of John R.W. Stott and even of Carl Henry. Which is not to say that such persons were not politically conservative, for they were (I don’t know about Stott’s politics).
But something else was running deep among evangelicals. Something outside theology and something culturally conditioned, and has made a mess of evangelical witness. So much so that many even of my age no longer recognize themselves in the term “evangelical.” They have tried to correct the image but have lost.
Here are some features of the culture that has captured the public image. Call it a kind of populist evangelicalism, and I have reformatted Du Mez’s words into numbers (and she has even more but this is enough):
More than any other religious demographic in America, white evangelical Protestants
1. support preemptive war, 2. condone the use of torture, 3. and favor the death penalty. 4. They are more likely than members of other faith groups to own a gun, to believe citizens should be allowed to carry guns in most places, and to feel safer with a firearm around. 5. White evangelicals are more opposed to immigration reform and have more negative views of immigrants than any other religious demographic; two-thirds support Trump’s border wall. Sixty-eight percent of white evangelical Protestants – more than any other demographic – do not think that the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees. More than half of white evangelical Protestants think a majority nonwhite US population would be a negative development. 6. White evangelicals are considerably more likely than others to believe that Islam encourages violence, to refuse to see Islam as “part of mainstream American society,” and to perceive “natural conflict between Islam and democracy.” At the same time, white evangelicals believe that Christians in America face more discrimination than Muslims.
7. White evangelicals are significantly more authoritarian than other religious groups, and they express confidence in their religious leaders at much higher rates than do members of other faiths [footnotes galore].
Why? Why are evangelicals committed to this rather odd assortment of ideas – maybe not so odd she’s saying – when others are not? This is a culture.
Strength is a major issue in this culture.
Drawn to his populist appeals, white evangelicals demonstrated a preference for rejecting political compromise, for strong, solitary leadership, and for breaking the rules when necessary. These dispositions held whether white evangelicals were defined by affiliation, self-identification, or belief and behavior.
Evangelicalism has been tethered to patiarchal authority and figures, to gender difference and protection of such, and to Christian nationalism and its red-white-and-blue themes.
This culture sells and it sellers sold and so the consumer culture shaped evangelicalism. It was more than a creed, more than beliefs, more than evangelism that tied these folks into a movement.
They achieved this dominance not only by crafting a compelling ideology but also by advancing their agenda through strategic organizations and political alliances, on occasion by way of ruthless displays of power, and, critically, by dominating the production and distribution of Christian consumer culture.
As a diffuse movement, evangelicalism lacks clear institutional authority structures, but the evangelical marketplace itself helps define who is inside and who is outside the fold.
This is not entirely new, however. One must think very carefully of what happened in culture and in faith in the 60s (and 70s). The post WW2 generation perceived a threat in the Great Society and idealized the 50s. What threatened the 50s worldview was feminism, Vietnam, a crisis in masculinity, civil rights, desegregation, the power of white men and a threat to white patriarchal life as it was known. This was shaped – so I recall – by TV shows about “cowboys, soldiers, and warriors.”
Antecedents can be found in nineteenth-century southern evangelicalism and in early-twentieth-century “muscular Christianity,” but it was in the 1940s and 1950s that a potent mix of patriarchal “gender traditionalism,” militarism, and Christian nationalism coalesced to form the basis of a revitalized evangelical identity. With Billy Graham at the vanguard, evangelicals believed that they had a special role to play in keeping America Christian, American families strong, and the nation secure.The assertion of masculine power would accomplish all these goals.
Do not forget how politically induced some of the Billy Graham messages were – with anti communism. The Red Threat.
Evangelical militancy cannot be seen simply as a response to fearful times; for conservative white evangelicals, a militant faith required an ever-present sense of threat.
That threat for them was present in Obama and it will be in the future, if not already in 2021.