I have always scratched my head at the strange and unshakable contemporary relationship between American politics and evangelical faith. To confess that I find this strange might be strange in itself. The political aspect of American evangelicalism is to some one of its distinctive features, the characteristic it might be most famous for. But every time I hear the Gaithers sing the American national anthem or watch a televangelist make simultaneous appeals to both the Bible and the US Constitution, I am perplexed at how two seemingly unrelated traditions with vastly different historical trajectories ended up becoming shorthand for one another.
Intuitively, I suspect this might be because I’m from Canada. In Canada, at least in 2016, no easily discernible connection exists between nationalistic sentiment and religious fervor. I’m unfamiliar with a Canadian equivalent to America’s “civil religion” (as some have called it), one that functions to make imperative both faith in God and faith in the state. If there were, I’d like to think I’d find this tradition strange too, though it is always harder to make out the artificiality and arbitrariness of cultural concoctions while we are situated within the culture itself. And so I can only assume that my tendency to see stark differences between Christianity and Americanism is heightened as a neighbor-to-the-north. However, the emergence of presidential nominee Donald Trump has made evangelicalism’s alliance with Republican politics more obvious than ever; he preaches American nationalism, yet in the same breath vows to protect Christianity. As a result, he has secured the support of a demographic that professes faith to be the most important criteria for their politics.
To help make sense of this, it is helpful to understand the history of the political engagement of evangelicals and fundamentalists as a phenomenon that emerged early in the twentieth century. George Marsden has described the expressly political activities of the fundamentalist coalitions that formed after World War I to fight the forces of modernism in both the church and society. For example, William Jennings Bryan, one of the attorneys involved in the famous Scopes Trial that delivered a verdict against the teaching of evolution in public schools, can be considered a leader in early fundamentalist political efforts. Marsden notes that during this postwar era, many fundamentalist evangelists “laced their messages with political pronouncements, featuring patriotism and Prohibition and attacking Marxism, socialism, evolutionism, and Catholicism.” He explains, however, that in the 1930s, a shift occurred in which fundamentalists placed more emphasis on evangelism, especially after they developed a negative reputation in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial. Premillennialist and dispensational theology also gained more ground and fostered an ethos of cultural and political separation within fundamentalist communities. The eschatological framework of these theologies dictated that all social ills were evidence of God’s sovereignty and the immanent return of Christ. Thus, to combat “evil” social developments with any sort of political effort was inherently unspiritual and implicitly denied the validity of these eschatological doctrines.
But not all dispensationalists followed “separatist and apolitical conclusions,” and by the 1940s and 1950s, fundamentalism was divided into several camps, the primary two being the strict fundamentalists who demanded separation and the neo-evangelicals who disavowed it. Marsden lists a number of fundamentalists who were politically active during the 1940s, including Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and Edgar C. Bundy, “all of whom developed vigorous fundamentalist political organizations of their own.”
Marsden’s historical survey makes it clear that the link between American politics and faith forged in the late twentieth century is not a recent invention. However, as anthropologist Susan Harding points out, the specific religious origins of the Religious Right are in the 1980s:
A cultural movement swept through many American fundamentalist communities during the 1980s. Under the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Falwell and allied preachers, millions of inerrant Bible believers broke old taboos constraining their interactions with outsiders, claimed new cultural territory, and refashioned themselves in church services, Bible studies, books and pamphlets, classrooms, families, daily life and the public arena.
In the 1980s, fundamentalist communities reentered the public arena after some period of time clinging to socially separatist ideology, and they assimilated into the broader evangelical movement. Leading the charge, fundamentalist and evangelical leaders like Falwell and James Dobson founded political organizations loyal to Republican causes, and these organizations were instrumental in rebranding both fundamentalism and evangelicalism as politically purposeful. From there, Republican Party leaders seized the newly formed alliance to cultivate a reliable religious voting base.
In Republican Theology, Benjamin Lynerd explains that the civil evangelicalism of the contemporary Religious Right, which Falwell and his sympathizers helped establish, goes back even further than the 1980s. Indeed, Lynerd suggests that civil religion developed much earlier than the twentieth century or Marsden’s fundamentalists of the early twentieth century, originating “with the American Founding” itself. As Joseph Wuest points out in his review of Lynerd’s work, civil religion has roots in Calvinistic covenant theology, contract theology, and social contract theology. This does not negate Harding’s insight that the Religious Right is a relatively recent development, but it reminds us that the linkage between Christianity and American politics is a longstanding one.
In terms of the more recent manifestations of evangelical politics, Lynerd defines republican theology as a political-theological doctrine that “asserts the mutual dependence of individual liberty, moral virtue, and Christian faith to support a civil religion that values all three.” However, a civil religion uses faith to sanctify politics, whereas political theology makes use of theology-based ethics to advance political causes. His use of the phrases political-theological doctrine and civil religion is key here, because it disrupts the prevailing evangelical narrative that political engagement is about duty to one’s faith and not about politics. Although it may not be clear whether political evangelicalism is a civil religion, which is thus intrinsically political, or a theological system in which politics play a large role, Lynerd’s work foregrounds the explicit political character of right-wing evangelicalism. He reminds us that the alliance between evangelicalism and the American right is “not accidental,” taking on its current shape only in the twentieth century. Bearing in mind Harding’s and Marsden’s historical perspective, we might become more conscious that the religious perspective of conservative white evangelicals is historically rooted and thoroughly conditioned by the political agendas of its prominent leaders.
It seems we have come to a point in American politics where the perspectives and theologies of other Christian faith traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal, Holiness—are either ignored or distorted under evangelicalism’s enormous visibility and public dominance. This dominance is illusory, of course, because the Christian landscape is much more varied and diverse than it may appear in the media; even the evangelical landscape is more diverse socially, ethnically, politically, and theologically than it is usually perceived to be. All of this helps to illustrate that the relationship between conservative politics and a very particular expression of evangelicalism—the theologically conservative strain that has roots in fundamentalism—is deliberately forged and, I would argue, not at all natural, given, or representative of the Christian religion as a whole.
Another troubling consequence of a homogenizing political narrative concerning Christians is that when a specific religious expression is aligned with a specific political agenda, genuine faith is obfuscated, or at the very least made to be of secondary importance. In the shadow of right-wing political religion—republican theology, as Lynerd calls it—spirituality ceases to be truly spiritual. Conservative social issues thus replace theology as the substance of religious conviction; one’s commitment to so-called family values, for example, can tell us a great deal about that person’s spiritual standing. Bizarrely, Christian evangelicals who disagree with or do not regard conservative politics and social ethics as integral to their faith might render themselves as spiritual deviants to other evangelicals.
Secularism has been no help to Christians who do not adhere to the social-issues script, and the mainstream media rarely interrogates the naturalness of Republican theology or the alliance between social conservatism and Christian faith. Because faith has no place in a secular worldview, there is no value or purpose in covering spirituality in all its theological complexity and diversity, nor is there value or purpose in rescuing authentic spirituality from the suffocating grip of political intrigue. Naturally, then, nonreligious people consider Republican-influenced evangelicalism synonymous with the entire Christian tradition.
But then Donald Trump happened. Suddenly even secularists feel compelled to enlist kinder Christians to clarify that Mr. Trump does not embody the true spirit of Christianity. Suddenly, it is very important to remind the world that Hillary Clinton is a Methodist and that religion really can be practiced in a sensible, humane manner. When it became clear that Republican evangelicals were also American citizens who had the power to determine political outcomes that would affect everyone—not just the fanatics in their own constituency—then they were treated as serious members of the social body. And it took the appearance of Trump’s candidacy for the media to decide that the way to disarm dysfunctional religion was not to denounce religion itself but rather to provide examples of individuals who were doing it right by not allowing their faith to be hijacked by politics. Hence the Washington Post ran a piece in June criticizing evangelical sellouts.
But it was Trump who first made obvious the political core of evangelical faith; it was Trump, a man who said he had no need for God’s forgiveness, who won easily with the Religious Right. Such ironies are what make it obvious that his party has an irreligious underbelly, something GOP leaders worked hard to conceal. Because Trump’s clumsy display of basic Christianity still garnered him a large majority of the evangelical vote in the primaries—prominent leaders included—it’s now entirely reasonable to entertain the notion that Republican evangelicals care as little about faith as the secularists.
Trump has said and done terrible things; these terrible things he did and said intentionally. But I am hopeful he has unintentionally inaugurated the divorce that needs to take place between politics and religion, specifically between Republicanism and evangelicalism. This is not because I believe in their separation a priori—church and state may choose to cooperate, but when they collude, they are no longer distinguishable, and the corruption of both seems inevitable. As Trump’s history of sexually aggressive behavior surfaces in the mainstream media, it seems that his campaign has begun to unravel. Renouncing Trump is commendable but only minimally impactful: Trump is merely an outward symbol of the deep-seated allegiance between Republicanism and evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals who oppose having their faith co-opted by right-wing politics must seize the political moment that is the 2016 presidential race by actively working to disentangle evangelical Christianity from the Republican agenda.