The War on Evangelicalism, in Conclusion

The period of time between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the creation of the Moral Majority organization in 1979 was a period of great upheaval in American society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Watt’s riots, hippies in Haight Ashbury San Francisco, the Black Panthers, the Freedom Marches, the rise of feminism and the ERA, there was a great deal of things upsetting for conservative Christians.

In the midst of this social upheaval, increasing public displeasure with Southern segregationism and the political pressure to segregate private Christian schools further agitated fundamentalist Christian leadership. But these leaders continually failed to appeal to a broad enough group to slow or thwart progressive legislation. It is at this point that the temptation to over-simplify and evaluate the evangelical development in the 80s and 90s in terms of a binary cause becomes apparent. I confess, I had, before making a more thorough study, leaned towards understanding modern evangelicalism primarily in terms of White Nationalism. This is an easy assumption to make if one thinks solely in terms of Southern fundamentalism. And, yes, fundamentalism thinking had a huge impact on direction and priorities of the evangelical movement from 1980 onward. However, the seeds of ultra conservatism were already within evangelicalism long before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.  

Rather than see fundamentalism as a minority subset of evangelicalism, as some historians do, I tend to think of modern evangelicalism, as opposed to classic evangelicalism of the 18th-19th centuries, as an outgrowth of early 20th century, fundamentalism, dispensationalism and an apocalyptic world view. Matthew Avery Sutton’s “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” is a wonderful resource for tracing this development. (1) So, as the segregationist, fundamentalist preacher, Jerry Falwell readied his Moral Majority movement in 1979, the wedge issues he planned to use: abortion, the ERA, homosexuality, civil rights, liberalism, were already a part of the more moderate evangelical “worry-list.” Yes, his concerns were more racially motivated, but the wedge issues already concerned most evangelicals to one degree or another.

So what new impetus did Falwell bring to the evangelical table that had not already been there before? The most obvious is a new emphasis on rigidity in response to the wedge issues. Take abortion for example. Catholics had an absolute stance: abortion was wrong under all circumstances. Evangelicals were more conflicted and divided on the issue.

“If Republicans were reluctant to restrict abortion in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so were most evangelicals. They greeted the first state abortion legislation laws with silence and apathy.” (2) Overall, the majority response to abortion was that “therapeutic abortion” was morally permissible, but not “abortion on demand.” Fundamentalists generally were more adamant on the subject and laid the sole burden for sexual responsibility squarely on the woman. For example Billy Sunday, John Rice and Henry Stough. (3)

When Falwell courted Catholics, not only was he breaking with the long-standing mistrust fundamentalists had of Catholics, but he was speaking language Catholics could understand concerning abortion. Hence, the Moral Majority borrowed from the Catholic playbook and effectively moved the needle decisively to the right for evangelicals. This is where I believe the long term effect on evangelicalism lay: fundamentalism moved evangelicals to the right, making them more conservative than they were prior to the Moral Majority.

While I believe, judging from Falwell’s views on “separation of the races,” that segregation was more on his mind than abortion, legal protection for Christian schools that discriminated against blacks ultimately failed, even though Carter was denied a second term by evangelicals. Where Falwell succeeded, and I believe decidedly succeeded, was galvanizing evangelicals and Catholics under the common cause of overturning Roe v Wade. Between the academic assault on moderates within the evangelical system of higher education, and labeling of abortion as “murder,” a noble cause was born that enabled evangelicals to politically resist “liberal causes” that they felt supported abortion. To put it another way, evangelicals could broadly condemn governmental efforts at progressive social programs because they, at least, did not support the “mass murder of infants.” The Moral Majority was wildly successful in hiding their morally questionable views of racism under the rubric of defending the unborn. To be fair, I suspect a fairly large group evangelicals still believe there are morally excusable reasons for abortion under some circumstances, but fundamentalism combined with Catholicism has affected the legal aspirations concerning abortion towards completely overturning Roe v Wade.

Not that abortion is the only residual concern of evangelicals: a concerted effort was attempted to curtail Gay rights as well as the Equal Right Amendment for women. While the attempts to halt Gay marriage ultimately failed and the ERA quietly went away, the desire to overturn Roe v Wade has remained a pressing concern for evangelicals. It is still the cause de celebre among many evangelicals.

Which brings us to the current evangelical agenda: to stack the court system from the SCOTUS on down, to reflect conservative social causes. While the initial rise of the Religious Right was arguably fueled by fundamentalist racism, that was too narrow a cause and too unpopular to remain a central focus of the Religious Right. As Falwell skillfully used wedge issues to his advantage I believe the political landscape and emphasis for evangelicals changed as a result when the next century arrived. Although white evangelicals and evangelicals of color may vote differently, evangelicals of every stripe have found a common cause in its efforts to forge a “Christian Nation.” In other words, no longer content to vote on single issue items, there is an all out push towards Christian Nationalism, a blend of Christ and Caesar.

 This will be the subject I tackle in the future. Ultimately the dangers inherent to Christian Nationalism are far more dangerous to democracy than the racism of 20th century fundamentalism as it appeals to a much larger audience and has managed to infiltrate much of the Republican Party platform. But more on that at a later time.

1 “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” Matthew Avery Sutton, Harvard College, 2014.

2 “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Religious Right,” Daniel K. Williams, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 111, 115.

3 Ibid., pp. 145-146.

4 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

Abortion: The Great Evangelical Trigger

All social constructs have their own particular interpretation of their history, their own myths. The supposed lengthy anti-abortion stance among evangelicals is one such myth, as well as the supposed abhorrence for abortion that has supposedly existed for time immemorial. Prior to 1979, most evangelical leaders viewed abortion as a “Catholic issue.” Life began at birth. The reason for the timing of the switch in 1979 coincided with increased pressure on evangelical “segregation academies,” in the American Bible Belt to desegregate or be fined and lose tax exempt status. Evangelicals seem to conveniently forget the seamy underbelly of racism that was such an integral part of much of the fundamentalist Christian background in America.

Jerry Falwell needed the support of Catholic conservatives to turn the tide of progressive social action and desegregation (he was a segregationist). Catholics had always been consistently anti contraceptive, anti abortion. Together with the fundamentalist theologian, Francis Schaeffer and Paul Weyrich a plan was concocted to launch a movement Falwell called “The Moral Majority.” By doing so, undermining desegregation and fomenting racial tension could continue largely hidden by a “righteous and noble” cause.

This is largely unknown among the evangelical faithful even though the information is readily available online and many books have addressed it. I do not doubt the sincerity of most evangelical parishioners. The tragedy is that they are being used, and have been for the past 35 years. Falwell’s plan was brilliant, as the simple mention of “abortion” is a powerful dog-whistle to those that have been brainwashed. It is a convenience relied on by evangelicals like John MacArthur, to discourage attempts at social justice while still appearing highly moral. It is the underlying reason evangelical talking heads like James Dobson use such inflammatory language as genocide, murder and infanticide…to rile up their supporters. For evangelical leadership it has always been about control.

The reasons behind the evangelical about-face on abortion may be highly suspect but they are right about one thing: both Jews and Christians have generally opposed abortion on ethical grounds. Of course, it should be noted that, for the most part, we are talking about Patriarchal societies, where women were highly controlled by men. Evangelicals will claim the Bible is unequivocally “pro-life,” but is it truly? Sanctity of life covers more than the human fetus in the womb. The intrinsic value of EVERY human life lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Yet, this was not the message of large swaths of the Old Testament. This is problematic for evangelicals that claim the Bible is GOD’S WORD and inerrant in everything it claims. While God may be against abortion, that is not an easy deduction from a “flat” reading of scripture.

Much like the swordsman in Princess Bride when evangelicals claim the Bible is pro-life, they keep using that word, but I don’t think they truly know what that means. Parts that are inconvenient to the pro-life claim are glossed over, or ignored completely in favor of Bible harmonized to fit their agenda. The evangelical “flat reading” of scripture tends to result in some very questionable understandings of pro-life, such as strong support for the death penalty among evangelicals. Also lost on most evangelicals is the role poverty plays in the decision to have an abortion, and the disproportionate financial burdens draconian abortion laws place on poor Black women in America. This is due in large part because evangelicals think in terms of sin and punishment.

Then again, evangelicals are not known for nuance in their reasoning. Having an inerrant Bible, read largely literally and a history of distrusting science has led to a dangerous political climate in America and has put a great deal of women’s lives in jeopardy.

Back in 2016, after the first large Women’s March on Washington, I wondered why Pro-Life women’s groups were not listed as officially in the march, as they comprise a large group of women, and I thought, women should be allowed to iron out the differences and arrive at a reasonable compromise without men’s input, after all it’s their bodies at stake here. Silly me. Fundamentalists do not compromise. This is the danger of fundamentalism when it infiltrates the politics of a democratic nation. Dialogue ceases and progress stops.

Yet this does not address the ethical questions abortion raises, and I believe they are valid. What makes dialogue extremely difficult among Christians I have found from my own experience, is the difference between how the Bible is used and what are the underlying presuppositions about the nature of scripture itself. The pro-life inerrantist will marshal numerous quotes from early christian leaders showing the church believed abortion to be a sin. Likewise Jewish sources as well as carefully selected scriptural passages. Scripture is seen as a monolithically pro-life “rule book.” Conversation grinds to a halt when I explain that I do not follow scripture, but instead follow Jesus Christ. To a Biblican this is heresy. Let me be clear, the average evangelical “follows” the Bible, and because the Bible is unevenly “pro-life,” we end up with a group of people claiming to follow Christ that end up supporting the same man Neo Nazis do. There is a deep incongruity that results from treating the Bible as a rule book rather than a guide leading us to Christ.

So rather than ask the difficult questions of how to reduce unwanted pregnancies and how to prevent the need for abortions, evangelical pro-life leadership attempt to push laws outlawing abortion. Draconian measures to force women to bear children, even in the instances of rape for example. Obsession over sexual activities before marriage lead to ineffectual purity culture and sexual abstinence teaching as a birth control method. 

So, what we have ended up with in the current political crisis in American is a rather large group of citizens that is easily controlled and directed primarily by one “trigger.” “Vote pro-life” becomes the only qualification a candidate needs to meet to garner the evangelical vote. It covers a multitude of sins. This type of reductionist reasoning has had disastrous results for both the church in America and for our country.

Further reading:

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/02/18/the-biblical-view-thats-younger-than-the-happy-meal/

https://newrepublic.com/article/140961/amazing-disgrace-donald-trump-hijacked-religious-right

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-evangelicals-hate-jes_b_830237

Alabama, and the Harsh, Judgmental Jesus

The recent shock of a number of Southern States passing laws prohibiting abortion and the excessive punishments to offenders left me in a quandary as to how to best respond. The pro-life movement in the US is largely a conservative Christian response to Roe v. Wade, involving Catholics, Evangelicals and the Republican Party. As such, there is no one consensus as to how to solve the abortion problem, nor indeed, a consensus as to when a fetus is a “person.” The evangelical lawmakers and Christians behind the recent draconian measures in states like Georgia and Alabama represent only one faction of Christians in the pro-life movement. I will call them the followers of a harsh, judgmental Jesus.

It should come as no surprise that the states most eager to implement these extreme laws have ugly histories of racism and denying civil rights: Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, the Deep South and Utah. And of course, the fact that religion in those areas tend strongly patriarchal, thanks to both Mormonism and the Southern Baptist Convention. What troubles me most is that those claiming to act on Christ’s behalf are resorting to punitive measures (punish the woman and her doctor) rather than looking at root causes. Poverty, systemic racism, income inequality, misogyny, unaffordable health care, childcare expenses and the resistance to sex ed in schools, all are contributing reasons why we have abortions. While we spend billions on war, the military and incarceration of more per capita than any other Western Democracy, we balk at spending for affordable health care, childcare and thorough sex education.

Although this punitive, judgmental wing of the movement does not reflect the entire movement, Catholics for example, are much more consistently pro-life, they have had great success in influencing the language and tone of the debate. What began in the 70s among fundamentalists largely as a knee-jerk reaction to the Carter administration’s firm stance against “segregation academies,” (Christian private schools that denied Blacks), ended up being an effective dog-whistle to rally Catholics and evangelicals to the conservative political causes of the Republican Party and the Moral Majority.

While there is no doubt in my mind that misogynistic patriarchy (men in charge of women), racism and partisan politics play huge roles in this judgmental wing of the movement, these are symptomatic of a larger problem, a problem that has dogged the church for centuries: a coercive Kingdom of God. The overt “dominionism” that has plagued the church for a millennium and a half, the misguided belief that the church is to use the same playbook as Rome, is to blame here. Rather than seeing Jesus as anti-Pharisee, Jesus becomes the Uber “law-giver.” Rather than forgiver, he becomes a Jesus who would force the victim of rape or incest to bear the pregnancy, and then, to not even offer to cover medical expenses.

This wing of the movement has consistently shown little regard for a true “pro-life” ethic, concentrating on the rather convenient “rights” of the “unborn,” and neglecting the rights of women, minorities and the poor: others that would inconvenience them and require empathy and compassion. Being pro-life in this manner requires little personally of these modern day Pharisees. No, they will suffer not at all from these laws, but will cause great hardships and sufferings, if implemented, on “the least of these.”

As the Methodist minister Dave Barnhart has stated: 

“The unborn” are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. It’s almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.” (Facebook, June 25, 2018)

While I personally view any abortion as a tragedy, I recognize the moral “grayness” of much of the decisions we are forced to make in this life. Life does not offer us a series of clear-cut, black and white choices to make, in spite of what the followers of the harsh, judgmental Jesus would like us to believe. This is why I believe that, rather than letting the Pharisees control a woman’s womb, these decisions are best left to the woman and her doctor.