An American Reformation: Christianity and Public Policy
I have been absent from the blogosphere this past week or so, desperately trying to finish The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances Fitzgerald. Published this past April, I feel that I have been reading it since it hit the bookshelves; at almost 650 pages it spans the entirety of American history, starting with the colonial period to the 2016 election. The evangelical movement has always been there, it has taken a different tone throughout history and certainly in recent decades, but Fitzgerald in my view does an excellent job in documenting every aspect of its growth and maturity throughout the centuries. I learned a great deal about what it means to be an “evangelical” and how and why it developed. But most importantly Fitzgerald’s tome provides clarity into how religion shapes public policy in the United States. And it is that relationship that must be changed else Christianity will continue to decline in influence and impact.
I do not know how we do it, but we must get religion out of public policy and out of government. Yes. Let me say that again. We must get religious doctrine from all denominations out of government institutions and all public policy. I will focus on Christianity, but my argument applies to all religion. Christian leaders, like all religious heads, have proven themselves to be unable to moderate or balance their beliefs with pragmatism and policy needs. And specifically, American Christian evangelicals have demonstrated an immaturity in reconciling their theological views with not only democratic norms but with our history. The only answer then is to do exactly what the Founders intended and that is – to keep religion out of politics.
My Christian background
Before we fire up the stake, let me share my own religious background. I have never known a time when I have not been a Christian. I was baptized and confirmed into a small, rural United Church of Christ in Kansas which I attended every Sunday until I left for college at 19.
The United Church of Christ is a relatively young mainline Protestant denomination in America, formed in the 1960s out of 4 smaller denominations with like characteristics and beliefs. One of those denominations was the Congregationalists, descendants of the Puritans and commonly found in New England, where I currently live. Another synod that merged in the 60s to form the UCC was my church: the German Evangelical and Reformed (I was not yet alive – let’s make that clear).
The history of my congregation deserves a paragraph because it really is unique and just “neat.” Christian Haas emigrated from Germany (it was not yet ‘Germany’ at that time, but rather several independent provinces) in the mid-19th century. Upon settling in Willow Springs, Kansas he established a church and school for German-speaking immigrants. The congregation began in the German Reformed tradition and in the 1920s merged to become the German Evangelical and Reformed. It is the makeup of the congregation that makes my church so different. Many of its current members can trace their families back to the founding (mine came alone a few years after the founding). Christian Haas’s descendants (several greats later of course) continue to attend and are active members of the congregation. Three of his granddaughters (again, several “greats” down) were my Sunday School teachers and many of the founding members can be found in the adjoining graveyard.
I learned the basics of Christianity within the walls of this church and still believe in the basic tenets of the faith; that is, that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humanity which allowed humankind to reconcile itself to the Creator, thus gaining eternal life. With fear of eternal damnation out of the way, Christians could then focus on the “words in red;” all the life lessons and moral instructions that Jesus left us with during his three-year ministry. Regretfully, it is the manner in which we execute and prioritize these decrees that seem to trip up Christians of all denominations.
What I did not learn within those walls probably explains my political ideology and my assertion that organized religion has no place in public policy. And without going into a lengthy oratory about doctrine and hierarchy, I will simply jump to the ending and conclude with this: in all the years of attending this little brown country church in Republican Kansas, I never once heard any of these words: abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, birth control, Islam, secular humanism, liberals, or religious freedom. Not once. Moreover, the closest we got to “politics” was an announcement in the bulletin to remind everyone to vote. It’s possible that the minister also said, “Remember to vote on Tuesday” from the pulpit. But while the culture wars were raging through the 80s and 90s and specifically fueled by evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, my church – the United Church of Christ – was focused solely on those words in red.
Today, years later, I can confirm that despite the more vicious culture battles, that focus has not changed.
Before reading Fitzgerald’s book, I really knew nothing about the evangelical movement. Of course, I thought I did; but I was wrong. Attempting to summarize the entire history of the movement here would be futile; if you are interested – read the book. But I will highlight the aspects of interest and important to my argument regarding reform.
The word “evangelism” simply means the spreading of the gospel by public preaching or personal witness. In a practical sense, the evangelical movement began in all of Colonial America (and Europe) during the 1730s and 40s, in what is now referred to as the First Great Awakening. This was a time of reformation and “revivalism;” a pushback to colonial established churches. For as much as we claim a history of religious liberty, it did not start that way. The Puritans fled Europe and quickly imposed their own rigid belief system in the New World. Both the First and Second Great Awakenings (which extended revivalism into the 19th century) were, in part a response to the rigidness of mainline Protestant churches and denominationalism that eventually formed in early America.
So what is evangelicalism? How is it different? During the Great Awakenings and into the 19th century, evangelicals were known for their tent revivals. Charismatic preachers traveled the frontier giving fiery sermons meant to inspire and generate one’s “internal spirit.” Think of large crowds and dramatic performances. Evangelicals are known for being “born-again.” For those of us in mainline faiths (again – like the UCC), we were only born the one time. There’s no drama, fewer crowds, no speaking in tongues and certainly no snakes. We are not overcome with the spirit, nor do we faint, have any spasms, or see visions. We tend to go to church, sit in a pew, stand and sit, sing, etc. Ministers perform pastoral duties and are part of the congregation. The mainline Protestant experience is very traditional.
From a doctrinal perspective, Fitzgerald focuses on a few points that set the evangelical ministry apart from its mainline counterparts. Perhaps the most important is the emphasis on the Apocolypse and the Second Coming. In fact, it is this focus that is the true driver behind the ebbs and flows of the historical movement. World and national events are seen through the biblical lens, and specifically through Revelation and all prophesy that relates to the end of man’s world and the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. I can only speak for the UCC but this emphasis is so much different from our focus. Yes, we study Revelation here and there in Sunday School and ministers will devote sermons to it. But overwhelmingly, the Second Coming and the end of the world as we know it is not a predominant topic of conversation on Sunday mornings in any UCC church I have attended.
A good portion of the 19th century was devoted to formalizing the evangelical doctrine through education and seminary, but even then, a split between “liberals” and “conservatives” was imminent.
Modernist Thought and Biblical Inerrancy
I love to see and hear my seven-year-old nephew’s response when I tell him that his mother and I did not have the internet or the Wii when we grew up. He honestly cannot believe it. The sound he makes and his facial expressions should be that of someone who just found out that we had to walk 10 miles to school each way, barefoot through the snow. “Oh, the horror!!”
I offer this as a lead-in to remind everyone that has lived for quite some time in an age of scientific and technical advancement. While we are currently living in a period of anti-science and anti-intellectualism, if you are reading this blog, more than likely you do not fall into this category. If you are like me, you believed what you learned in your science textbooks (photosynthesis, the water cycle, evolution, the scientific method, climate change) and you know a conspiracy theory when you read one.
The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, which ended around the turn of the 19th century threatened religious institutions in ways that the Protestant Reformation had not. The revolt that Martin Luther set off was over doctrine and the power of the Pope – not over the essence and validity of Christianity. As scientific and technical advances were made and we learned more about history, secular academics began to question with evidence, the basic truths of the Bible. The church taught that Moses wrote at least the first 5 books of the Bible. Scientific evidence proved that could not be true. Church elders had for centuries defined the Gospels and the Epistle authors; academics now disproved those assertions. Christianity (evangelicals) pushed back.
But it was Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution (which had been around for centuries) that really pushed religious leaders to the edge. Darwin provided the scientific method of natural selection to explain how it worked. All of a sudden, Christians had to decide whether Genesis was to be believed or science. Evolution served as the first divider between liberal and conservative evangelical thought. One one side were believers in biblical inerrancy. On the other, were those who were comfortable accepting science and biblical errancy, choosing to focus on Christianity’s message of hope, social justice, and mission to help others. Out of this came evangelicals on the left that subscribed to the social gospel of reform. Historically, we know this period as “The Progressive Era.” Left-leaning evangelicals (and even some conservatives) had a leading role in many of these social and political reforms, including Prohibition, the failure of which signaled a period of quiet for the evangelical movement.
The conservatives vehemently disagreed with the liberals on the idea of biblical inerrancy: everything must be true or nothing was true. This is a position that modern evangelicals, at least their leaders, maintain today. Farther to the right are the fundamentalists who were also considered separatists throughout portions of the 19th century. While they did not withdraw from society necessarily to create separatist communities (some did), fundamentalists remained incredibly strict and isolated from social norms. Drinking, smoking, dancing, and movies were all off limits. But biblical inerrancy helps explain the conservative rejection of science and anti-intellectualism that has become so prominent in recent years. Part of its roots trace to the evangelical movement, evolution and biblical inerrancy.
Evangelicals and Politics
Now we arrive at the essence of my argument for it is really evangelicalism and specifically, the Christian right within the evangelical movement, that has driven the fusion between Christianity and public policy. To be even more precise: it is the evangelical conservative Christian right’s doctrine that has infused the Republican Party in the last 40 years, its members becoming an actual voting block and special interest group complete with an agenda and millions of dollars to influence politicians and public policy.
There have always been attempts to change policy, but the first real public display was the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. This was all about not teaching evolution in public schools. William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson and conservative evangelical, was a lawyer for the prosecution. The defendant was a substitute teacher who taught evolution which was against the law in Tennessee. The case itself was a slam-dunk (the teacher was guilty), but it was thrown out of court on appeal. The dramatic moment came when Clarence Darrow (defense attorney) called Bryan to the witness stand and barraged him with a series of questions about the Bible which demonstrated not only Bryan’s inability to remember the minutiae of biblical detail but also called into question biblical inerrancy. He pointed out obvious details that could not possibly be true. Bryan’s performance damaged the perception of evangelicalism. Bryan died shortly thereafter and conservative evangelicalism fell dormant until World War II.
The modern evangelical political movement began after the end of the war. Church attendance saw an upsurge during and immediately after the war when Billy Graham was just starting his nationwide revival tours. Graham became a fixture in the Eisenhower White House and a counsel to a president who had grown up in a religious household and who wanted to promote a public civil religion. Ike was not concerned about a specific denomination but he knew that in the fight against communism, he needed something that would bring the entire country together. Given the racial, geographic and economic divisions within the United States at that time, civic religion could offer a unifying proposition.
So it was in the 50s that the “In God We Trust” appeared on our currency and the “Under God,” was included in the Pledge of Allegiance. I think it is so critical to understand the importance that communism and the Soviet Union had on the radicalization and expanding the influence of evangelicalism in post-war America. Atheistic communists were seen as the anti-Christ from Revelation. The creation of Israel in the late 1940s was a “sign” of the end times. Evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Billy Graham not only saw political and international events through an apocalyptic lens, but they viewed their responsibility as one to hasten the Second Coming. They believed (and their descendants still do) that their understanding of the Bible is the only correct interpretation and that they must prepare the world for the Kingdom of God. In this interpretation, anyone who does not agree is not Christian (I would be the anti-Christ, no joke).
The 60s brought the first culture war and the evangelicals got to add abortion, gay rights and prayer in school to their list of grievances against the state. They believed that liberals wanted to replace Christianity with the state; forcing Americans to worship the latter (the motive of which I have not yet discovered). During the George W. Bush years, at the invitation of the Bushites, the Christian right, became an integral part of the inner circle of the administration and its agencies. Bush considered himself born-again, but he and Karl Rove knew that he needed the evangelical voting block to win re-election. So they were courted.
Christian foundations and charities received millions of dollars in federal grants that they then used in outreach and conversion activities. If you can believe it, in the days following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, (among other religious organizations) followed American troops into Baghdad to hand out much-needed supplies and in doing so, attempted to convert Muslims to Christianity. National security and military experts were horrified and the Iraqi’s did not respond well; remember, George W. Bush essentially went to war unilaterally which was interpreted by majority Muslim countries as a war on Islam. Christian conversion efforts did not help with that perception.
I would prefer not to detail all of the political maneuverings of the Christian right since the George W. Bush administration. It was much more powerful than we might think and it used that power for important causes like anti-gay legislation and marriage amendments. No efforts were made to reform criminal justice or to highlight opioid addiction. The science behind climate change was ignored and then denied. Regulations were repealed. Evangelical Christians had combed through the Bible to note justification for free-market capitalism and a repeal of the welfare state. Even taxes were viewed as immoral and unChristian with Biblical justification.
The Christian right’s behavior during the Obama years should not be surprising. The political propaganda used during both the 2008 and 2012 elections could be mistaken for what the Russians disseminated last year. Fitzgerald does note that in the last decade, there has been a further split within the conservative evangelical movement. Rick Warren, of The Purpose Driven Life fame, leads what she describes as “the new evangelicals,” social conservatives that are more concerned with ameliorating real people’s concerns: poverty, hunger, disease, and violence. There has been a real attempt by Warren and a few others to distance themselves from the political evangelicals of previous generations. There is hope.
That said, in the 2016 presidential election Donald Trump received an overwhelming majority of evangelical voter support despite his lack of demonstrative Christian behavior. Rational came down to protecting “religious freedom, restoring Christian values, and nominating conservative justices to the Supreme Court.” For decades, the Christian right has fed its followers a revisionist view of the American founding and specifically that our government was founded on Christian, evangelical principles. Evangelicals have been left believing that the Founders were Christian (they weren’t) and created institutions based on Christian values (they didn’t). Christian evangelical leaders on the right have long since bemoaned the loss of those values, blaming liberals for the destruction the United States and in fact, often being cited as Satan.
How did we get to these “religious freedom laws?” Here is a good example: Once SCOTUS overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage, some small business owners across the country cried foul claiming that their religious beliefs prevented them from offering services to gay couples. One such business belonged to a Minnesota Videographer. This couple wanted to expand their business, but not to gay couples. The court said, “No. That screams of “Whites Only.” So now, this Minnesota Videographer couple is taking the case to the Supreme Court (I wonder if the legal bills are fully funded by a religious funded organization?)
Just a few points here:
- Obamacare regulations and taxes must not be that stifling to small business. I mean, if this couple can “pick and choose who they want to film based on who is getting married,” well, the economy must be doing really well. I wonder if they would have the same argument if the gays were getting married during the Great Recession?
- I am not an economist, nor am I a lawyer. And my mind is simple. But I would think that if you are going to do business in the United States of America and getting the benefits thereof, then you should have to comply with the laws of the United States of America. For example, you cannot employ 9-year-olds. There’s a law against that. You can not have indentured servants. I KNOW there’s a law against that. I wonder if these small business owners get any tax breaks from the city, the state or the federal government. Would they be willing to give those up to NOT video a gay wedding? I have a feeling that they take advantage of city and state services that help make their small business successful: things like police and fire departments, infrastructure improvements, an educated workforce and the like. My point? This is a political stunt and a dumb one.
- I know A LOT of gay and lesbian couples. They have excellent taste. I am not stereotyping at all – but – my experience has been, that when they get married, they do not spare any expense. So this seems very silly and very non-capitalist.
But it does stop with videographers and bakers. These religious freedom bills have extended to health insurance. “Religious organizations” have sought and won waivers to not offer birth control as an essential benefit because it (birth control) does not conform to religious beliefs. Well, guess what? Birth control fits very nicely into MY religious beliefs and I think I matter more than my employer. Furthermore, I’ve read the Bible – birth control is not mentioned. Not once. But again, religious organizations get tax breaks all day long and still, they press for a law or waiver that allows “freedom” to deny women an essential health benefit.
Where does this leave Christianity?
I have looked at the data and it is not good. The millennial generation has little use for organized religion including Christianity (evangelical or mainline). What I find interesting are the reasons. Conservative political and religious websites blame the disinterest on the breakdown of the family and liberals for failing to instill morality and Christian values in the next generation. I kid you not. Always blame the liberals. Thing is, when you actually ask young people about their views on Christianity, their responses tell a different story. They perceive Christians as bigoted, hateful and discriminatory toward gays and lesbians. Too many young people have gay friends. And given the Republican and Trump position toward immigrants, that too may become a bone of contention.
Democrats also have a religious problem. I read an article a while back (and of course, now I cannot find it!) in which more and more Democrats feel that morality does not require a religious foundation. In the old days, they called that secular humanism and the original wave of the Christian Right used that belief against liberals to great effect. Personally, I agree. I do not think you need religion to live a moral life. Hell, there have been plenty of religious zealots that have very publically demonstrated incredibly immoral behavior. Religion does not hurt – but it is not a guarantee.
The problem with the last 60 years of Christian history is that most Americans – no, most of the world – sees Christianity through the lens of conservative, almost radical evangelicalism. Whether it was Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, or televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker; Christianity is viewed to the non-believer or agnostic, or even to other faiths as a “great big reality TV show.” In the case of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, it is a multi-million dollar enterprise based on something called the “prosperity gospel,” which basically says that “if you are poor, it must be because you have not purged yourself of ungodly influences.” “Prosperity follows godly behavior.” And now, we have evangelical ministers “Laying on of Hands” giving the President, a thrice-married serial adulterer who routinely disrespects government institutions and the American people, a favorable photo op with religious leaders. Young Americans see all of this as hypocritical and not in line with Jesus’s teachings.
When it is not putting on a show, rich Christian ministers are lobbying politicians to pass laws that infringe upon the rights of others who do not hold similar views. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son is actively pursuing an agenda to incorporate Christian values and norms into federal and state law. Let me state that again: Franklin Graham is using his influence and ministry to lobby Congress and the President to legislate a theocracy. If Graham were Muslim, there would be riots in the streets. In December, Alabama will go to the polls to elect a new senator. It is probable that the winner will be Republican Roy Moore who believes that homosexuality should be illegal, that Islam is a fake religion, and that Muslims should be prevented from serving in elected positions. He too believes that the United States was founded as a Christian nation (without providing any constitutional proof).
This is not my Christianity. It does not trace its roots to the United Church of Christ, German Reformed or German Evangelical faiths. And while mine is not a witnessing faith (we are much more of a “self-serve” kind of church; we are here, we would love to have you and will welcome you with open arms but we try very hard not to be pushy), Christianity has been incredibly helpful to me throughout my life and it can be for others too. But no one wants to belong to a bigoted and judgemental organization. I wouldn’t. The Christian Right has created a pox on all of our houses.
On one hand, I am proud that the UCC is not actively involved in public policy. On the other, maybe it should be. Maybe the UCC should have its own “Focus on the Family” organization (except ours would not be labeled a hate group). Maybe we should have a list of judges that we hand our state and national legislators; judges that we will “allow” to serve on the courts. Maybe we should hire our own internal political operatives to build UCC’s version of the “Moral Majority” to lobby Congress and to build voting blocs that scare the hell out of legislators.
But here’s the thing. The UCC, like the Methodists, Disciples of Christ and Lutherans (just to name a few) are focused on those darn “words in red.” The money raised through bake sales and offerings is used to pay the bills and to help the local community. Special offerings are taken throughout the year for a lot of different causes, including for retired ministers who’s pensions are not adequate to cover their expenses. We stock food banks and send money and supplies to hurricane victims. And then there is the occasional local emergency. I’m told that one Sunday, a couple stopped at my church just as the worship service was about to get started. The couple had what sounded to the cynic in me as a “typical sob story.” No money, low on gas, had to get somewhere so he could start a job on Monday…..”Could the congregation help?” The answer, of course, was “yes” and they took up a collection. My Dad told my Mom that he hoped that the couple did not lie, but my Mom said that it did not matter. If there was a chance that it was true, and that they really needed help, that the congregation did exactly what Jesus would have wanted.
I believe in Jesus. But I also believe that a secular civil society is Jesus’s best protection against the perversion of his teachings. Christianity is under attack but not from secular humanism. It is under attack from conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals who have taken it upon themselves to save the world and prepare for the Second Coming of Christ, a specific interpretation of the Bible to which not all Christians (including me) ascribe. This must stop. If Christianity is worth saving, then it must be divorced from the political process. Christians must stop supporting political action committees and activist groups that exist solely to promote “Christian family values in legislation.” The current relationship is killing the faith and will continue to do so until there is little left to save. If Christianity is worth its weight, and I think that it is, then it must stand on its own two feet without the aid of government protection. I have read the words in red many times, and have benefited from the guidance they provide. Christianity does not need the help. Jesus has it well under control,