The Pulpit, Power & Politics: Evangelicalism's thumbprint on America

The grip conservative evangelicalism has on American social and political life is hard to overestimate. Committed Christian and author Jemar Tisby was joined by historians of religion John Fea and Molly Worthen to help answer the question: what exactly is the relationship between conservative evangelicalism and America today?

Where does conservative evangelicalism leave American politics today?

Evangelical leaders lay their hands on President Donald Trump as he takes part in a prayer held at the Oval Office in the White House on Sept. 1, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

* Originally published on December 4, 2019.

On the face of it, the photograph makes no sense. The Christian Right has for decades championed moral rectitude (remember Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority"?) family values, and social conservatism.

Yet there they are: some prominent evangelicals in the White House, in a laying on of hands prayer with Donald Trump, a paragon of neither Christian values nor virtues.

So how did we get here — and where's it going?

IDEAS invited three thinkers to help answer these questions. The answers, it turns out, can be found in America's history, which is inextricably entwined with evangelical Christianity.

'Some of my best friends are Black'

Writer and historian Jemar Tisby grew up in Illinois, in a non-religious household. But at age 16, the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism became a committed Christian, attending churches that were predominantly white from then on.

When the 2015 election cycle began, culminating with the election of Donald Trump a year later, he found his relationships with fellow Christians, especially white evangelicals, straining to the snapping point: matters of race and social injustice — any systemic issue — was a non-starter, he found. 

The reason: American evangelical theology has historically stressed the individual's relationship with God, and therefore individual relationships with others are what's paramount, not systems of thought or governance.

This orientation, he argues, blinds its adherents to seeing problems structurally, and fosters the offensive posture of "some of my best friends are Black," an attitude that's simply unequipped to confront issues of poverty and racism — or even the legacy of slavery, which had considerable evangelical support when the institution was active.

It also allows white nationalism and white supremacism to flourish. Little wonder that 81% of white evangelicals support Donald Trump, while only a fraction of African Americans do.

Seen in this context, the photograph presents no surprises.

The making of 'court evangelicals'

John Fea teaches history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and has written an entire book about the apparently contradictory relationship of evangelicals and Donald Trump, basing the title on one of Trump's oft-repeated catch phrases: Believe Me.

He sees the championing of Donald Trump by evangelicals through two lenses — as an historian, and as a committed evangelical himself.

Many white evangelical Christians embrace Donald Trump because he uses the politics of fear and the yearning for an idealized past, argues John Fea, author of Believe Me. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Historically, evangelicals began courting agents of secular power in the Reagan era. The trouble he finds in this trajectory is that the evangelical church's fixation on abortion, appointments to the Supreme Court, and supporting politicians they see as a means to a theological end, opens up the risk of losing credibility both to a generation of younger believers, and their own capacity to bear witness authentically.

The root of "evangelical," he points out, means "good news, which in turn means a commitment to social justice and harmony. He dubs those seeking to curry favour and influence with the president "court evangelicals."

Christian belief, he posits, doesn't entail posing for a photo op and aligning oneself with power, but — like the prophet Nathan — telling the truth to it. 

U.S. President Donald Trump closes his eyes as pastor Paula White leads a prayer at a dinner hosted by the Trumps to honour evangelical leadership at the White House, Aug. 27, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Religious entrepreneurship 

For Molly Worthen, a professor of religious and intellectual history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the photograph of Trump with evangelical leaders embodies a long tradition of religious entrepreneurialism within American evangelicalism.

Ultimate authority in this tradition isn't situated in ritual like the sacraments, or in authoritative offices in Vatican City or Canterbury. It's found in one's own relationship with the word of God, the Bible. From this perspective, it's not a theological outlier: it's roots can be traced directly to Luther and the Reformation.

But it has seen the proliferation of numerous evangelical, Protestant denominations, as well as the cult of celebrity surrounding many of its leaders — who seem dogged repeatedly by sex and financial scandals.

Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) co-founded the PTL Club, a televangelist program with her then-husband Jim Bakker in 1974. She helped him build a multimillion-dollar televangelist empire before it collapsed. (Associated Press)

This entrepreneurial attitude also accounts for the way American evangelicals were, and are, early adopters of new technologies as they develop: radio programs, television shows — we even have the term "televangelist" — and of course the web.

Its biggest challenge, she speculates, is that its focus on acquiring power and influence may continue to alienate younger believers, who in a generation, may follow the example set by previous generations of evangelicals, and go elsewhere for spiritual sustenance.

Guests in this episode:

  • Jemar Tisby is the director of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. He's also the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism.
  • John Fea teaches history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and is the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
  • Molly Worthen teaches intellectual and religious history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her most recent book is called: Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Special thanks to Rob Holliday at UNC Chapel Hill, Justin Willingham at WKNO in Memphis, and to Mark Kendall and Wes Orwan at WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

* This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

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