My social media feeds blew up this morning in response to Michael Gerson’s cover piece in The Atlantic. Gerson is an insider to both the world of evangelicalism (he has Wheaton credentials) and politics (he served as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration). In his role as Washington Post columnist, he has been a consistent voice of caution to those embracing Trump’s strategies and rhetoric.
This new piece is simply a “must read” for anyone with an interest in truly understanding the evangelical world and its relationship to politics. It picks up a number of important sociological themes (and quotes some of the right people in that regard). I want to hit some highlights and add my own comments as it relates to the work I’ve been doing for the last several years.
Gerson hits all the right notes. He correctly points to the role of how postmillennialism give way to premillennialism in shifting the evangelical stance toward social concerns.
Perhaps most important, prior to the Civil War, evangelicals were by and large postmillennialists—that is, they believed that the final millennium of human history would be a time of peace for the world and of expansion for the Christian Church, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. As such, they were an optimistic lot who thought that human effort could help hasten the arrival of this promised era—a belief that encouraged both social activism and global missionary activity. “Evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom,” the historian George Marsden observes in Fundamentalism and American Culture.
If politics is about the enhancement of the general welfare, then evangelicals can partner with secular forces to bring that about. But once that view is supplanted by the more pessimistic view of premillennialism in the early 20th century, then partnering becomes futile — as Don Dayton observed decades ago.
Furthermore, if society is in massive decline in its last days, then someone made that happen. I’ve written before about Lydia Bean’s book contrasting evangelical churches in New York and Ontario. People in both contexts were concerned about moral decline, but American churches blamed “liberals” and “Democrats”.
Christian Smith once characterized evangelicals as “embattled and thriving”. The sense of opposition — to liberal theologians, to political elites, to media, to progressive voices for change, to the broader culture — is endemic to evangelical thought. Its epistemology requires someone to be against. (Come to think of it, that’s something evangelicals have in common with the president!)
Gerson puts it like this:
As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.
Simultaneously “in the right” and horribly besieged, evangelicals worry that their beliefs and practices could be taken away at any moment by forces specifically wishing them ill. A common theme in evangelical communication is to identify that one isolated teacher who won’t let a student write about Jesus as his hero and characterize all schools by that instance.
It is curious fact that social scientists abandoned the secularization thesis that society would lose its need for religion at about the same time that evangelicals saw society as a great threat. In spite of the persistence of religion, evangelicals have acted like the future is bleak.
Gerson correctly argues that this sense of oppression and hopelessness arises from an underdeveloped sense of political theology:
For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).
What is missing in evangelicalism is a sound theology of the collective. We’ve gotten good at an individualized expression of faith — confess your sins, believe in Jesus, go to heaven when you die. But not so an understanding of how we relate to our neighbors, of moral conscience, of the need to behave in ways different from any other political action group.
Furthermore, there is a sense in which evangelical theology has failed in unique ways. The premillennial view of moral decline results in something akin to a deistic view of God. The lived theology, apart from the individualized version, seems to assume that God has abandoned society until such time when he will redeem it. Such a view betrays an idolatrous notion that God can’t manage our contemporary politics. That somehow the Holy Spirit no longer leads us into truth.
Instead, we pick battle lines that define who is in and who is out. And those battle lines are reinforced by organizations whose business model depends upon evangelicals being very afraid of “the other”. Gerson writes:
Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goes—not suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.
This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.
This brings me back to the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. It’s true that this demographic group broke in this fashion — in part due to covariants, in part due to opposition to Clinton, in part to shake up the system. But it is not clear that it was a clear sense of moral imperative or theological orientation that prompted that vote.
The good news for evangelicals in all this is that the media, political leaders, and most of society in general is looking for a theological consistency from Christians. People are indeed watching and they want our beliefs to matter. Even if they don’t see the need for religion personally, they want people of faith to be different. That’s why the claim of hypocrisy and political sycophancy is so damaging to Christian witness.
Near the end of his excellent article, Gerson points to hope:
At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.
And so it is. The solution to our evangelical political crisis is to act primarily as those who have received God’s unmerited favor and want to see that favor be extended throughout His now and not yet kingdom.