Evangelicals, Politics, and the Kingdom of God

Recently by William L. Anderson: A Tale of Two State-Sponsored Killings

Because the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks fell upon a Sunday, it hardly was surprising that the incident was recognized in many churches in the United States. Americans are not alone in commemorating anniversaries of important events, but from what I saw the 9/11 services in many evangelical churches went beyond simple commemoration, moving into the infusion of Christianity with the American State, something the ancients once called syncretism.

Before going further regarding the relationship of American evangelicals with the U.S. State, I will point out that evangelicals hardly are the only churchgoers in this country that mix the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of Mammon. As one who receives the regular emails from Sojourners, which tends to represent the thinking of the "liberal" American churches, I can see how millions of people who are part of those religious circles are taught that the American Welfare State IS the Kingdom of God, and that the so-called intention of any law intended to further that State equates with directives from the Bible.

(One has to remember, however, that liberal American churches, while giving the Bible some sort of mystical authority without really believing what it says, hold to very different standards of beliefs than do evangelicals. Theological liberals tend to speak in religious languages that manage to say a lot of things that reveal little actual belief, with language used not to describe something, but rather to hide what liberals do not believe. For the most part, a vision of a socialist and welfarist America – the original vision of American Progressives of more than a century ago – has captivated the pulpits and the seminaries of their denominations. If they believe their reading of Scripture can be mixed into that vision, then Scripture is acceptable, and anything else is ignored or described in such vague terms as to make it meaningless.)

The focus of this commentary, then, is not upon the theological liberals who long ago abandoned historical Christianity for Progressive Statism. Instead, I am looking at the evangelicals who have abandoned historical Christianity for their own version of Progressive Statism, embracing the religion of "American Exceptionalism," as though it were the essence of the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, I realize that what I am writing will make me very unpopular with people who claim to be following Christ, but Christianity is not a popularity contest and I believe that evangelicals have so lost their way when it comes to matters of Church and State that they are in danger of going the way of the theological liberals, who have become religiously irrelevant.

I recently spent nearly a month in Latvia, a small, Baltic independent country that was swallowed by the former Soviet Union for half a century. Although less than 10 percent of Latvians even attend church (apparently, communism did have its influences over time), those that do go tend to be quite active, and my wife, the girl we are adopting, and I went to a relatively new church while we were in that country.

One thing I noticed was the lack of political influences in that church. There was no Latvian flag outside or inside the building, even though there were church flags on the flagpoles, even though Latvians, like many from the Baltic countries, tend to be quite nationalistic. (They threw off an oppressor, the U.S.S.R., only two decades ago, and with very little bloodshed.) There was no mixing of Christianity and "Latvianism" during the services, which I cannot say is always the situation in the USA. (My church does not have flags of any country flying outside or displayed in the sanctuary or elsewhere in the building, so I must make sure not to make blanket statements.)

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Why is that so? One reason, I believe, involves the religious roots of the United States. We are fond of saying things like "America was founded on religious freedom" and the like, although it is clear from even a cursory reading of U.S. History that while some people did seek to be able to practice their religion here after being persecuted in Europe, nonetheless religious freedom on these shores was a spotty thing.

We also hear that the USA was founded "as a Christian country," and I remember hearing a talk from someone who believed that had the authors of the U.S. Constitution made it clear that this country was "Christian," that somehow things would be different today. That really is nonsense; for that matter, a number of European countries at one time officially were "Christian" nations, and today none of those things matter, as no place in the world is as secular as Europe today.

However, the connection between historical Christianity and the effect it should have upon the actions of those that govern us was changed permanently in the United States during the 19th Century, first with Unitarianism and then with Progressivism. The political actions of both liberal and conservative "evangelicals" today are reflective of the secular, state-embracing political philosophies that rose during the 1800s and early 1900s, not the Christianity that was practiced by the Early Church, and certainly not of the Bible.

I cannot emphasize that point enough. When American evangelicals launch campaigns to deal with attempts to outlaw the "under God" portion of the Pledge of Allegiance, they are not preserving religious freedom, nor are not paying homage to the ideals of liberty that inspired many of the founders of this nation. Instead, they are endorsing a pledge created by a socialist who despised the founders of this country and who hated the views that the framers of the U.S. Constitution had on law and the state. Indeed, the Pledge of Allegiance is the antithesis of all of those ideals upon which conservative evangelicals claim to be supporting and it is collectivist and Progressivist to the core. Yet, because it has the phrase "under God," Christians are willing to engage in what only can be idolatry and pledge their troth to another god.

Having grown up in the conservative evangelical subculture and still being part of it, I have picked up some insights as to why people who believe in God and who hold to the inerrancy of the Bible have sold out to the State. The answers are more complicated and nuanced than one might expect to read in a publication like the New York Times, which treats evangelicals as though they were alien invaders who have no right even to exist in our society.

Because I am dealing with the modern evangelicals, I will not cover the influence of the Unitarians of the 19th Century, except to say that they were part of nearly every major advancement of State power, including the public school movement in Massachusetts, and the Civil War. Certainly, by the end of the 1800s, the Unitarian influence began to wane, as theological liberalism took hold in the major Protestant denominations.

It is not hard to understand why theological liberals embraced the Progressive agenda of expansion of State power and the undermining of doctrines such as natural rights, as well as the viewpoint that law should be a "positive" force in making people engage in specified public duties. (This is as opposed to law being a check on those in power; Progressives wanted the law to advance government power, not restrain it.)

Liberals by 1900 had given up on the historical doctrines of Christianity, including Creation, the Fall, and Redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, liberals decided that while they did not believe the Biblical events actually happened, the purpose of Christianity should be to create a "Heaven on earth" through social legislation. The "purpose" in life would be the implementation of "good works," but good works done through the actions of the State and the "experts" employed in government bureaucracies.

The liberals have changed neither their message nor their mission. They have embraced nearly every totalitarian movement that promised "free healthcare," including the notorious and murderous regime of Pol Pot at the height of its terror. Today, they champion environmentalism, welfarism, and every government program that has been created in the name of "helping the poor." No matter how many times government fails and no matter how many times socialist dictatorships are exposed, the liberals will continue to draw their water from the same polluted well, and nothing ever will change.

The evangelicals, however, have taken a different path but have ended at the doorstep of Statism as have their liberal counterparts. Although evangelicals did not openly become involved in the modern scourge of partisan politics until about 1980, they did embrace Progressivism as tightly as did the liberals, and there are many reasons why that happened.

First, Progressives promoted Prohibition, and that was the cause that allowed the theological liberals and conservatives to break bread together, although they did not follow exactly the same paths to Prohibition. The liberals tended to be tied to the wealthy Progressives, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Rockefeller contributed much of the money for the construction of the Riverside Church in Manhattan, which even today is a center of theological liberalism and leftism. He also was a major supporter of Union Theological Seminary, which was one of the early seminaries to promote the "Social Gospel.")

Theological conservatives, on the other hand, were concentrated among the middle and lower-income groups on the economic ladder, and they could see the destructive effects of alcoholism upon individuals and families. Indeed, the leading evangelist of the day, Billy Sunday, was a major promoter of Prohibition, although he hardly had the same influence as did the wealthy Progressives, who believed that making alcohol illegal would help create a class of people that could be better directed by the "experts" of the State.

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Second, because the evangelicals (at that time, called "Fundamentalists") tended to be less-wealthy than theological liberals, the Populist-Progressive message had a lot of appeal to them, and Progressive politicians such as Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman and Theo Bilbo were able to take advantage of their resentment. These men also pitched their Progressivism in a virulent racism that created a syncretistic Christianity that built a racially-based foundation of belief. In that set of beliefs, one could resent people of another race, blame them for one's own ills, and have it blessed by both the church and the authorities. (Fundamentalists held onto their racial separatism and were the last of the Christian groups to admit blacks into their churches and schools. Many of them cited the non-existent "Curse of Ham" in the book of Genesis as the basis of their beliefs and this is not the only time that Fundamentalists have misused passages of Holy Scripture to push viewpoints that are not Biblical.)

I emphasize the Progressive Era because this was the time that the modern dichotomy was set between the Fundamentalists and the Theological Liberals, and it was the time when the patterns for both groups were determined. It also is the time when many of the hymns that appear in Fundamentalist hymnals were written, a time when churches cheered on America's military ventures in Cuba and the Philippines and in Europe.

Since that time, both Liberals and Fundamentalists (now under the overall umbrella of evangelicals, although the term also includes people who would disclaim any Fundamentalist ties) continue to embrace Progressivism and outright statism. For the liberals, the State itself functions as God, or at least it is the main conduit through which God acts. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have a more complex relationship with the American State.

As Laurence Vance has noted in numerous articles, the evangelicals (or conservatives in that camp) tend to have a near-worshipful view of the U.S. Armed Forces. They also are near-united in having views that abortion-on-demand not only is evil, but should be outlawed, and most of them who are active in anti-abortion movements believe the outlawing should be done via an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Ron Paul's belief that an amendment is not the right thing to do, given the constitution's separation of powers doctrines, tends to be marginalized by the evangelical conservatives, but more on Dr. Paul later.)

From the Progressive Era well into the 1970s, the conservative evangelicals tended to support whatever was "American," although they really were not tied to either major political party. Southern evangelical conservatives tended to vote for Democrats (as did liberals), and evangelicals from the rest of the country were somewhat split. If there is a ground zero for modern evangelical political involvement, it came not (as some might think) with the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court forced all states to legalize abortion on demand, but rather the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter as president.

Carter was the first president in my memory to lay claim to the "born again" criteria that is essential to the evangelical experience. Because evangelicals really are a minority in this country, they tend to grasp onto celebrities, sports figures, and other public people who say they are Christians. For example, when Gerald Ford became president after Richard Nixon's resignation, Christianity Today ran an article asking of there was "A Christian in the White House" because it was rumored that Ford was a practicing believer.

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Evangelicals in droves voted for Carter, but they soon were disappointed in him. For one, the Democratic Party that Carter represented was not the party that many evangelicals had supported post-World War II. This was the party of Ted Kennedy and George McGovern. It was the party of militant support for abortion on demand, and it was the party of the very intellectuals and Theological Liberals that absolutely despised evangelicals. While the Democrats did not mind having evangelical votes for Carter, they let it be known that they did not want these "religious fanatics" in their party. Thus, whatever evangelical support Carter might have had, the Democrats deliberately drove out the conservatives.

Second, the Carter presidency was a time of high unemployment and high inflation, and his legacy was one of failure. (I wrote a revisionist piece on the Carter presidency several years ago and noted that he did a number of good things during his stay in office, but that neither he nor the Democrats have wanted to take credit for them because they involved creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs, which meant that some people might have become rich in the process.)

Ronald Reagan was the first candidate of either party to gain the overt endorsements of groups openly tied to evangelicals. The late Jerry Falwell, then the president of Liberty University, started a group called Moral Majority that laid out much of what would be the governing principles for both Republican and (ironically) Democratic administrations since that time.

The Religious Right, as the MM and other such groups were called, wanted to see more people in prison, a ramped up war against drugs, more overseas U.S. military ventures, and more powers granted to the police. While supporting limited individual gun rights and cuts in tax rates, the Religious Right gave some lip service to limited government, but in the end the expansion of the Warfare State, the refusal to cut back on the Welfare State, and the growing moves to support militarization of the police ultimately resulted in what we have in this country: the Warfare-Welfare-Police State.

The U.S. prison population, which stood at about 300,000 when Reagan was elected, has mushroomed to more than 2.1 million, a quarter of the incarcerated people on the globe and by far the highest number for a single nation. Never in the history of the USA has it been easier for someone to be arrested and charged with a "crime" that not long ago would not have been considered a legal transgression. Furthermore, with their slavish desire for state-sponsored executions, and their view that police and prosecutors should have a "free hand" to "do their jobs," we have seen an explosion of police and prosecutorial misconduct for which there is little or no legal accountability, much less moral accountability.

There are many reasons for this, but I firmly hold that one of the main reasons has been the renewed vigor of direct involvement in politics by conservative American evangelicals. With their rules-based religious beliefs and their religious devotion to "American Exceptionalism," American religious conservatives have managed to create the Police State that slowly but surely is being turned against them.

I hardly believe that only conservative evangelicals are to blame. After all, Paul Krugman and Ben Bernanke are not Christian conservatives, nor is Barack Obama and certainly not the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, the Progressive style of governance that is so destructive has been enhanced by the Religious Right, which looks for a "law enforcement" solution to nearly everything and operates upon the mistaken belief that the police always will do the right thing.

The current political season does not offer any change. Ron Paul still is reviled among Religious conservatives, even though he is pro-life and wants to preserve religious freedom. However, Dr. Paul is not an adherent to a belief in a magical "American Exceptionalism" and has strongly criticized American military adventures abroad, something that never will endear him to the Christian Right.

American liberty is rapidly disappearing and the Religious Right has played an important role in empowering the worst among us. This was not supposed to be the case, but whenever people seek to impose the Kingdom of God through politically-sponsored violence, the sad results are inevitable. The United States of America is not the Kingdom of God, nor is it the "Shining City on a Hill." It is simply a country whose political leaders decided long ago that individual liberty should be replaced by collectivism, and the Christian conservatives were there to answer the call.

October 21, 2011