In my 2008 study of Evangelicals vs. Liberals: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest, I mapped what I thought was a strong and even permanent Evangelical Civic Gospel. This Civic Gospel had six interlocking strands that I developed from my research, reading and thinking about American evangelicalism: 1) Conversion to Christ will address and resolve all social problems; 2) the U.S. Government should be in the business of protecting the American religious (Christian) heritage; 3) the United States was founded as a Christian nation; 4) it is hard to be a political liberal and a Christian at the same time; 5) the United States should promote democracy around the world, and finally 6) American Christians should support economic, religious and political liberty and, by extension, the Iraq War.
The Bush Administration was a remarkable embodiment of all these features. President Bush exclaimed that his conversion to Christ “changed him”; the United States, in Bush’s language, following 911, was on a “crusade” not only to kill those who had “hit us” but to spread economic, religious and political freedom across the world. Evil was identified and force was used to destroy it. With a kind of missionary zeal America went to war, backed by a Christian civic ideology and secure in its own purpose that its cause was just and its heart was right with Christ.
In 2011, my graduate student Randy Thompson and I published a history of how this American Christian ideology was a logical extension of a century long “social gospel” that moved through Walter Rauschenbusch, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and up to Barack Obama. Through the twentieth century the ever expanding might of American military force has secured America’s economic interests and sought to extend the “promise” of democracy, open markets, religious freedom and a dream of Pax Americana. We made the argument that neo-conservativism was not a recent product but an extension of what is often called the progressive social gospel of the early twentieth century. See, “From the Social Gospel to Neoconservativism: Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Volume 7, Article 6: pp. 1-41. http://www.religjournal.com/.
David E. Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism, identifies the contradictions and consequences of this American Civic Gospel, “’The Christian nation,’ together with the ‘the inerrant Bible’ and ‘the decision [for Christ],’ has worked to shape us as a dispassionate, exclusivist, and duplicitous people.” Fitch spares no one, and if evangelicals actually were reading or listening to him, they would repent in dust and ashes. But Fitch doesn’t finally go far enough, Americans, whether religious or otherwise, have not only been duplicitous but our actions have been morally questionable at best. First, a recent and well-documented record of torture (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/world/us-practiced-torture-after-9-11-nonpartisan-review-concludes.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0); second, a continuing use of drones to assassinate not only ‘enemies’ but American citizens, and third, a growing environmental crisis that is a direct result of our economic activities (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/12/observer-editorial-carbon-dioxide-levels-highs). As Fitch says about evangelical ideology, we have an empty politic indeed.
Fitch argues that “the irruptions of the Real” reveal the inner contradictions and problems that lie at the very heart of ideology, and, in this case, the Evangelical Civic Gospel. We know from sources as trustworthy as the evangelical historian Mark Noll that America did not start and never has been a Christian nation (see Noll’s The Search for Christian America); the separation of church and state was fundamental to our constitution; Christian conversion, without robust discipleship, solves no social problems; many liberals do claim to follow Christ—it is no more impossible to be a liberal and a Christian than it is to be a conservative and a Christian, and finally, we now know that promoting economic, religious and political liberty abroad through violence, not only has unintended consequences on nation’s abroad but even more so on our own national health. In the classic words of John Quincy Adams, penned in 1821, “America’s glory is not dominion, but liberty… she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”
As Fitch rightly warns, the monsters are in ourselves, and when we project them on to others, not only do we do violence to the other but in the end we destroy ourselves. Doing the hard work of self-examination is never easy, and I applaud Fitch and other evangelicals who are doing this important labor. To be sure, I want to be clear that there are monsters in liberalism as well—whether religious or secular—and I will explore these ideological forces in blogs to come.