Evangelicalism’s Political Sin

It happened under Reagan, and it is American evangelicalism’s political sin. When evangelicalism aligns itself with a political party, which happened under Reagan (I call it “Reaganology”), it seals its doom as a credible gospel witness. We are beginning to reap what we sowed.

From Reuters:

(Reuters) – Americans are increasingly uneasy with the mingling of religion and politics, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, in the midst of a campaign season punctuated by tussles over the role of faith in the public square.

Back in 2001, when Pew first asked the question, just 12 percent of Americans complained that their politicians talked too much about religion.

That number has risen steadily ever since and hit a record high in the new poll: 38 percent of Americans, including 24 percent of Republicans, now say their political leaders are overdoing it with their expressions of faith and prayer.

And more Americans than ever, 54 percent, believe churches should keep out of politics. That’s up from 43 percent in 1996, according to the Pew Research Center.

The national poll of 1,503 adults, which has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, was conducted in early March, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was ramping up its vigorous campaign against a new federal mandate requiring all insurance companies to provide free birth control.

The bishops continue to press that fight. Just last week, they issued a statement declaring they were “strongly unified and intensely focused” on battling the contraception mandate.

A leading voice in that campaign, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, this week was promoted to Archbishop of Baltimore by Pope Benedict XVI.

Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, said Americans have generally tolerated and even encouraged religious leaders to speak out on broad political issues, including capital punishment, immigration and poverty.


But Americans have long been uncomfortable with religious leaders directly involved in partisan campaigns, he said.

In recent years, most notably in the birth control battle, that line has been blurred, Steinfels said – which may account for the growing unease on display in the Pew poll.

“Religious leaders ought to be worried,” Steinfels said. “We’re seeing Americans becoming more skeptical” about the propriety of religious involvement in politics.

The bishops have sought to portray the contraceptive mandate as one prong of a broad attack on religion by state and federal authorities. The leading Republican presidential candidates have echoed that rhetoric on the campaign trail, accusing the Obama Administration of declaring war on religious freedom.

The Pew poll found evidence that argument is resonating with Catholics. Roughly one in four U.S. voters is Catholic and they are a crucial swing vote in several states pivotal to the 2012 presidential election, like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The poll found 25 percent of Catholics perceive the Obama administration as unfriendly to religion, up from 15 percent in a Pew poll taken in August of 2009.

The increase is even sharper among white Catholics, jumping to 31 percent from 17 percent, Pew found.

Among the public overall, 23 percent describe the Obama administration as unfriendly to religion, up from 17 percent in 2009. But another recent poll suggests the “war on religion” argument isn’t gaining traction with most adults.

A national survey conducted this month by the Public Religion Research Institute found a majority of Americans, 56 percent, do not believe religious liberty is under siege.

Republicans, senior citizens and white evangelicals were most likely to see a looming threat to religious freedom.

(Reporting By Stephanie Simon; editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Todd Eastham)


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  • For primarily political reasons (and political-theological reasons), “Evangelical” is no longer a brand that identifies me. I’m sad.

  • Jodi

    The book, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin chronicles this alignment. It is an excellent read.

  • Fish

    By tying themselves to the GOP, evangelicals will go down with that ship as our country’s demographics change.

  • In the 80’s and 90’s, the majority of Evangelicals were Democrats. While Evangelicals voted for Reagan, they voted mainly for Democrats for all other political offices. Even if Evangelical leaders urged voters to vote only for pro life candidates, Evangelicals more often than not ignored their advice. No none seemed to object at the time that Evangelicals were identifying themselves with the Democrat party. The fact is that by its policies the Democrat party drove Evangelicals away. Democrats also ignored Evangelicals; they considered them and their concerns irrelevant. In any analysis of the political leanings of Evangelicals, this history is generally ignored. While identification with a political party can develop into idolatry, intellectual honesty demands that this history be taken into account.

  • Rick

    Fish #3-

    As both parties have done in their histories, the GOP will adapt to those changes, eventually, but in sufficient time to survive.

  • Joe Canner

    Rick #4: The question is not whether the GOP will survive, but whether evangelicalism will. The GOP may be able to reinvent itself, but will evangelicals be able to adjust along with it? Or perhaps (better), can evangelicals reinvent themselves so as not to be beholden to either party? If they can’t do either one, they will be in trouble, seeing as how young people are abandoning the evangelical/GOP axis.

  • Rick

    Joe #6-

    I was simply responding to the comment in #3, which indicated that the GOP was a sinking ship due to demographic changes.

    As for as evangelicals go, I think it is more than just young people re-evaluating the evangelical/GOP axis.

  • In the public mind “evangelical” has come to be understood in almost purely political terms. This is a tragedy. And it’s one of the reasons I no longer identify myself as an evangelical.

  • Joe Canner

    Rick #7: I don’t have it with me unfortunately, but I believe the book UnChristian documents the extent to which people under 40 are turned off by Christianity (particularly the evangelical variety) because of it’s association with conservative politics. (Of course there are other factors as well.)

    On the other hand, Bradley Wright argues that young people abandoning the church is just a generational phenomenon and that they eventually return. The point is, will either the church or the GOP even look the same if and when they do return? I would prefer to see the church re-evaluate it’s political stance now instead of hoping that young people will still find the church attractive when they are older.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    It seems the temptation of the religious right and the religous left is to turn stones into politicians!

  • Randy Gabrielse

    People need to remember the American Whigs in the 1820s to 1850s. In this period when American political parties were first forming, most Protestants adhered to the establishment Protestant (read Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and less so Methodist and Baptist line. Which was opposed to immigrants and Catholicim. But a substantial minority warned that by aligning themselves with a political party, Christians would sacrifice their loyalty to Christ for loyalty to a party. By 1858, the Whigs were dead, and a new group replaced them in 1860, the Grand Old Party of Lincoln.

    The dissidents were right, unfortunately this time around there has been much more power to be had.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • It was not the Whig party that opposed immigration and Catholicism in the 1850’s; it was the Know Nothing party. The Whig party dissolved over the issue of slavery, with Northern Whigs generally opposing it and Southern Whigs supporting it. Lincoln himself was a Whig before he became a Republican, he served as a Whig in Congress for one term. The political situation of that era has no bearing on Evangelical support for a political party today.

  • Steve Burdan

    For evangelicals to buy into any political party here in America is counter-Gospel – it is our modern perspective reaching back to the NT to support our choices, instead of seeing how the NT must continue to reach forward and challenge the assumptions of our time. The Gospel is trans-national and extra-political.

  • JT

    @Steve Burdan, as a lifelong member of the largest evangelical denomination, my observation and experience has been that evangelicals tend to reach back to Old Testament Law rather than the Good News of Grace in the New Testament to support choices. Hypocrisy is brewed by a “faith” that enforces a legal standard on others, and this is what is causing people to reject Christianity.

  • JT

    I meant to address the article, “It happened under Reagan…”

    Yes, it happened during the Reagan years, but we can point right to Pat Robertson, Ralph Reid, and their creation of the Christian Coalition for the expansion in subsequent years. Robertson was president of a multimillion dollar corporation at the same time he was spewing legalistic condemnation of the left. He reaped a huge monetary benefit with the Reagan tax cuts. The Reagan years were the hayday for Robertson’s 700 Club, and his apocalyptic fear mongering and legalistic attack on the left were a part of his platform in his 1988 presidential campaign. In the early 1990s, Reid was once quoted as having said something to the effect of “We’ll get our candidate in the White House.”

    Reid was later chosen to serve on George W Bush’s team of advisers and I have long believed that Bush’s foreign policy was shaped largely by apocalyptic fear mongering from Robertson and Reid.

    I have long believed that Robertson’s and Reid’s affiliation with the Republican party had much more to do with corporate profit windfall from lower taxation than with any kind of supposed moral compass (which I actually see as anti-Christ, since they insist on adherence to law rather than preaching the grace of salvation and faith). And I further believe that people aren’t so dumb as to not see right through this affiliation and this is a huge reason people are rejecting Christianity.

    Could it be that the Anti-Christ will not be a person, but a religious doctrine that is a perversion of the teaching of grace and salvation of the New Testament?

  • Richard

    It still amazes me that evangelicals flocked to Reagan even after it became public knowledge that they consulted with an astrologer (Joan Quigley) on a frequent basis in the White House after the assassination attempt: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,967389,00.html

  • JT #15: Though you are correct to identify the Christian Coalition as the Catalyst for Evangelicals rallying around the Republican party, I have to respectfully disagree with the author of the post and you on this.

    Up until January 22, 1973, Evangelicals supported Republicans only moderately more than Democrats. On that day in the Supreme Court, their decision polarized the vote on one issue and one issue only. Since the Democrats decided to champion the prevailing side, Evangelicals went looking for another party to support.

    I doubt many of us non-Baptist Evangelicals would ever consider Moral Majority platforms at all if it was not for January 22, 1973. As a Charismatic social justice type, I abhor most of what the Moral Majority says in their presentations.

    But most of my friends and I cannot leap over January 22, 1973 without regret. It is a much larger issue than anything Reagan said or did.