The Merger: Evangelicalism and the GOP

The Merger: Evangelicalism and the GOP September 3, 2012

Growing up, I knew there was a close alignment between my family’s evangelical religion and our politics. They seemed to fit hand in glove. Of course we were Republicans! What true Christian could be otherwise? The Republican party stood for good Christian values and Biblical policies while the Democrats stood for everything anti-Christian, from socialism to gay marriage to abortion. I mean, Jesus loves capitalism, right? Right!

But this alliance is not simply something that is natural or a given. In fact, in many ways it’s very unnatural. I’ve actually done a good bit of reading on this topic, and have learned a bit about just how this situation came to be. And watching the current election cycle, all I can say is that it seems to be spiraling out of control. It’s not just about evangelicals “voting their values.” It’s about an evangelical takeover of the GOP, but also in turn a takeover of evangelicalism by political conservatism.

Darren Dochuck reveals in his book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism that it was during the Cold War that evangelicalism became welded to the free market, capitalism, and private enterprise. Dochuck reveals that many Southern evangelicals had supported the New Deal and had even at times been socialists, but that during the 1950s all this changed and evangelicalism and capitalism became forged in a way they never had been before.

I think this is a key thing to remember. Evangelicalism and capitalism did not have to become equated the way they are. In fact, they didn’t used to be. This wasn’t a natural or inevitable thing. It was a product of the Cold War, and we’re currently stuck with it.

Next, in God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, Daniel K. Williams explains that while evangelicals have long been politically active (think Scopes Trial) what has changed in the years since WWII is their alliance with one particular party. Williams says that during the early Cold War evangelicals gradually began to favor the GOP, given that GOP politicians were more quick to embrace Biblical morality, and that in the late 1970s GOP operatives intentionally used social issues to get the evangelical vote – and that it not only worked, but actually backfired as the GOP operatives lost control and the party became a hostage to these social issues.

This is another key point. The GOP initially took the positions it did on social issues in order to fish for votes, and then found it couldn’t go back. There used to be moderate Republicans, and even pro-choice Republicans, but they have become completely marginalized within their own party.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Stole the Heart of America, Thomas Frank argues that the Republican party has used social issues to get Americans to vote against their own economic best interests, but that these social issues are more rhetoric than anything else. Frank points out that abortion is still legal, but that millions and millions of Americans will vote for an anti-abortion politician based solely on that regardless of his other policies and regardless of whether he will actually be able to, or even really work toward, ending abortion.

What Frank wrote might have been true in 2005. It’s not true today. The anti-abortion movement has made incredible strides over the past two years, and some states are on the cusp of shutting down their very last abortion clinics. The rhetoric isn’t just rhetoric, and with the Tea Party the evangelical takeover of the GOP is completely. If you are a GOP politician and you don’t come out in favor of evangelical social issues and extreme fiscal conservatism, you are called a RINO, a “Republican In Name Only.”

But this brings us to something confusing. The evangelical takeover of the GOP may be for all intents and purposes complete, but I see something going on in reverse as well – a takeover of evangelicalism by political conservatism. It’s like the two are melding. It’s bizarre. Let me explain by quoting from a blog post:

You know how I’m always talking about the blurred line between modern fungelical Christianity and Republican politics? This is all I need to rest my case AND convince ANY reasonable jury of the blurred line. Liberty University, perhaps the foremost evangelical college in America, with a motto of “Training Champions for Christ since 1971“, with a MORMOM delivering the commencement address to its graduating seniors this past spring. Yes, a MORMON. This is aside from the other MORMON who was chosen to deliver the commencement address in 2010 (btw, Mormon is in all caps to make a specific point – not to deride Mormons). The students selected these MORMONS to deliver these commencement addresses to a CHRISTIAN student body. What does this mean? This: Liberty isn’t a Christian school. It’s a conservative Republican school. Unless “Champions for Christ” and “Champions for the conservative Republican agenda” are the same thing, Liberty really, really sucks at their stated goal. I mean really sucks. Apparently the students are ok with any religious belief, so long as the politics line up correctly. In the linked article there’s a lot of rationalization and excuse making, but anyone who really wants to see what that school is all about can see it.

It isn’t unique to Liberty University, either. The guy who gave their 2010 address, Glenn Beck, well, do you remember evangelical leaders falling all over themselves to be a part of his “spiritual” rally in DC a couple years back? Ahem…He’s a MORMON. Even beyond that, one of those evangelical leaders, Pastor John Hagee (a giant in the evangelical world) had Beck in his pulpit to address his church a couple of years ago and his church gave Beck’s political speech a standing ovation. Ahem…He’s a MORMON. But…those politics sure line up nicely. Hypocrites breeding hypocrites is what it all is.

This. So much this. And here’s an image summing it up nicely too:

Yes. Once again, so much this. Me too.

The alliance between evangelicalism and political conservatism is not the natural thing I thought it was as a child. It is possible to be a “Bible believing Christian” and yet believe in socialism – and in fact, that didn’t used to be so uncommon a hundred years ago. It is also possible to be a “Bible believing Christian” and believe that welfare and other government programs are our way of fulfilling Jesus’ commands by collectively helping the poor and needy. It is possible to be a “Bible believing Christian” and yet not oppose big government. None of those things are inconsistent. This alliance is something that was created and shaped over the past sixty years, not something that was just always there.

And in many ways this alliance is tortured. Take a look at this, for instance:

The Rich and Therefore Blessed Young Man

1. As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him and knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 2. And Jesus said to him, “What have you done so far?” 3. And he said to Him, “Well I was born into a wealthy family, got into a good school in Galilee because my parents donated a few thousand talents, and have a high-paying job in the Roman treasury managing risk.” 4. Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, for the rich young man was blessed, and said to him, “One thing you lack: A bigger house in a gated community in Tiberias. Buy that and you’ll be all set. And make sure you get a stone countertop for the kitchen. Those are really nice.” The disciples were amazed. 5. Peter asked him, “Lord, shouldn’t he sell all his possessions and give it to the poor?” Jesus grew angry. “Get behind me, Satan! He has earned it!” Peter protested, “Lord,” he said, “Did this man not have an unjust advantage? What about those who are not born into wealthy families, or who do not have the benefit of a good education, or live in the poorer areas of Galilee, like Nazareth, your own home town?” 6. “Well,” said Jesus, “first of all, that’s why I left Nazareth. There were too many poor people always asking for charity. They were as numerous as the stars in the sky, and they annoyed me. Second, once people start spending again, like this rich young man, the Galilean economy will inevitably grow, and eventually it will all trickle down to the poor. Blessed are those who are patient! But giving the money away, especially if he can’t write it off, is a big fat waste.” The disciples’ amazement knew no bounds. “But Lord, what about the Scriptures that tell us to care for the widow, for orphans, for the poor, for the sick, for the refugee? What about all the many passages about justice?” 7. “Those are metaphors,” said Jesus. “Don’t take everything so literally.”

As this retelling of a classic Bible story makes clear, there is a lot in the Bible that isn’t at all compatible with modern political conservatism. And yet, an evangelical who doesn’t come out for political conservatism and the Republican party will immediately have his or her evangelicalism – even his or her very salvation – questioned.

Evangelicals may have gained a stranglehold on the GOP, but political conservatism has gained a stranglehold on them as well.

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