Make America Biblical Again

Make America Biblical Again May 20, 2016

Not too long ago I called attention to the tendency of evangelical historians to criticize faith-based political conservatives and leave left-of-center evangelical activists or politicians alone. But this takes the cake. Here an evangelical historian chastises evangelicals — wait for it — for being unbiblical:

During Reagan’s administration and the George H.W. Bush administration, prominent evangelicals were installed in important state positions – Robert J. Billings, a founder of the Moral Majority, worked six years in the Department of Education thanks to Reagan. Bush made his own slew of evangelical appointments, and for a while, the alliance between the religious right and the Republican Party must have seemed quite agreeable to both groups.

But the price of evangelicals’ betrayal of their biblical commitments was fearsome. When Reagan rejigged the tax codes to favor the wealthy, most evangelicals fell silent, despite the biblical warnings against the corruptions of wealth and injunctions to care for the indigent. When George W. Bush launched two vanity wars that would not meet even the barest criteria for just warfare, criteria honed by Christian thinkers over centuries, evangelicals, with rare exceptions, registered no objections and even cheered the invasions. When I was writing “Thy Kingdom Come” during the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency, I searched in vain for a single religious-right organization willing to condemn the use of torture.

Today, evangelical contributions to the political landscape are more removed from biblical principles than ever, with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, boasting of his evangelical support. Polls show that Trump drew the support of 36 percent of evangelicals during the primaries and 49 percent in the Florida primary – despite the presence of more traditionally evangelical candidates in the race. Some evangelical leaders have so far refused to support him, but he has won the endorsement of Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, and Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. Unfortunately, evangelicals’ support for Trump is not an aberration in an otherwise strong record but the culmination of a long decline that began in the late 1970s.

Consider, for instance, the matter of race. Despite evangelicals’ commendable efforts to oppose slavery in the 19th century, the scourge of racism reared its ugly head in the defense of segregated institutions, which provided the catalyst for the formation of the religious right. Jerry Falwell publicly referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “civil wrongs,” a striking contrast to evangelical support for abolition in the nineteenth century. For evangelicals still clinging to racist ideas, Trump is an obvious choice: His racially and ethnically charged rhetoric has included assaults on everyone from Latinos to Muslims. Likewise, Trump, along with Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and other Republicans, has condemned and even ridiculed those agitating for racial justice. The billionaire criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) for allowing Black Lives Matter protesters to commandeer one of his campaign events, and suggested that a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his own rallies should be “roughed up.” Although lacking almost any trace of detectable faith, Trump has tapped into latent evangelical racism.

In my view, there are several other areas in which evangelicals have been able to accept Trump only because they have long abandoned their biblical commitments.

Criticizing evangelicals for bad or foolish policies, ones that undermine America’s political traditions or social cohesion is one thing and more than fair. But adding that they are not biblical? That’s rich.

It is poignant if only because the Bible contains a really long section in which religious intolerance, slavery, and conquest for starters are part and parcel of God’s people’s existence (think Old Testament). Now, ever since Paul, Christians have come up with a number of ways of trying to reconcile the New Testament church with Judah and Israel. But it’s long and difficult work, and likely above the pay grade of any scholar who received his academic credentials as a mere U.S. historian (where learning a foreign language is not essential to scholarly productivity). And don’t forget what the New Testament says about divorce, homosexuality, religious intermarriage, and the consequences of sin. The Bible is a hard standard for either the Left or Right.

But it’s also poignant that Professor Balmer would apply the epithet “unbiblical” to evangelicals. Mind you, lots of Protestants think other Protestants are unbiblical. That’s why we have Presbyterian and Pentecostal and Lutheran and Baptist denominations/conventions. But imagine Balmer’s reaction to Jerry Falwell saying that Jimmy Carter (a redeemer?) was leading the United States from the nation’s biblical moorings. I suspect Balmer might be uncomfortable with evangelicals using sacred writings so indiscriminately as the norm for a secular republic. We are not a Christian nation, after all.

But now telling evangelicals they don’t measure up to biblical standards is the conclusion of historical scholarship? I’m not sure any history or religious studies faculty (not at Liberty University) would tolerate graduate students arguing that a subject was unbiblical (even if they agree with Balmer’s politics). But the Left or Right’s use of the Bible does seem to confirm the recent poll that finds Christians believe matters important to them are essential to being a Christian. Heck, some even think of blogging that way.

So I wonder again, will evangelical historians observe the problems of faith-based scholarship on the Democratic side as much as they do when Republicans are guilty?

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