Follow the Bouncing Evangelical Ball

Follow the Bouncing Evangelical Ball July 20, 2017

Readers may be hard pressed to figure out what some have recently written about evangelical and mainline Protestantism lately. Back in the 1950s these labels may have distinguished the right and left in the world of white American Protestantism, but any more, evangelicalism is meaningless even if journalists and academics pay it far more attention than the mainline denominations.

One indication is Matthew Lee Anderson’s review of John Compton’s The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution. Instead of following a tradition of constitutional interpretation known as originalism (for short, reading the document according to what the framers intended), evangelicals set in motion an interpretative tradition of regarding the Constitution as a living, breathing organism:

Compton’s fascinating and masterfully executed argument goes something like this: Evangelical campaigns against alcohol and lotteries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century aimed at not merely regulating such vices, but prohibiting them. But to enact their political vision, they had to break existing traditions of constitutional interpretation. By exerting political pressure upon courts and subordinating constitutional interpretation to their political aims, evangelicals helped create the legal and intellectual conditions in which the doctrine of the “living Constitution” arose.

Around the same time as Anderson’s review was Lyman Stone’s piece on the influence of mainline Protestantism and how it might restrain the nation’s current spate of populism (read: Trumpism) and balkanization:

For those who see in the decline of American religion a progressive, liberalizing force, I must offer a word of caution. Some meaningful share of the rise of populism in the Midwest is likely due to the decline of the moral and political organizing force of mainline Protestant denominations. When moderate swing states lose their religious restraint, the right drifts to Trump, the left to Sanders (note that Sanders performed well in the kind of rural areas where mainlines were traditionally vital community institutions).

But if you think the current wave of populism is a rough ride, wait until you see what happens when the South is freed of the moral restraint of the Southern Baptists — the Southwest of Catholicism, or the West of Mormonism. The social and political disorder unleashed by those approaching changes could truly be something to behold.

Not to be missed in the juxtaposition of these takes on white Protestantism is a widespread sense evangelicalism is growing while the mainline churches wane (Stone actually gives some of the numbers).

One problem here is to imagine that evangelicals were in charge when passing legislation against lotteries and alcohol. They were, but evangelicals were also mainline Protestants prior to roughly 1925. To call political Protestantism of the late 19th century evangelical is anachronistic. Is implies that Billy Graham type of Protestants were running the largest churches. They were certainly in the mix of leadership, but those churches had yet to have a theological controversy in which members and officers needed to take sides (like the fundamentalist-modernist divide).

In fact, prior to the 1920s, all stripes of white Protestants who were in the mainline churches were Progressive in politics and had no trouble with Prohibition, opposing Roman Catholicism, or censoring American letters. It may come as a surprise to learn that “evangelicals” were Progressive. It will likely also be a surprise that mainline (or liberal, tolerant) Protestants agitated for Prohibition, feared Roman Catholic influences on national and local politics, and opposed writers like Theodore Dreiser and H. L. Mencken.

What finally (and perhaps too simply) led to the separation between “liberal” and “fundamentalist” Protestants, at least if William Jennings Bryan is any indication, the man who led the prosecution at the Scopes Trial, was science. Again, the common perception is that the Scopes debates were over evolution merely. But the eugenics component of evolutionary thought also worried Bryan (and in fact the textbook that John Scopes used in Dayton public schools had a healthy dose of explanations about why inferior people should not reproduce). At that point in the 1920s, especially after seeing civilized Europeans blow each other up in World War I, fundamentalists like Bryan began to question the scientific underpinnings that had allowed Progressive politicians and believers to think that they understood society better than the Americans responsible for the Constitution. Science and faith, contrary to the Progressives, might not make America better. They might, as Bryan suggested, lead the nation astray.

This point bears on Stone’s case for more religion among America’s secular and liberal voters. What he seems to forget is that when religion supported American politics it invariably didn’t turn out so well. Take the case of Prohibition and eugenics (and don’t forget that Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld laws that allowed states to force the sterilization of people considered mentally deficient). Religion, as Stone argues, did create a shared sense of national purpose and a collective American identity. But it was also responsible for the backlash — secularization — of the 1960s when many Americans, especially the mainline churches, recognized that their vision of a Christian America (yes, the mainline believed in American exceptionalism before Jerry Falwell, Sr. did) excluded too many Americans —
blacks, women, native Americans, and citizens who questioned U.S. foreign policy.

That means that getting religion (at least a Progressive one) will not cure what ails America. In fact, seeing what Progressivism did with religion, science and the universities may at least explain why some Americans remain suspicious of such seemingly simple notions of progress. If evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump, it could be that they got fed up with hearing that they were on the wrong side of progress history.

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