What if Politics Explains the Eighty-One Percent Better than Faith?

What if Politics Explains the Eighty-One Percent Better than Faith? July 23, 2018

What if the evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump are something other than simply being born-again? Can they be reduced to their conversion experience? What if their identity, contrary to identity politics, includes other attributes, like sex, place of residence, work, family status, education, and favorite sports team What if, for the sake of voting behavior, they belong to political traditions in U.S. history that explain their party affiliation and choices better than David Bebbington’s quadrilateral? What if, in fact, religious historians are only giving partial explanations of evangelical voting behavior by virtue of emphasizing religious identity over national interests in the same way that social scientists think that race or gender determine a person’s politics (which it does not in the cases of Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama)?

Michael Doran wrote a very good piece about theology and foreign policy that suggests the importance of politics as much as religion for understanding evangelicals and liberal Protestants. Which is the chicken and the egg is another question. Does evangelicalism produce Jacksonian, populist, democratic Americans or do Jacksonian, populist, democratic Americans become Christian through a born-again experience? Who knows? But Doran’s essay is arguably one of the best pieces to put THE EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT!!!! in a larger, historical and political perspective.

Doran divides white Protestants historically between Jacksonians (democratic) and Wilsonians (progressive). That difference has a religious component that produces different attitudes to government. He starts with fundamentalists at the Scopes Trial, led by William Jennings Bryan:

When Bryan railed against the oligarchy of scientists, he was following self-consciously in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson, who fought against a “monopoly” of government by elites—and who won everlasting glory in that fight by destroying the Second Bank of the United States. Jacksonian democracy enjoins the popularly elected president to use the power of the presidency to protect, as Truman put it, “the common, everyday fellow” from unaccountable and unrepresentative concentrations of political and economic power. Jacksonian democracy places trust in the wisdom of the common man, which it favors over rule by experts. . . .

Government’s job is not to spread the word of God or to perfect the world; it is to protect the community, to safeguard its freedom. Man is inherently broken, so perfection in this world will not come from human agency. “We believe,” the statement also says, “That the personal return of the Lord Jesus is the great hope of the Church, to which, and not to the triumph of present institutions, we are to look for the fulfilment of the great promises of the world’s ultimate blessedness.” Jesus Christ Himself, not state institutions, will create the truly just society.

Since Doran’s interest is in foreign policy, and since the United States’ place in the world bears on its Make-America-Great-Againness, the implications of Bryan and Jackson for international affairs are striking:

When applied to foreign policy, this theology lends the Jacksonian persuasion the character of a sleeping volcano. When its freedom is safe, it lies dormant—neither an impediment to nor a support for any major initiative. But if it perceives enemies to its freedom, it is roused from its slumber and erupts. Popular democracy is the incubator of God’s elect—“Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons.” A Jacksonian eruption, therefore, takes the form of a righteous conflict—a “jehad,” in H. L. Mencken’s derisive term. But the appetite for holy war is short-lived. Jacksonians appear to their detractors militaristic, religiously bigoted, or jingoistic, because of their sense of absolute right and wrong and their willingness to fight and die for their values. Their appetite for conflict, however, is actually limited. War, for them, is a defensive act. After annihilating the immediate threat to American liberty, they yearn to bring the boys home.

This mercurial attitude has bedeviled every president who has ever sent troops into battle. In moments marked by threats to the nation, the Jacksonian persuasion will provide the greatest reservoir of pro-interventionist sentiment imaginable. Its thirst for conflict, however, passes quickly. Once that thirst is slaked, the Jacksonian persuasion becomes a force for isolationism and, seemingly, even for pacifism. This fickleness is part of the larger paradox at the heart of the Jacksonian sensibility, namely its love-hate relationship with the federal government and chief executive. Both are vital to the survival of American liberty, which is a light unto the nations. The halo that surrounds liberty also encompasses, therefore, the military; it can widen, in certain circumstances, to encompass the presidency and the federal government as well. But the state itself is neither inherently sacred nor even good. Indeed, when federal power or executive action endangers liberty, Jacksonians can regard them as a pestilence.

Doran goes on to describe the politics and foreign policy of Bryan’s foes, the modernists, and their affinities with Wilsonian progressivism:

Progressivism follows a postmillennial view of end times, which teaches that the spread of the gospel will produce a millennium prior to Christ’s return. During this period, peace and prosperity will reign throughout the world. In sharp contrast to dispensational premillennialism, postmillennialism downplays the brokenness of man. It highlights, instead, man’s perfectible nature and his ability to improve his situation through his own agency—or through government agencies.

Though this theology has roots that predate the nineteenth century, its spread and popularity are tied to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern science, medicine, and technology. In the late eighteenth century, society’s ability to master the material world improved immeasurably. As a result, the God of Andrew Jackson’s farewell address—he who intervenes directly in the affairs of nations—ceased to exist in the minds of Progressives. Their religion evolved instead in the direction of ethical humanism. Meanwhile, the advances of modern industrial society introduced significant social problems, concentrated mostly in cities. Infused with the belief that man could liberate himself from his limitations, Progressives argued that confronting these urban problems should be the priority. Postmillennialist in outlook, Protestant modernism developed the religious doctrine to support this progressive political view.

Protestant modernism also shifted the focus from personal piety to collective action. It thus became the natural religious home for social reform initiatives. The trend culminated in the social gospel movement of the early twentieth century. . . .

These rival outlooks were bound to collide politically (and have throughout U.S. history:

The Progressive persuasion conflicts with its Jacksonian counterpart in crucial respects. Though both accord the government a vital role in protecting “the common, everyday fellow,” the deepest concern of the Jacksonian is individual liberty, whereas the Progressive focuses more intently on destroying inequality. The Progressive, moreover, is eager to embrace “collective” initiatives, which in practice means government initiatives. Though some of these will pass muster with the Jacksonian persuasion, the Progressives’ embrace of centralizing government power, even when legitimated in terms of the interests of the common man, often appears as a threat to individual liberty. For the Jacksonian persuasion, the Progressive vision quickly turns into the oligarchy of experts that so troubled William Jennings Bryan.

When it comes to foreign policy, Progressives are internationalist in outlook. The Jacksonian persuasion, with its roots in the divine mission of America, conduces to nationalism. It assumes, moreover, that a resort to arms to protect American liberty is a regrettable but inevitable aspect of the human condition. By contrast, Progressivism emphasizes universal human brotherhood, which it believes is within the capacity of humans to achieve. As a result, the Progressive persuasion tends to emphasize peacemaking more than vigilant self-defense. One pole of the Progressive spectrum is an idealistic pacifism. The other pole can be very militant, for it accords the United States an exceptional mission in the world. This mission, however, is not Andrew Jackson’s notion of keeping the flame of liberty alive until Judgment Day. The mission of America is, rather, to use its military and economic power to nudge the world toward universal brotherhood.

This explanation of Protestantism and American politics is arguably better than reducing evangelical Trump supporters to hypocritical, racist, xenophobic, misogynist Christians (a reduction that is not exactly very winsome, loving, or liberal). It actually takes different views of the state, the character of government in a free society, and America’s international footprint as more important for understanding a voter’s politics than seeing electoral decisions as functions of psychological maladjustment or religious bias.

Why then are so many evangelical historians unable to come up with Doran’s sort of explanation? Even better, why do the interpretations of the 2016 election from self-professed evangelicals so often sound like those of Protestant modernists or agnostic liberals? At least never-Trump conservatives sound Republican.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!