Acton Institute Powerblog

How Evangelicals Became GOP Culture War Soldiers

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Evangelicalism historically has always been embroiled in political and social movements in the West. Because of the effective reach church leaders have in reaching the masses in past history, politicians take particular interest in the church during political campaigns. Donald Trump’s new found interest in evangelicalism, then, makes historical sense. Winning over evangelicals could translate into votes. In fact, in the post-Nixon era evangelicals were very useful tools in the growth of the GOP as some Christian leaders unintentionally sold out the mission of the church to win a “culture war.”

In the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, evangelical figures like Harold O. J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop, joined forces in the mid-1970s to call evangelicals to fight against the proliferation of abortion. Matthew Miller does a wonderful job of explaining how these men woke evangelicals up to an issue that Catholics were already fighting against.

In 1975, Brown and Koop launched The Christian Action Council which became the first major evangelical lobbying organization on Capitol Hill. In 1976, Francis Schaeffer’s film and lecture tour, How Shall We Then Live, served to awaken many evangelicals to the decline of Western culture on issues like abortion, materialism, secularism, the influence of evolution in public schools, the increasing coercion of government power, and so on.

Under the leadership of Brown, Schaeffer, and Koop, evangelicals officially launched their first offensive in the culture war as the pro-life movement recruited more crusaders. In the years that followed, the second generation of evangelical culture warriors were deployed. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, and so on, established a solid pro-life movement. These leaders would be key figures in the formation of The Moral Majority movement of the 1980s which enlisted Christians in the culture war for traditional family values, abortion, prayer in schools, among others.

Because of well-publicized evangelical disappointment with the theology and politics of President Jimmy Carter, the Republican Party tapped leaders of the Moral Majority to form an alliance with the GOP to restore American values with the nomination of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States. As a result, evangelical leaders were given unprecedented access to the halls political power in the White House and Congress.

By the end of the Reagan era, however, the Moral Majority began to dissolve but by then it was clear that being an evangelical in America’s suburbs was synonymous with being a Republican. In the leadership vacuum, culture war crusading became a spiritual discipline and Republican politicians gained more and more influence in America’s evangelical expression.

In the 1990s, with no conservative in the White House, and with the moral failings of Republican politicians, many evangelicals went from aligning themselves with politicians to media personalities in the conservative movement. On July 10th, 1990, Pat Robertson interviewed Rush Limbaugh expanding his voice into new Christian spaces. Limbaugh lamented that “we in the midst of the culture war” and there were see conservative pundits began to take the lead in ways made it likely that many evangelicals could more easily quote from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck than they could from their own pastor’s Sunday sermons.

Why does this matter? First, the mix of faith and politics is hemorrhaging evangelicals of young people. According to a Barna Study, 50 percent of millennials found their own faith “too involved in politics.” Young Christians want something else to identify their faith with rather than it being a platform for the Republican party or any political ideology.

Second, America in 2016 is very post-Christian and pluralistic which means that evangelicals are now the moral minority. As the moral minority, it calls into question whether or not cozying up to the Republican Party, or any party, is the most effective way to championing the causes of public virtue, justice, and morality in American life. Perhaps the most effective influence is to expand beyond politics to the local spheres where we interact with the friends, co-workers, and neighbors who are the very people Christians are called to love.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

Comments

  • Thanks for this rehash of events. Your approach of reviewing the actions of Evangelical leaders is very fruitful–in any political movement, the core influence is always the leaders’ quest for more power and wealth. Find an issue that mobilizes the people, and the checks will keep on coming.

    Sadly, the Christian faith is the loser in these campaigns. Being a Christian should start with a realization of one’s own failings, but religious politics invariably focuses on other people’s sins. How does the nation benefit from a populace that acts more ethically due to moral coercion? A Christian weighs her or his actions in terms of love, not of fear or a wish to conform.

    I wrote something on how Christianity came to be so misunderstood, here: http://personal.inet.fi/private/walkabout/Walkabout-gg.html#persecution-is-necessary

  • Excellent review! Evangelicals failed miserably at using the power of the state to stop abortion but has succeeded very well in persuading a new generation to abandon abortion. This should be a lesson to evangelicals. The lust for the power of the state only corrupts Christians. The power of persuasion may take longer but has lasting results.

  • blanko

    Interesting read. You had me up until the final paragraph. I agree that Christian influence in local spheres is important, but I think that you are downplaying how effective Evangelical political alliances
    have been. Granted Evangelicals have lost many political battles, as well, in my opinion, not always chosen their battles wisely.

    The earliest American Evangelical political alliance for a moral cause that I am aware of would be the Evangelical abolitionist movement (“Eventually the antislavery cause with its strong religious support helped to create the Republican Party in the 1850s”.) And, regarding the “culture war” (traditional family values, abortion, prayer in schools, etc.), I cannot imagine how far left leaning (counter Evangelical values) American laws would be, if not for political opposition. In fact, Evangelicals have been such
    a thorn in liberal America’s progressive agenda that they have been attacked by liberal media, University’s, and in higher courts.

    Lastly, it is true that Evangelicals are hemorrhaging young people. I do not think that politics has anything to do with that though. I think as young people leave traditional Christian churches (traditional as opposed to post-modern or liberal Christian churches) their values change which in turn makes Evangelical value politics distasteful to them.