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I haven’t gone to many academic conferences the last few years, having been out of the country, so it was good to return to the circuit last weekend. The occasion was the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in Chicago. The fates literally shone down upon us with three days of brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures, at least by the standards of Windy City winters. Inside, however, I was struck by how much the mood and tone had changed from just three years ago. This was especially notable at sessions on American evangelicalism. There, everything now lies under the shadow of the election of 2016.

Historians have been adding their own bit to the flood of commentary about the relationship of evangelicals to Donald Trump, and the guild has been just about as hostile on the subject as the rest of the intelligentsia. That has put an extra burden upon those Christian historians who, loyal to the faith while appalled at the man, want to salvage the first from association with the second. Some, like my dear friend and mentor George Marsden, argue that evangelicalism is not, after all, mostly about politics but about religion. For his part, Baylor University historian and former Marsden student Tommy Kidd believes that a great many among the 80+ percent of self-professed evangelicals who support Trump are not genuine evangelicals at all, being lax in church attendance, knowledge of scripture, rudimentary theological literacy, etc., etc.Judging from last weekend’s conference, most historians—including Christian historians—are not buying it. In the wake of 2016 they have turned new eyes upon the past and are finding that what the Trump election exposed in “evangelical” ranks has been there all along: racism, misogyny, militant American nationalism, deference to corporate capitalism, a cult of arms and violence, all high on a mixed cocktail of persecution complex and triumphalism. Previous exculpatory evidence (Billy Graham defied Jim Crow at his Southern rallies) now bows beneath a heavier load (Billy Graham wouldn’t recognize structural racism if it bit him on his blessed bottom, and it was the sainted Dwight L. Moody who conceded to segregated revival meetings in the first place).

Judging from other sessions, the most promising way out of this gloom follows a twofold international path. First, differentiating the global evangelical movement from the “white American” segment thereof. Second, recording the remarkable scale and persistence of (also) white American evangelical humanitarian efforts over the past 150 years. Yes, these have been marked by no little paternalism and cultural bias. Yes, they have reflected self-interest and egotism. But their practitioners on site have sometimes learned from their mistakes, heeded their indigenous clients-become-partners-and-teachers, and did their best to spread that word back home. The iconic Billy Graham again may serve as an example. Burned by his close association with Richard Nixon (though, typically, offended more by Nixon’s potty-mouth than by his policies or worldview), Graham in the late 1970s turned increasingly international, becoming more diplomatic and empathic in the process. On the flip-side, Graham’s son Franklin runs an international charity as cover for militant white nationalist culture-warring at home. Sin, repentance, reversion—Jonathan Edwards fretted about it among the “awakened” in the 18th century, as did Charles Finney in the 19th. We can too.

If the international focus offers some redeeming possibilities, I think the Marsden and Kidd options won’t fly—at least for a while. The current American scene, along with even a chastened Kuyperianism, argues against any clean segmentation of religion from politics. Nor is “evangelicalism’s” status as a political category a recently born corruption. The movement burst into public attention in 1976, which the Gallup Poll and Newsweek magazine dubbed “the year of the Evangelical” in light of Jimmy Carter’s successful run for the presidency. Four years later, three candidates—Carter, Ronald Reagan, and John Anderson—were all trying to out-born-again each other for the same post. The academy—not just historians but sociologists, political scientists, philosophers, and literary scholars—joined journalists and pundits to re-discover and explain this vast trove of believers (said to be 15, 20, no 25! percent) of the American population. For all the secularity of these explorers, their conclusions combined a good bit of the benign with the critical. “Evangelicals” were deemed to be overlooked, often decent people who had apt observations about the modern world and deserved a hearing.

If you rise with 1976, you can’t help but fall with 2016. “Evangelicalism,” especially in its white American version, has been political in its character as well as its appeal from the start. The best way forward is not to deny that but to try to change the politics it bears. That might well be impossible. If so, or even if reform can happen, the brand now carries a very heavy burden of proof as it once received too indulgent a waiver. Perhaps that’s one of the crosses that the faithful Christians among the “evangelicals” will have to bear for the next generation.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

34 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    A very helpful clarification and summing-up. Thanks.

  • mstair says:

    ” the brand now carries a very heavy burden of proof as it once received too indulgent a waiver. ”

    The brand.
    Therein lies the problem.
    The mental laziness of our American culture has embraced reductionist thinking on the grandest scale. It is, perhaps, the only way the complexities of 21st. century life can be mentally apprehended. In order to cognitively survive the “media blitz” of the opinions, perspectives, and “fake news”confronting them, our society seeks simple explanations they can quickly grasp, label … brand …
    Thankfully, Fox News & MSNBC provides them with the clarity to go on …

  • Mary Ann Harkema says:

    Not one mention of Jesus in your observations only often repeated liberal phrases and talking points. Time to get back to Biblical teaching. It is all about Jesus. He is the only answer to all human problems.

    • Rev. Raymond A. Blacketer says:

      You mean it’s all about our Lord and Savior Trump, right? Your comment has nothing to do with Jesus and adds nothing to the topic, except to demonstrate the ignorance and hate among so-called evangelicals. Bless your heart.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Rev. Blacketer,

        These are harsh words (perhaps misogynistic) coming from a Man of the Cloth.

        I actually think her words were the most wise of all the comments. We may all have been better off if MAH’s comment ended the thread.

    • George E says:

      No, but he did mention the fates!

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Thank you for reminding us that Evangelicals voted 80+% for Trump in the last election. I read so much garbage these days and I start to worry about the future of our country. Posts like this help me remember that, despite our blind guides, the everyday Evangelical has enough sense to see through this nonsense and I’m encouraged.

    The “mixed cocktail of persecution and triumphalism” is a great line, until you realize that it’s not unique to Evangelicals. So I’m not even trying to hear that. Trump is a reaction to the SLANDER that has continuously overwhelmed Evangelical politicians that could only muster plastic knives at a verbal gun fights. For what it’s worth, the reason that this sight needs conservative writers is not so much because it there should be ideological balance – but so that the existing writers would be more likely to understand that a real person/colleague, worthy of some trace element of respect, could hold a position different from theirs.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Well said, Matt. Most of the contributors here who espouse leftist political opinions are employees in the education industry, yet they show little interest, and even aversion, to learning about The Other.

      Maybe that will change with the addition of conservative writers. I admit I have a skeptical nature, and this is my fear: the powers that be at Reformed Journal are scrambling to find the Reformed equivalent of David Brooks.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Mr. Huisman: Though I have stated I welcome the views of all in the Comments and such, I think it could be pointed out that the Reformed Journal (as was and now here as we have picked up that name and mantle) had a very distinctive voice–it was the voice of more (slightly more or significantly more) progressive voices in the Reformed community. Readers like you are more than welcome to challenge us but I don’t believe RJ is obligated to make itself some balance of views. There are plenty of other blogs and websites available that work that side of the street. And in defense of Jim Bratt and our other writers: I don’t think we need in every column to bend over backwards to acknowledge that OF COURSE people of goodwill, intelligence, and conscience hold different views. We know that, respect that. But we also put our voices out there from our side of things, hoping readers from multiple perspectives can respect also our goodwill, intelligence, and conscience. RJ is not the New York Times where we need to try to have a mix of opinion writers. Or, to invoke the column that used to be in every issue of the original RJ, that is “As We See It.”

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Rev. Hoezee,

        So, would you say that the Reformed Journal is to the left of the New York Times? If so, you’re staking out ground way on the edge of the Bell Curve.

        And, if the RJ has changed its mind and now will not try to get conservative writers, wouldn’t that demonstrate a lack of empathy on your part? You may want to retake the Strengthfinder test.

      • Matt Huisman says:

        I’m not asking for ideological balance. Write it “As (You) See It”. It’s more of a “(Watch) What (You) Say” kind of thing.

    • Nate Pyle says:

      80% of White Evangelicals. Folks may get tired of that qualifier, but it matters–particularly in this political moment. The racialization of the evangelical vote in the 2016 election ought to give us pause. Why was race such a distinction? Why were/are white evangelicals so separated from evangelicals of color when it comes to this president and his policies?

      This matters because when you say that support of Trump is a reaction against slander that has overwhelmed Evangelicals, you don’t mean all evangelicals. It is clear that not all evangelicals felt that the slander was significant enough to warrant supporting this president. Only a certain subgroup of evangelicals.

      I know the critique that will come from this post. That I am making a racial issue where there is none. But that’s not true. In the last few years, and particularly in the wake of Trump, the GOP and the support of Trump has become more solidly white. This is evidence of something. The question is, of what? What are we willing to see? What questions are we willing to ask? What theories are we willing to entertain? Who are we willing to listen to on this question?

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    My thanks for this piece of clear-headed, honest, appraisal of the current evangelical mess. I’m not an evangelical, and have never been so. I’m a Calvinist, and that means a deep and abiding focus upon God. It’s long been my claim that evangelicalism, in its various expressions, turned from God to the self – it became all about experience, conversion, in order to “get saved,” go to heaven, and so forth (which clearly fit the American mentality of self-achievement and independence). From believing in God’s faithfulness, to shaping the believer’s faithfulness, the movement became fraught with fear, anger, rules and dogma, and so needing lots of internal cohesion, grew fearful of the world, and hateful of anyone raising a question or embracing another expression of the Christian Faith. One of the current hallmarks of evangelicalism is crippling it: “We can’t be wrong. We have an inspired Bible, we have prayer, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and we’ve been told by our leaders that Trump is anointed of God, to deliver our nation from the sins of abortion and homosexuality.” Going down such a dead-end alley rarely ends well, and most likely a crash against the wall. Much damage has been done, and it’ll be some time before the air clears. Your forthright article here is a part of the effort to reclaim America Christianity for its better angels! God’s Peace.

  • Roger Wiers says:

    Call me a snowflake, call me a liberal, call me an Evangelical, but I call myself a Christian who believes that God’s kingdom is based on love and inclusiveness, not fear and exclusion. Thanks Tom for your comments.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Hey Mr. Wiers! Welcome to the comments section. I look forward to your contributions as much as a delicious grilled cheese sandwich. We can always learn from a liberal snowflake Evangelical. Particularly one with a gentle soul and a soft heart.

  • David Pettit says:

    I enjoyed this very much! An articulate analysis. I very much appreciate the charge to look at the larger evangelical movement, rather than just the American manifestation. Thank you!

  • Being raised in an Evangelical pressure cooker, in my experience the most dangerous part of the theology was the refusal to honestly consider any other theological perspectives. It was heresy to even question the man in charge with another theological point of view. There was no sense of humility or openness to considering that one’s understanding of scripture could ever be incomplete or be deepened or modified in the future. It was, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The Evangelical pride and their unwavering faith in their own theological dogma replaced any faith in a real Savior in a real living relationship with humanity. I fear that for Evangelicals, a human theological construct has become their fake wooden cross shaped god.

    • John van staalduinen says:

      Dear Rev Karen, if a few words were changed and your comment re-read, what would you think? So, change Evangelical to Liberal, the ending remains the same, there still is a fake wooden cross.

  • Lori Witt says:

    Thanks for your insights, Prof. Bratt. It is good to see you back writing for The Twelve! Like David Pettit, I look forward to more work being done on the global evangelical movement. I also look forward to more focus on global evangelical humanitarian and social justice efforts. Those are two great suggestions for research paths to follow on evangelicals. The findings will not be all roses, but they will add perspective to the gloomy view that you sensed at the meetings last weekend.

  • Dan D. says:

    I have read through a number of the various comments and find that there is quite a variety of readers out there. I began reading the PERSPECTIVES some time ago looking for some spiritual nourishment. I must say that I’ve appreciated some of the recent submissions because they were replete of political bias. I do wonder why the Title was changed from PERSPECTIVES to REFORMED. Or is the intent of the blog to REFORM those of us who are conservative to the liberal left wing bias I find in many of the writings. One observation I’ve made is that the writers are part of what I would call ACCADAMIA. None that I’ve read are outside of being a professor, pastor, or worker in a church office.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Lots and lots of heart judging going on here. Assigning of motives and wickedness of the heart, as if one could see straight into the heart of his neighbor. In a world where Christians and pagans alike scream “Jesus said don’t judge!”, this is actually the kind of judgment we are warned against, alongside hypocritical judgment. Mix in a little slander from Rev. Blacketer, and you’ve got quite the devil’s stew going on here. Congratulations.

    • Randy Buist says:

      This line of thinking means we are incapable of seeing good from evil. In such a case, murder nor infidelity nor robbery should be condemned since we have no sense of good nor evil. This way of thinking has no regard for wisdom, knowledge, nor discernment.

      If we can’t state clearly that our current president has no connection with the gospel of Jesus, we have no gospel to tell. We have no good news to speak. We simply become gongs in the wind. The one whom I follow calls to be a higher road. And I am deeply grateful for Dr. Bratt’s words today.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Not at all, Randy. There is such a thing as presuming to know more than what one can about peoples’ heart motivations and assigning the worst when it is not a necessary conclusion. That tendency is evident in the original offering and a number of the follow-up comments. It is not in vain that Paul says in I Cor 4:5 that the Lord “will disclose the purposes of the heart”. When broad swaths of people are castigated for voting for a certain candidate and it is said to reveal their worst tendencies, then an unrighteous judgement of the heart has occurred. Is it a righteous judgment for me to tell the world that Randy Buist loves the fact that children are killed, and that is why he supported Hilary Clinton or Bernie Snaders? Is that not a slander, the likes of which Scripture unequivocally condemns?

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I kind of agree with Eric, though your congratulations at the end feels less than constructive. This comment section has steered off the road along the way. It seems like there are deep issues left unexamined in our hearts. I know I have them. One concern I’ve noticed along the way with Reformed Journal: The Twelve is the quick dismissal of a brother or sister with words like “liberal” or “conservative.” It appears as if labels allow us to avoid wrestling with whether there is something to learn, a corrective or transformation in how we see from what is offered here. Thomas Aquinas wrote in reference to our interpretation of Scripture, “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver” (Summa Theologica, I, 75, 5). It feels like some self-examination of the manner in which we receive from one another (hopefully with humility, receptivity, and honesty) might help us in our learning and listening together.
    Grace and Peace in Christ …

  • William Harris says:

    Analyses of the Evangelical community stumble when they overlook the composite nature of this community. In 1976, there would have been four interacting communities, which together make up what we call Evangelicalism: the Fundamentalist South with its emphasis on eschatalogy and a separationist ecclesiology (Bible churches, the SBC); the Segregationist South, drawn from the PCUS now PCA community, the home of the segregationist academies (Randall Ballmer thinks of them as the origin of the Christian Right, well maybe); the Sunbelt Evangelicals, extending from Orange County to Dallas, less segregationist but militantly anti-communist, deeply engaged with conservative economics (SBC, Nazarene originally; the deep backers of Reagan); and the Northern protestant conservatives – often immigrant – see the split in the LCMS 1969, whose issues were the Bible but did not share believer baptism model of Sunbelt or Segregationist South.

    Between abortion and Reagan they found common cause, but I don’t think we can see them as solely political in nature. The real power is cultural; the question is not history so much as sociology. In the 80s and 90s, these were the churches of the suburbs, the big boxes which developed a model of Christian life that focused on the family (and especially fathers — this the work of Kristin DuMez) at the same time that a certain anxieties swept through the Boomer generation as they raised their children. The characteristic nature of the suburbs of the day were white and moving upscale (e.g. Saddleback, Willow Creek); the churches reflect this as do their Christian schools. This cultural location opens a gap between Evangelicals and the urban and/or minority churches; it also made these same churches less attractive in the changing diverse nature of the new suburbs.

    All this came to a halt with the changing nature of suburbanization (Tim Keller not withstanding), and the political choices in 2002-2004, a change well documented in such books as Amy Sullivan’s Party Faithful. Then add to the deindustrialization of the Midwest which tore the heart out of many small towns, The result is a cultural community that was largely outward facing in 1980-2002, turned inward, a defensive crouch, and with it the old reactions also took hold. As the northern wing shrank and the Sunbelt shifted the elements of Evangelicalism that remained standing were those of the South, meanwhile the kids leave town.

  • Allan H. says:

    An elephant in the room is the prevalence of the false ideology of “Christian Nationalism” among Evangelical Trump voters. There was even an academic study published in the last year or so showing that to be the most strongly predictive factor for Trump support.

    Of course “Christian nation” mythology is nothing new in American politics; it was strong for example in the 1950s when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was added to money (historian Kevin Kruse has shown how much of that was driven by wealthy business interests trying to enlist Christians with slogans like “Freedom under God” to try and undermine the New Deal).
    And it is nothing new for Christian nationalism to make bedfellows with white nationalism and other evil nativist ideologies. The John Birch Society was heavily involved with “Christian America” movements in the 1960s, for example. And it is nothing new for politicians to use this Christian sentiment for their own ends (like Nixon used Billy Graham).

    What does seem somewhat new is the degree to which Christian nationalists don’t care how un-Christlike their leader is, as long as he gets them political power and keeps people of color (and in some cases women) from usurping their privilege or threatening their dominance of American society. And also the degree to which Christian nationalists and other Evangelicals have come to identify righteousness more with the teachings of Rush Limbaugh than with the teachings of Jesus, maybe because they spend much more time each week being shaped by Fox News than being shaped by the church.

  • […] came across this post by James Bratt on Scot Mcknight’s blog, Jesus Creed. First, a reflection or two and then a […]

  • sarah latimer says:

    Thank you for this! The last few years have felt surreal, as I have re-thought my Evangelical upbringing, and the faith in which I raised my children. I AM and Evangelical, according to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, but the surprise I felt at seeing my people glom onto Trump has given way to an understanding that this is not, in fact, new, but rather a manifestation of evil undercurrents swirling throughout what would become Evangelicalism since before the founding of our nation.

  • Kirk Vanhouten says:

    The constant hand wringing of Evangelical academics over their “embarrassment” of being associated with those who voted for Donald Trump is getting old. Most Christians I know who voted for Trump viewed him as a lesser evil against another terribly flawed candidate. Professor Bratt’s caricature “racism, misogyny, militant American nationalism, deference to corporate capitalism, a cult of arms and violence, all high on a mixed cocktail of persecution complex and triumphalism.” says more about his own views than those who voted for Mr. Trump.

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