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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.