Did George H.W. Bush Enable the Christian Right?

Bush and Falwell

Yes.

Check out Neil J. Young’s piece at The Washington Post:

Following Wednesday’s state funeral for George H.W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral, the former president’s casket will be flown to Houston where a memorial service will be held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church the following day.

Unlike his son George W. Bush, the elder Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, was less known for his religious faith. He was certainly not thought of as a champion of the religious right, the powerful political movement most associated with his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

Yet it was Bush, the moderate establishment Republican whose family helped found Planned Parenthood, who secured the religious right’s permanent place in American politics. While historians largely credit Reagan’s presidency with helping religious conservatives move from the shadows of American public life into its spotlight, it was the Bush presidency, particularly its disappointments and defeat, that entrenched the religious right as the center of the Republican Party and guaranteed its ongoing influence.

From the moment he entered the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, Bush drew the ire of religious right leaders — so much so that people like Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell objected to Reagan’s selection of Bush as his running mate. Conservative organizations tracked Bush closely throughout the primaries, scrutinizing his conservative credentials, reviewing his record and documenting his every misstep. Bush’s questionable history included having written the foreword to a 1973 book advocating the benefits of family planning in developing countries. As a congressman from 1967 to 1971, Bush’s enthusiastic support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood and other family planning groups was so well-known it had garnered him the nickname “Rubbers.”

Read the rest here.

Some Historical Perspective on the Trump Evangelicals

I am happy to contribute to this video posted today at The New York Times.

Retro Report spent over an hour interviewing me at Messiah College back in August.  I was apparently not as engaging as Cal Thomas, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Randall Balmer since I only got a quick soundbite.  (They even made me go home and change my shirt because it had too many stripes and did not look good on the camera!)

Whatever the case, it is a nice piece:

https://www.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000006182547

Cal Thomas Rips the Court Evangelicals

Cal T

Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist and a veteran of the Moral Majority.  After he left the Moral Majority he co-wrote a book describing his experience with Jerry Falwell Sr.’s organization.  It is titled Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America(I wrote about Thomas and his co-author Ed Dobson in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

Thomas supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election.  Yet he cannot seem to stomach the court evangelicals‘ criticism of other evangelicals, particularly those who met at Wheaton College last week.  Here is a taste of his most recent column:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24)

The verse refers to money, but in light of today’s debate about the unaccountable devotion many Christian leaders have for President Trump it is not a stretch to apply it to their relationship with him.

Last week at Wheaton College in Illinois a number of Christian pastors and leaders gathered to discuss the future of “evangelicalism” in the Trump era. Some who were not there claimed it was a forum for Trump-bashing, some who were in attendance disagreed.

There is a conceit among some conservative Christians that God is only at work when a person they voted for is elected and that the rest of the time He must be attending to other countries. “God showed up,” said Franklin Graham following Trump’s election. Scripture states that all authority comes from God and that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord like channels of water; he turns it wherever he wants.” (Proverbs 21:1)

That means that God also must have “shown up” when Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and every other president was elected. The Almighty does, in fact, have a different agenda than us earthlings and sometimes He puts up leaders to judge people for their wicked behavior.

Read the rest here.

The End of the “Moral Majority”

Jones WhiteI just finished Robert P. Jones‘s book The End of White Christian America.  Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).  It provides survey data that confirms what a lot of us have thought for several years: the number of white evangelicals in the United States is declining.

The last chapter of The End of White Christian America deals with the Donald Trump campaign and presidency.  Jones argues that Trump may be white evangelicals’ last great attempt to win the culture wars.  When the age of Trump is over there will not be enough white evangelicals in America for the Christian Right to make political gains.

I wonder.  Have evangelicals over the past fifty years been so busy fighting the culture wars and pursuing political power that they have failed to bring more white men and women into the fold through evangelization?  Have they invested so much time in politics that they have not cultivated the spiritual and moral lives of young people in a way that keeps them in the church?  Just a few thoughts.  Feel free to run with them.

Over at USA Today, Jones reflects on the latest PRRI study on white evangelicalism.  Here is a taste:

But one of the most important findings of our survey is that as the country has crossed the threshold from being a majority white Christian country to a minority white Christian country, white evangelical Protestants have themselves succumbed to the prevailing winds and in turn contributed to a second wave of white Christian decline in the country. Over the past decade, white evangelical Protestants have declined from 23% to 17% of Americans.

 

During this same period, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has grown from 16% to 24%.

The engines of white evangelical decline are complex, but they are a combination of external factors, such as demographic change in the country as a whole, and internal factors, such as religious disaffiliation — particularly among younger adults who find themselves at odds with conservative Christian churches on issues like climate change and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. As a result, the median age of white evangelical Protestants is now 55, and the median age of religiously unaffiliated Americans is 37. While 26% of seniors (65 and older) are white evangelicals, only 8% of Americans younger than 30 claim this identity.

The evangelical alliance with Trump can be understood only in the context of these fading vital signs among white evangelicals. They are, in many ways, a community grieving its losses. After decades of equating growth with divine approval, white evangelicals are finding themselves on the losing side of demographic changes and LGBT rights, one of their founding and flagship issues.

In the 1980s, a term such as “the moral majority” had a certain plausibility. Today, such a sweeping claim would be met with a mountain of counter evidence from public opinion polls, progressive religious voices, changing laws and court decisions.

Read the entire piece here.

Read the very revealing PRRI report here.

The Court Evangelicals in Today’s Washington Post

Trump Jeffress

Here is a taste of my piece “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.”

If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

Read the rest here.

Who Are the Evangelicals?

Trump evangelical

Everyone (including me!) is trying to make sense of the so-called “evangelicals” who are supporting Donald Trump.  Even The New York Times is curious about this.  They have gathered four evangelical writers to discuss the meaning of the term “evangelical” and how it has been used in this primary season.

For example, Gabriel Salguero, the President and founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, begins his piece this way: “The term evangelical should not be reduced to a political category.” Salguero argues that “evangelical” is a theological category–something akin to the so-called Bebbington Quadrilateral.

Here is a taste:

But while the evangelical vote is not uniform, there are three strong theological tenets that broadly define what evangelicals — across racial, ethnic and political lines — believe: We have a high view of the authority of Scripture, we value sharing our faith (and building it within the community), and believe strongly in salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Our unity is around theological concomitants, not political priorities.

As I have argued before, there seems to be a slight distinction between evangelical voters and “values voters.”  On one level, nearly all evangelicals in the GOP are values voters.  In this election cycle they want voters who are pro-life, support traditional marriage, and defend the right of evangelicals to uphold these views without government interference (They call this “religious liberty”). If any of the GOP candidates were to reverse their positions on any of these issues, I think it is fair to say that they would not garner much evangelical support.

Evangelicals who think these values are non-negotiable make up a large subset of the Republican Party.  But within that subset, evangelical voters might prioritize different things.

Some evangelicals support Trump because of his business savvy, his anti-immigration and anti-Muslim positions, his economic plan (is there one?), or his tough talk on foreign policy.

Other evangelicals support Ted Cruz because the Texas Senator believes in limited government, defends the Constitution, is pro-Israel, or gives high priority in his stump speech to the replacement of Antonin Scalia.

More moderate evangelicals support John Kasich because they like his positive campaign and his compassionate conservatism informed by his Christian faith.

Some evangelicals might like Rubio because he is willing to stand up to Donald Trump.

I think the media is just starting to make sense of these differences among evangelicals. Some members of the media may be starting to realize that the paradigm they have used to understand evangelical voting habits is outdated.

When Jimmy Carter ran for POTUS in 1976 and told the nation that he was a “born-again Christian,” journalists had no idea what that meant.  When Newsweek declared that 1976 was “The Year of the Evangelical,” the magazine almost seemed to suggest that it had uncovered some strange creature from another planet.  And then Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority came along and turned conservative evangelicals into one or two issue- voters (abortion always being one of those issues).

Until this year, members of the media and political pundits who know a lot about politics but little about religion, have found this old narrative useful.  But with the arrival of Trump as a candidate who has managed to attract large numbers of “evangelical” voters, this narrative has become much more complicated.

Pundits and experts are no longer thinking about evangelicals as a monolithic voting bloc. They are now trying to dig deeper, analyzing evangelicals in terms of church attendance (or non-church attendance), class, and even race.  (I see the phrase “white evangelical” used in this election cycle more than I have in the past).

Stay tuned.  I am not done with this New York Times forum.

Maybe Some Evangelicals Think Trump is Another Reagan

Trump and ReaganI know this sounds like a crazy idea, but when I heard Jerry Falwell Jr. introduce Donald Trump last week at Liberty University it provided me with a plausible explanation for why some evangelicals support the New York real estate investor’s candidacy for POTUS.  (By the way, Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump today).

Here is what Falwell Jr. said:

My father was criticized in the 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher.  My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out that we are all sinners, every one of us, and when Jesus said “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” that meant that we are to be good citizens, voting, active in the political process, serving in the armed forces if necessary.  And while Jesus never told us who to vote for, he gave us all common sense to choose the best leaders.  Dad explained that when he walked into the voting booth he wasn’t electing a Sunday School teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs.  He was electing the President of the United States and the talents, abilities, and experiences required to lead a nation might not always line up with those needed to run a church or lead a congregation.  After all, Jimmy Carter was a great Sunday School teacher, but look what happened to our nation with him in the presidency.  Sorry.

If there are other evangelicals who think this way, it might explain why Trump is so popular among them.  In this statement Falwell Jr. tries to neutralize the evangelicals–such Russell Moore and Michael Gerson–who have argued that evangelicals should not vote for Trump because of his character or his policies that seem to run counter to some evangelical beliefs.

As Falwell Jr. points out, his father supported Reagan despite the fact that the former California governor was divorced and did not share Falwell Sr.’s evangelical theology. What Falwell Jr. doesn’t point out was that Reagan had supported pro-choice legislation as the governor of California.  Falwell Sr. was willing to look beyond these things because presidential leadership was less about the candidate’s faith commitments and more about his leadership abilities, which were defined by Falwell Sr. in terms of free-market capitalism and an understanding of the world informed by American exceptionalism. (And I am sure it made it a lot easier when Reagan came around to a pro-life position on abortion).

Trump may have his flaws, but, as Falwell Jr. notes, “we are all sinners.” Trump has a strong and decisive personality, he is a defender of the free-market, he claims he will protect Christianity against the “threat” of Islam, he believes in American exceptionalism, he opposes gun-control, and he is a staunch opponent of Obama and Hillary Clinton. These are the characteristics that many conservative evangelicals want in a candidate. With the exception of moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Trump’s religious views (or lack thereof) really don’t matter.

Maybe we should stop trying to figure out the theological reasons why so many evangelicals support Trump and simply conclude that since the Christian Right hitched its wagon to GOP politics, nostalgia for the 1980s will always trump (no pun intended) Christian character and faith-informed policy proposals.

For many evangelicals, Trump is the new Reagan.

The New "Books and Culture" is Here

I just got my copy in the mail today.  I immediately read the following two reviews:

Eric Miller’s review of Peter Hales’s Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now.  Miller writes:

However [John] Winthrop may hover over Hales’ story, his own vision and hope are most decisively inspired by the classic Emersonian ideals: the spontaneous discovery of an inward connection to a greater reality; a harmonic convergence of self and society; above all, a religious confidence that The Self Knows, and that our true enemy is the enemy of the self.  Will these ideals be enough to save us from the mighty surges of history Hales with such acuity uncovers?  Many of us, still poised at that watchtower, listening to that howling wind, find ourselves looking for rescue from another direction.  Still: Read this book

Todd Ream and Drew Moser’s review of Randall Balmer’s Redeemer; The Life of Jimmy Carter. Ream and Moser write:

Redeemer is a biography of Jimmy Carter that has little to do with Jimmy Carter in critical places. As the story advances, it reads at times more like an account of the rise of the Moral Majority in evangelical America, with Carter cast as an almost accidental antagonist.  The book’s epigraph sketches its narrative and theological arc and its fundamentally ironic perspective: He came unto his own, and his own received him not, John 1:11 (King James Version).”  But Balmer’s irony isn’t calculated to elicit cheap sneers; it grows out of the tangle of American history.  And if his book isn’t entirely satisfying as a biography, he does succeed–in contrast to previous biographers–in rightly portraying Jimmy Carter’s Christianity as the driving force behind his political and personal life

We did an interview with Balmer last week about this book.

I am sure these reviews will appear soon on the B&C website.  Stay tuned.

I should also add that there is an ad on page 18 for the 29th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held on September 25-27 at Pepperdine University.  Learn more about the conference here.  Though the ad does not provide details, and the conference program has not been released, I can spill some of the beans and let you know that the following historians/authors/friends of this blog will be speaking in various capacities over the course of the weekend: Charles Marsh, Daniel Williams, Lendol Calder, Allen Guelzo, John Wigger, Jim LaGrand, Colleen McDannel, Thomas Albert Howard, Margaret Bendroth, Beth Barton Schweiger, Jay Case, Eric Miller, Chris Gehrz, Jonathan Den Hartog, Timothy Hall, Christopher Shannon, Darren Dochuk, Mark Noll, Molly Worthen, David Bebbington, Shirley Mullen, Jana Riess, Mike Kugler, Randall Stephens, Ed Blum, Randall Balmer, Jonathan Yeager, Bill Trollinger, Tracy McKenzie, Brad Gundlach, Warren Throckmorton, Paul Contino, John Wilson, Don Yerxa, and Wilfred McClay.

See you in Malibu.

Who is Jerry Falwell?

Who is that guy holding Tinky Winky?

The other day in my Introduction to History class at Messiah College I was talking about a former student who wrote her senior honors thesis on Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Moral Majority.  (I discuss this student in chapter 7 of Why Study History?)

As I began to explain how my former student had to put aside her liberal politics and beliefs in order to empathize and understand the world according to Falwell, I noticed that many of the 20 students in the class were giving me strange looks.

After a few minutes I figured it out. I asked the students how many of them had ever heard of Jerry Falwell.  Only two hands went up.  I then told them that Falwell was the founder of Liberty University and nearly everyone nodded.

Here are my initial thoughts about this conversation:

1.  Evangelical students today do not identify with the Christian Right’s founding generation.  They really have no clue about Falwell apart from the school he founded.

2. Evangelical students really have no understanding of the history behind the movement in which many of their parents came of age and which probably informed the kind of households in which their parents raised them.

3.  Messiah College students, while no less pious, tend to be a bit less connected to the evangelical “movement” or “subculture” than students at other Christian colleges. Falwell and the other founders of the Christian Right did not have a great influence on many of them.  I compare this to the couple of visits I have made to Wheaton College in the last few years where there is a definite sense that “evangelicalism” is a major part of the identity of the college and the students who attend it.  (But to be fair, most at Wheaton would not identify with Falwell as much as Billy Graham or Christianity Today).

For the record, I also asked them if they had ever heard of Billy Graham.  Almost all the hands went up and no one thought he was a professional wrestler.

What else should I make of my students’ failure to know anything about Falwell?

Moral Minority

David Swartz put it best at his blog: “The first review is in–and it’s a big one.” 

Yes indeed. 

David’s book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Lefts in an Age of Conservatism is reviewed in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Book Review.  Here is a taste of Molly Worthen’s review:

So why did the evangelical left seem to dissolve into irrelevance? Swartz argues that evangelicals’ mass enlistment in the conservative Republicanism of the “culture wars” was not the inevitable consequence of doctrine or history: Jesus did not leave behind a clear party platform. But while members of the Christian right set aside doctrinal differences to rally around a shared cultural agenda, the left fell victim to internal identity politics and theological disputes. Black and female evangelicals argued that the left’s leadership was too white and too male. Anabaptists who emphasized nonviolence clashed with Reformed evangelicals who had ambitious plans to transform American culture. Meanwhile, secular liberals, eager to make abortion rights a nonnegotiable plank of the Democratic platform, drove anti-abortion Christians into the arms of savvy Republicans.
Progressive evangelicals tried to halt this migration: “The energy of the pro-life movement must be removed from the ideological agenda of the New Right,” Wallis warned in 1980. As conservatives transformed the fight against abortion from a “Catholic issue” into the defining battle of the culture wars, Wallis and others countered with another idea borrowed from Catholics, the “consistent life ethic” opposing poverty, war and the death penalty as well as abortion. Yet left-wing evangelicals’ measured arguments were no match for cries that abortion is murder and family values are under siege. It seems they were not so mainstream after all: efforts at fund-raising fell flat, and by the mid-’80s half of the subscriptions to Wallis’s magazine, Sojourners, went to Catholics.
Congratulations, David.

Jerry Falwell: Founder of the Megachurch

First off, let me say that I have become slightly addicted to Religion & Politics, the new online journal from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.  They are publishing some really good stuff by some excellent authors.  (One note:  it might be helpful to have a link to the Center somewhere on the Religion & Politics homepage).  I am really eager to see how the Danforth Center grows, especially after they did a national search last  season for scholars who study religion and politics. (Have the new hires been announced?).

I think the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find today’s piece by Michael Sean Winters to be particularly interesting.   Winters argues that Jerry Falwell is the founder, among other things, of the present-day megachurch movement.

Here is a taste:

But for all his political influence, Falwell should also be remembered for his role in shaping another major development in the life of American evangelical religion: the megachurch. Before he created a political dynasty, before he founded a university, before he molded the Republicans’ base of social conservatives, Falwell built a church. Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was his base, one that now boasts 20,000 members. It was from there that Falwell’s influential political and educational dynasty would grow. And it was from there that he learned the models of fundamentalist insularity and evangelical outreach that would mark his later endeavors.

Evangelicals have long liked crowds, and Falwell was not the first evangelical preacher to lead a church that held thousands. The Cane Ridge revival in 1801, which ignited the Second Great Awakening, reportedly attracted more than 20,000 people, but that was for a revival, not for establishing a permanent church. In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, seating 5,300 people, filled three times a day with members of her Foursquare Gospel Church. But she did not host a variety of ministries attached to her worship services. In 1956, when Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist with only 35 members, he would, over the next fifteen years, build it into what would become one of the first modern-day megachurches in the country.

A megachurch is not simply a large church. If it were, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome might qualify. Rather, megachurches are large Protestant enclaves—averaging 2,000 or more on a Sunday—and are usually located in the suburbs or exurbs of cities, where they cater to congregants through a host of ministries and services, schools, and day care centers. True to this mold, over the years Thomas Road Baptist had to build four different sanctuaries to accommodate its growth. More importantly, Falwell continually added new ministries to his church, creating a sub-culture for his parishioners.

This is a nice piece of religious journalism, but is it true?  Can anyone point to other evangelical churches that predate Thomas Road Baptist Church and can be defined, by Winters’s standards, as a megachurch?