Evangelical Groundhog Day: The ‘Times’ identifies ‘religious fervor in the American right’ – about four decades late

In the fall of 1980, I was a senior at a Christian college in California taking a course on the history of American evangelicalism. One day in November, a classmate brought in a copy of the New York Times to classify. With a dramatic flourish, he opened the newspaper and showed a story – “Falwell warns Jersey liberals at Capitol Rally” – accompanied by a photo of Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell on the steps of the Trenton State House surrounded by American flags and d a church choir. .

the the story began:

“The Reverend Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority movement, brought his mix of church meeting and political rallying to the steps of the State House in New Jersey today. He proclaimed that his church was a ‘sleeping giant’ that was ‘rising up through this nation’.

This class is etched in my mind.

California in the late 1970s was a time and place where a more radical evangelicalism, refracted by both Jesus counterculture and liberation theology, dominated. Most college students read The residents magazine, woke up to Christian feminism, and listened to gospel rock and roll with lyrics that attacked capitalism and the military-industrial complex and sounded nothing like today’s songs of praise. What did my friends and I do when we saw the picture of Jerry Falwell? We laughed. He sounded like a jester, and we couldn’t believe anyone would ever take him seriously. We had no idea what awaited us.

This all came back to me because of another article in the New York Times-an article published on April 6—“Growing Religious Fervor on the American Right: ‘This is a Jesus Movement'”– which begins by describing a crowd at a political rally praying and singing songs of praise. “It was not a religious service,” the authors intone, “It was the worship of a new kind of congregation: a right-wing political movement fueled by divine purpose, whose adherents find spiritual sustenance in political act”. They go on to explain:

The infusion of an explicitly religious fervor—much of it rooted in the charismatic tradition, which emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit—into the right-wing movement is changing the atmosphere of events and gatherings, many of which feature Christian symbols and rituals, especially praise music.

With a spiritual mission guiding political ideals, the stakes in any conflict, whether over masks or school curricula, can seem much higher, and compromise can be even harder to achieve. Political ambitions center on the defense of God, emphasizing the desire to build a nation that actively promotes a particular set of Christian beliefs.

The point of the article is that evangelical worship – especially in its charismatic mode – has become expressly political. And this right-wing politics has become expressly religious. The same intensity, that of the electric, swaying crowd of believers in church, is now the emerging style of right-wing American politics.

I’ve read the article half a dozen times looking for, perhaps, new insight into right-wing evangelicals and their love affair with Donald Trump. But all I could think of was this photo of Jerry Falwell. The flags are now Trump flags; the choir replaced by choirs of praise.

And how nothing – and everything – has changed since that day in 1980.

Evangelicalism has been a political gathering for a very long time

It’s depressing when the “official journal” doesn’t seem to know that the news it covers isn’t news. Indeed, reading the account of the intertwining of worship and politics, of evangelical anxiety about family and government, and of how conservative Christians believe a new Great Awakening is upon us, I felt like I was reading a script for some kind of evangelical Groundhog Day. Quotes like this from a woman in the Shasta County Freedom Coalition sounded oddly familiar:

“It’s a move of Jesus,” Ms. Jackson said. “I believe God took Donald away for a while, so that the church would wake up and be confident again to take back our country.”

Insert “Ronald Reagan” or “George W. Bush” and we return once again to the future.

Unfortunately, it is far too easy to criticize the secular press for not understanding religion. But there is something particularly disconcerting about this article because it does not report anything new – it reports something old and, aside from a few offhand comments, the scriptwriters don’t seem to understand the historical depth of the cultural phenomenon at the heart of the story.

If you walked into almost any evangelical church anywhere in the United States over the past five decades, you would have encountered the kind of worship service described. You would also have slipped through the porous line between worshiping the King of Kings and singing his Kingdom into political existence. And it was a very special kingdom, that of GOD and the GOP. Indeed, over these years the terms “evangelical” and “republican” have slowly but insistently and dogmatically become synonymous.

If you were a Democrat, chances are you never told your fellow believers your political party for fear of running out of Bible study, praying to exorcise demons from your soul, or humiliating as a about some “worries”. ” the preacher’s sermon. Believe me, all three things have happened to me personally at one time or another – and I could easily find a few hundred acquaintances with similar stories to tell. If you dissented, if you doubted GOD/GOP, you kept it to yourself or faced the consequences. Evangelism has been a political gathering for a very long time. And only certain people are welcome at the party.

the New York Times article argued that what is new is that evangelicals have now taken their worship politics to the streets where “secular” people are found. But that’s not new either. In the 1970s, even before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Phyllis Schlafly led evangelical women in anti-ERA rallies of Bible quotes, prayers and hymns in state legislatures across the country for both threaten and woo politicians to their cause against women’s rights.

“The only thing ‘new’ is that right-wing evangelical worship politics is no longer new. And that’s the only thing Time failed item. It’s old. Not a quirk or shocking innovation. Not a populist backcountry blip.

And, in the late 1980s, if you ever tried to break through the Operation Rescue blockade of an abortion clinic, you know it was like walking through a prayer meeting glove to reach the door of entrance. Hundreds of worshipers in tears and singing praises on their knees, all holding up posters of fetuses as if they were holy icons, and begging ‘fallen women’ to repent of their sins.

Maybe you’ve never sat in a stadium with 20,000 crying Promise Keepers in the 1990s, all holding their NIV study Bibles – listening to sermons and talks about godly men taking over the leadership of the family. and leadership in society to revive Christian America. Perhaps you have never marched through the streets with thousands of people eager to “walk in prayer” in a city for Jesus singing:

Shine, Jesus, shine

Fill this earth with the glory of the Father

Flame, Spirit, flame

Set our hearts on fire

Stream, river, stream

Flood the nations with grace and mercy

Send your word

Lord, and let there be light

The only “new” thing is that right-wing evangelical worship politics is no longer new. And that’s the only thing Time failed item. It’s old. Not a quirk or shocking innovation. Not a populist backcountry blip.

Maybe people didn’t see all that as important. It has always been too easy for elites to ridicule and ignore religious fervor. Perhaps some people – even those within her churches – were in a kind of denial about the hurt, trauma and violence she caused. But today’s Trump rallies, anti-masking events, and “freedom” services began in the 1970s (and are drawn from even older strands of evangelical politics, particularly in the 1920s and 1950s ). The specific type of evangelical politics referred to is now three deep generations – it is a politico-religious movement in full maturation. To describe it otherwise is to miss the point.

Why do conservative evangelicals love Trump, live in an alternate information universe, and believe a great revival is at hand? They believe in it because it is the world they were born into, it is the faith that raised them, given by their grandparents and parents before them, a biblical birthright. It is their reality. Well, not really “theirs”. On the contrary, theirs is a reality which they believe to be that of God. For those raised in this world (and for their converts), this makes sense. It is the truth, it is salvation, it is to give meaning to everything, it is a vocation, a mission.

None of this happened. Trump’s election certainly did not spawn it. The pandemic did not cause it. Evangelical right-wing politics has had time to take root, to grow and nurture its own adherents, to strengthen its reach and gain confidence.

During these decades, their churches grew larger, their cultural influence broader, their financial resources deeper, and the entire community became increasingly able to shape its own reality, increasingly isolated and distrustful to towards any or any person who questions the politico-religious order. world they built.

Yes, certain demographic trends are working against them, especially as young adults turn away from evangelism. But they have power. True power. FoxNews. The politicians. Celebrities. Billionaire donors. Focus groups. Political Action Committees. Colleges and Universities. Dynasties. Global political reach. Social media networks, conferences, publishing. And their reality seeks to impose itself on the rest of us, whom they consider to be lost sinners, heretics, non-believers, witches and infidels.

Evangelical theopolitics is not new. Crusaders singing praises are nothing new. What is new is that they may be winning.


This essay first appeared on The Cottage and is republished with the generous permission of the author.

Barry F. Howard