When did the United States become so evangelical?

Boston was the birthplace of American democracy, every Freedom Trail tour guide said, ignoring Philadelphia, I guess. But they would have had more reason to call it the cradle of religious fundamentalism in this country.

Although my husband and I don’t technically live in Boston proper, but across the Charles River in Somerville, I was in the city at least once a week. Going up the Park Street subway station, you landed directly on Boston Common, the same patch of land where farmers used to keep their animals and where the Puritans executed anyone they considered heretics. By the time we moved to Boston, that kind of fundamentalism in the community and government was long gone, transformed into a more insidious kind of evangelical control that people in my graduate program denied was there. But didn’t they have the same dollar bills in their wallets as I did, the ones printed with “In God We Trust”?

This phrase did not appear on U.S. currency until religiously zealous President Eisenhower, advised by evangelical Reverend Billy Graham, signed it into law as our nation’s official motto in 1956, two years after Congress officially recognized as a new addition to the initially secular commitment. of allegiance: “under God”. The law required that the motto “In God We Trust” be printed on all U.S. banknotes. In 2011, the The US House of Representatives passed a largely bipartisan vote resolution affirming the national motto.

In elementary school, I dutifully repeated the oath of allegiance each morning; I can still remember every word by heart: “I swear allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic it represents, one nation under God, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all. Schoolchildren recite a pledge to a Christian nation, which was signed into law by an evangelical Presbyterian president (Eisenhower was raised a Mennonite. Later in life, his parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses) encouraged by his evangelical counselor. “By faith in God and by faith in themselves as his children, our ancestors designed and built the Republic,” Eisenhower said in a 1953 radio address.keen to encourage faith as an antidote to the perceived threat of communism.

One of the virtues that evangelical Christianity in the 20th and 21st centuries shares with its mother country is its adaptability. For a faith so famous for its perseverance, it is important to remember that it was born on the frontier, a movement that relies on moving its goalposts, motivating its core believers to retain the supremacy by constantly identifying new threats to its survival. First indigenous peoples. Civil rights. The women’s movement. LGBTQ+ equality. Universal health care. Abortion. Evangelicalism sees the most basic assertions of human dignity as threats to its power, and it uses the language of history and nostalgia to confuse and communicate those fears.

White evangelicals weren’t always so openly in bed with specific political parties, let alone the far right. But it is difficult to pinpoint the precise beginning of the relationship between evangelicals and organized political movements, when anxiety over the tacit loss of white power began to materialize. Do you start with the Scopes Monkey Trial – the struggle for evolution in schools in the 1920s, in which evangelicals were first satirized and humiliated on a national scale, the trial that saw the birth tranquility of the Christian private school machine? Do you start with the power couple that are Graham and Eisenhower and their institution of the National Prayer Breakfast in 1953 – which is now a far-right power event from which LGBTQ+ people of faith are excluded? Do you go earlier, to schisms in protestant denominations over slavery or even earlier, in anti-slavery protestant churches who themselves always refused to desegregate their sanctuaries, which led to the creation of some of the black Protestant denominations we know today?

The results of this close relationship between organized evangelism and organized politics are dotted throughout American history: the civil rights movement sparking the establishment of a wave of new private all-white Christian schools in the South in response to desegregation, for example. The legal struggles for the right to found these private Christian schools, not abortion (historically a Catholic issue), initially galvanized evangelicals en masse toward the Republican Party. Namely: In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, a 70% of Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion to protect the mother’s physical or mental healthand in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reached a denomination-wide resolution supporting legislation that would “allow the possibility of abortion” in many conditions.

They only changed sides long after deer was decided – it was the increasingly unpopular and, of course, illegal practice of segregation that caused white evangelicals to seek new issues to unite. During the 1970s, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was designed to appeal to white voter racism and capitalize on existing tensions in the South, such as school desegregation and legal battles over private Christian academies. – a fight that white evangelicals were already at the front lines of. The conditions were ideal for Republicans to step in and mobilize a deeply angry, insular, and highly organized demographics; it was not long before white evangelicals became the reliable, religiously motivated base of the Republican Party. It is the Southern anti-Black strategy that will eventually make the word “evangelical” indistinguishable of “republican” while masking the explicitly racist objectives of its economic policy by speaking of “rights of the states” and “family values”.

Republican consultant Lee Atwater then clearly discussed in an interview the goals of the Southern strategy and what would become the main conservative and evangelical talking points: In 1968, we cannot say [racial expletive]- who hurts you, turns against you. So you say things like, uh, forced buses, states rights, and all that, and you get so abstract. Now you’re talking about lowering taxes, and all of these things that you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of that is that black people are mistreated more than white…. “We want to cut that” is way more abstract than even the bus thing, uh, and way more abstract than [racial expletive].

One of the biggest misunderstandings of power is that you can always see it. Certainly you can sometimes; in particular, at the individual level: a pastor explicitly ordering his flock to avoid a person who has left the church is a clear use, or abuse, of power. But power is also often invisible, something that can escape conscious recognition. The power exists in the language we begin to absorb from the moment we are in our parents’ wombs, in the experiences for which there are no words; in who can say what to whom without repercussion. Power is not always only possessed by certain individuals; it is also the invisible mechanism that explains how we position ourselves every day, how we make decisions in deference to whom – to God, to authority, or even to ourselves.

Extract of HERETIC: a memoir by Jeanna Kadlec. Copyright © 2022. Available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Barry F. Howard