"Born Again Way Back When: Rethinking the Age of Evangelicalism"
by Timothy Beal, originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 30, 2014
In June 1976, at the Southern Baptist Convention in Norfolk, Va., the keynote speaker, the Rev. Bailey Smith, was bursting with excitement over Jimmy Carter’s presidential candidacy. What America needed, he declared to the roughly 15,000 church leaders, was "a born-again man in the White House. And his initials are the same as our Lord’s!"
Over the preceding months, as millions rallied to Carter’s frequent professions of personal faith, the candidate had effectively inaugurated what the political pollster George Gallup Jr. called "the Year of the Evangelical." Gallup predicted that 75 percent of Carter’s 12.5 million Southern Baptist brethren would vote for him, as would the large majority of Christians, from other denominations and the nondenominational, who identified themselves as born again: that is, as having had an experience of conversion to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
As Election Day approached, however, the evangelical tide was turning against Carter. The socially conservative values of many influential Christian pastors and theologians were increasingly at odds with his liberal evangelicalism and his reluctance to legislate morality, based on his Baptist convictions about individual freedom of conscience. Then there was the Playboy interview in which he talked about committing adultery in his heart and being no better than a "guy who screws a whole bunch of women."
After all, the same Southern Baptist Convention during which Smith heralded J.C.’s salvific candidacy had also passed resolutions condemning legalized abortion, homosexuality, Transcendental Meditation in the schools, "beveraged alcohol," and pornography. By November, even Smith was no longer sure he’d vote for Carter. " ‘Screw,’ " he said, "is just not a good Baptist word."
Although Carter won the election, his victory revealed anything but a solid evangelical bloc. He did get 20 percent more evangelical votes than his Democratic predecessor, George McGovern, had in 1972, but President Gerald R. Ford, an Episcopalian, got the most, by a little more than three million.
By 1978, as Carter was gearing up for his re-election campaign, such a bloc was indeed taking form, but with him as its political and religious other. A handful of emerging right-wing Christian leaders and political strategists were finding the means to organize politically conservative evangelicals into what would soon be known as the Religious Right.
So loudly influential has that movement become, it is easy to forget that, in the 1970s and early 80s, a wide range of Christians, from the far right to the far left, claimed to represent the most faithful interpretation of the evangelical core of Christianity: neo-evangelicalism, conservative evangelicalism, evangelicals for social action, new monasticism, liberation theology, evangelical feminism, and Christian anarchism, to name a few. Although a couple of them got some play in broader political discourses, their main centers of influence were on Christian college and seminary campuses, where their theological perspectives and arguments on social issues in and out of the church were hotly debated by students and faculty members in classrooms, cafeterias, and dormitories.
It was within that kind of intellectually vibrant campus environment that Randall Balmer, a historian at Dartmouth College and author of the new Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (Basic Books), became interested in how religion and politics mixed, in Carter’s life and in his own. In the mid-1970s, Balmer was an undergraduate at Trinity College (now Trinity International University), in Illinois, where "the dean had assembled a lively cohort of young evangelical professors who challenged, ever so gently, some of the presuppositions of their students, prompting us to think about the morality of the Vietnam War, for example, the misogyny so pervasive in the culture, the yawning disparity between rich and poor, and the scourge of racism." Like many theologically and politically engaged college students of the time, Balmer believed that Carter’s campaign could not only get out the evangelical vote but also rekindle the kinds of progressive theological perspectives represented by his professors.
"Turns out I was right on the first count, wrong on the second."
Indeed, as Carter approaches his 90th birthday this October, it’s looking as if he has outlived not only the Year of the Evangelical but also what Steven P. Miller’s new book aptly calls The Age of Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press).
In Miller’s political and cultural history—and contrary to the popular narrative—the age of evangelicalism is in decline. Miller, who teaches history at Webster University and at Washington University in St. Louis, writes that it had its glory days in the post-Carter 1980s and 90s, when conservative evangelicals so successfully consolidated political power and influence that most Americans came to see the Religious Right as the only kind of political evangelicalism there ever had been or would be. It entered its "baroque period" during the 2000s under President George W. Bush and was "winding down" by the re-election of President Obama, who apparently saw no need to develop an evangelical campaign strategy for his second-term run.
Are we in fact seeing the end of the era? Or do we need to define the era differently?
By no means hagiographical, Redeemer is nonetheless a religious biography. Balmer insists on taking seriously the 39th president’s religious faith as key to understanding his life and character before, during, and after his political career. In the course of the book, three interrelated dimensions of Carter’s religiosity clearly emerge. First: his commitment, rooted in Baptist tradition, to liberty of individual conscience, reflected not only in his understanding of faith as a matter of personal relationship with God but also in his insistence on the separation of church and state.
Second is his affinity for "progressive evangelicalism," an American tradition of socially and politically engaged faith. Progressive evangelicalism draws inspiration from the biblical prophets and the teachings of Jesus to promote peace and justice. In the 19th century, such evangelicals fought for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights, prison reform, and other progressive causes.
Third is the influence on Carter of academic theologians, especially those who grappled with tensions between Christian ethical ideals and the messy realities of political engagement. Particularly important to him was the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work Carter began reading while serving as a state senator in Georgia. Niebuhr, an ex-pacifist, argued that because unjust social systems are built on exploitation and oppression, attempts to reason with them based on individual moral principles of love and selflessness are doomed to fail. While the highest ideal for individual morality is love, as Carter frequently said, quoting Niebuhr, "the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world."
That becomes an antiphonal melody in Balmer’s biography, reminding us of Carter’s continuing struggle for personal piety and integrity while negotiating tensions with political realism—a conflict that didn’t seem to trouble most of his right-wing evangelical foes.
But Redeemer is a religious biography in another sense as well. It follows a familiar Gospel story arc: from humble rural beginnings, to a messianic rise to power, to betrayal by his own people, to (political) downfall, to (postpolitical) resurrection and redemption. Balmer’s epigraph highlights the poignancy of this commonality between Jimmy Carter and that other J.C.: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11).
Balmer is an excellent storyteller, and many of the main characters in this biography come to life at key moments: Jerry Falwell, godfather of the Moral Majority, catching his first highs on political power; Paul Weyrich, the architect and mastermind of the Religious Right, working behind the scenes via letters and phone calls, watching for the right spark to ignite the movement. (That spark, by the way, was not abortion or gay rights but opposition, in the name of religious liberty, to antiracist legislation denying tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory private schools.) Those characters stand in sharp contrast to Carter’s personal piety and striving for integrity.
Miller’s The Age of Evangelicalism takes the story of political evangelicalism forward after Carter leaves its main stage.
"If the 2008 election demonstrated the limits of the evangelical right, then 2012 suggested the waning salience of evangelical politics as a whole," Miller writes. "Some talked of a ‘new Christian convergence’ on the religious left, while others debated whether the Christian Right still existed." What once seemed like a solid evangelical bloc has been deconstructed, revealing a diverse field of theologies, institutions, and practices in continuing debate about how Christians should live out their faith, individually and collectively, in a country whose larger religious landscape is beginning to look not only postevangelical but also post-Protestant, if not post-Christian.
We appear to be in an age of scholarly books with "age" in the title: The Age of Global Warming, The Age of Ambition, The Age of Radiance, The Age of Atheists. The designation flags the historical significance of the cultural or political phenomenon as something more than a fad or coincidence, even while proclaiming that its end is in sight. Whether expressing nostalgia or bidding good riddance, such a title invites us to pay serious attention to the thing as it passes or, as the case may be, falls apart. Miller’s is just such an invitation.
When we attend to evangelicalism in this way, moreover, we can see that it has included a lot more than just those who have identified with it. Miller argues that evangelicalism as we have known it in popular culture and politics, especially as it became synonymous with the Religious Right, is not a subculture, as we so often treat it, but an age that has involved nearly all Americans—"self-proclaimed evangelicals … but also movement conservatives, secular liberals, journalistic elites, and sundry others" whose voices make little or no sense except vis-à-vis American evangelicalism. Pat Robertson is part of it, but so is the feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series and Sam Harris’s atheist manifesto Letter to a Christian Nation. Sarah Palin and herSaturday Night Live doppelgänger Tina Fey. Those Christian fish bumper stickers are part of it, but so are the Darwinian ones, on which the fish have legs.
Evangelicalism is often seen by both adherents and critics as "a narrow lane, either to be avoided or hogged." Those who identify with it tend to see themselves as a marginalized minority, while those who don’t identify tend to think they have nothing to do with it. Neither is the case. When we consider evangelicalism as an age, not a subculture, we realize that evangelicals are by no means its only or even primary protagonists.
Approaching the age of evangelicalism in this way changes everything. While Falwell, Weyrich, and the others still play major roles in its rise and fall, so do public figures on the evangelical left, like Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics (2005) and founder of the Sojourners community, in Washington, and Brian McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy (2004) and champion of the emerging-church movement, which reimagines evangelical theology and practice in postmodern, indeed post-Christian culture, trying to move beyond conservative-versus-liberal polemics and emphasizing conversation among diverse adherents. And so do television hosts like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, and Melissa Harris Perry, who have interviewed not only progressive evangelicals but also a diversity of other religious, nonreligious, and antireligious perspectives on American evangelicalism in politics.
Especially significant in Miller’s account are the influences of evangelical scholars, who have historicized the Religious Right and, in the process, drawn attention to alternative evangelicalisms. Miller highlights several such "thoughtful evangelicals," including Balmer himself, Martin E. Marty, George Marsden, and Mark A. Noll, author of the 1994 insider critique of American evangelical history, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind ("that there is not much of an evangelical mind").
Although Miller considers Noll’s book to be the most important of several scholarly studies from the 1990s that "signaled a period of great intellectual productivity in evangelical circles," Noll himself recalls that it "came very close to being my letter of resignation from the evangelical movement."
I’m struck by how easy it is for me to imagine that happening. As a student at a conservative evangelical college in the 1980s, I was keenly aware of how precarious the status and security of my professors could be, especially if their research and teaching focused on religious topics. They had to watch their step, lest they tread too far left and find themselves outside the fold. No one was going to rend garments and chase you out, but there was certainly a sense that you could ask the wrong questions, or pursue the right questions too far in the wrong direction, and lose your sense of belonging, if not your job.
The thinnest theological ice was in the territory of gender, sexuality, and the Bible, and the evangelical feminist biblical scholar we were reading and debating most was Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, an alumna of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University and a founding member of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. Her early works included Women, Men, and the Bible (1977) and The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (1983). She identified strongly with evangelicalism, and we had the sense from her books that she was pushing her own biblical-theological thinking about gender and sexuality even as she wanted the evangelical community with which she identified to do the same.
She came unto her own over the next several years, yet as she continued to pursue her research in good faith and with academic integrity, they increasingly received her not. Her more recent work on queer and transgender theology is almost entirely unknown to evangelicals, even to most of those on the evangelical left.
I suggest that the best of the evangelical tradition fosters self-critical introspection in search of personal growth toward integrity. In scholarship, such self-examination challenges one to question one’s own presuppositions, motives, and vested interests. Some, like Noll, are able to do that without being asked to resign, at least formally, from the evangelical movement. But many, like Mollenkott, are not. They may still claim to be evangelicals, but evangelicals no longer claim them. As in Mollenkott’s case, moreover, it is often their theological inquiries into the evangelical third rail of sex that send them packing.
Although neither Balmer nor Miller attends to evangelical and postevangelical feminists like Mollenkott, both invite us to do so by broadening our view of evangelicalism in ways that take in a fuller sweep, from its far right to its far left. In that process, we may well find that those thinkers are among the most interesting and transformative forces in evangelical history. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that many of the best fruits of the age of evangelicalism are the ones that have fallen farthest from the tree.