Required Reading: Greg Forster and the Hundred Years’ War

At the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse this morning, Greg Forster introduced a three-part series inquiring into the changing relationship between evangelicals and politics in the United States over the past century.  The series, Evangelicals and Politics: The Hundred Years’ War, promises to examine the tense relationship between conservative evangelicals and political life.

An Impassible Chasm

From EJ Pace, Christian Cartoons, 1922

Forster is deeply sympathetic to the cultural claims of conservative evangelical Protestants.  Though he would likely dispute the label, he writes about what I call Fundamentalist America from deep inside its boundaries.  He works and has worked for a variety of conservative foundations, including the Kern Family Foundation and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  He has written about the Joy of Calvinism and argued in favor of the marketization of schooling.

In this series, he asserts that evangelical political activism has been a force for good throughout the twentieth century.  “Good citizens,” he notes,
“don’t stand by while their nation is threatened, and evangelical political activity has accomplished much good. Although the rising tide of moral disorder has not been reversed, its progress has been halted in many respects, and forces of renewal are gathering. All of this was made possible largely by evangelical efforts.”

But Forster does not simply present the History of Heroic Fundamentalists.  He takes conservative evangelicals to task for misunderstanding the implications of the Great Schism, the split among Protestants around the turn of the twentieth century between “modernists” and “fundamentalists.”  In Forster’s words:

“Before the schism, America had a longstanding social consensus on how to reconcile religious freedom with public morals: the state would legislate based on the moral consensus of society, but keep its hands off directly confessional issues and try to steer clear of inhibiting diverse religious exercise. Meanwhile, beyond the bounds of state power, America’s leading institutions would be predominantly defined by and loyal to the Protestant view of the world. This strong yet informal Protestant cultural authority would keep the citizenry moral, so the coercive power of the state could be mostly kept out of moral formation in the interests of religious freedom.

“The Protestant schism was the decisive factor that ended the old social order. To be sure, a variety of other factors were already weakening it; for example, the injustices imposed upon Catholics and Jews were becoming steadily harder to ignore. However, the schism destroyed the framework of the social order from within. Protestantism could no longer serve as a moral center of society once no one could say with any confidence what “Protestantism” was.

“But evangelical leaders misunderstood the nature of the threat. They didn’t seem to grasp that the schism had destroyed America’s Protestant cultural consensus. They spoke and acted as though it was still basically sound in the country at large, and was only being challenged by a cabal of liberal secularists who were hijacking America’s culturally leading institutions (especially denominational bodies and universities). In short, they thought of the crisis more in terms of apostasy by a relatively narrow set of leaders than a true schism of the church.

“Because of this misunderstanding, evangelicals turned to politics as a tool for mobilizing social power and cultural influence to wage their battle against the liberal secularists. They expected that politics would give them the power they needed, because elections are based on majority rule and America was still basically a Protestant country.”

Forster’s analysis fits.  In some key “fundamentalist” political battles, conservatives hoped to mobilize the power of the state to support their cultural power.  As I argue in my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, (coming soon in paperback, pre-order now!) 1920s fundamentalists were successful when they mobilized a broad spectrum of Protestant support.  They were less so when they fought against liberal Protestantism.  So, for instance, when they disputed the teaching of evolution in public schools, liberals successfully castigated them as hillbillies and anti-intellectuals.  But when they pressed for laws mandating Bible reading in public schools, they met far less resistance.

I’m looking forward to the rest of Forster’s series.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the link. It doesn’t seem to accept comment, so I’ll leave my thoughts here. What the blogger needs to realise is that a moral consensus is not necessary in a democracy, most of the time. Things which are immoral need not be illegal.

    This is a position that can be consistent with Christianity. God gave humans free will, which includes the freedom to sin. In the New Testament, the curse of the law is lifted. In other words, if people want to sin, they should be free to do so, as long as the rights of others are not infringed. The Christian Right can tell homosexuals they are sinners all day long, and homosexuals can do with this information what they like. The Christians have done their bit: they’ve warned people of coming judgement. If people want to take their chances with that judgement, that’s no business of the law.

    There will never again be a fundamentalist Protestant moral consensus, but by engaging reasonably and fairly, Protestants can avoid being marginalised in a society they see as their own.

    Reply
    • @ Jonny,
      Fair enough. But for the sake of argument, let’s make the safe assumption that Forster is keenly aware of your objection. (I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’ll invite him to comment for himself.) Let’s assume he realizes that contemporary moral consensus does not have to match conservative evangelical Protestant morality. Still, some basic moral consensus will be necessary in any successful society. And any state will need to answer a few questions. For instance, what will be legal and illegal? Such questions are at the heart of any state’s existence. They are also deeply moral questions. I think this is what you mean by “most of the time.” For instance, a successful society does not need to agree that homosexual behavior–or any pleasure-driven, self-seeking sexual behavior, for that matter–is immoral. But it does need to decide what limits it will place on individual or group behavior.
      In the case of the evangelical experience in America, as Forster argues, history and tradition have placed evangelicals in a theologically and culturally unusual position. He’s concerned in this series with the twentieth century, but he could certainly have taken his argument back further in time. The New England experience asserts a powerful tradition of a covenant state and society, Winthrop’s (and then Reagan’s) “City on a Hill.” Christian thinkers know they have inherited what Marsden called an “insider/outsider paradox.” As traditional insiders, conservative evangelical Protestants have often felt bound to use the power of the state to impose their morality on the wider society. As traditional outsiders, other conservative Protestants have argued in response that they must do more as you suggest: act as “lights to the world” amid a gathering darkness.

      Reply
      • Thanks for pointing out the flaw in my argument. Off the top of my head, a neat solution is that there is no need to seek a moral consensus where one does not already exist. Contrary to the more alarmist evangelical complaints that it would, America’s so-called moral decline has not resulted in a loss of economic power or freedoms for individuals.

    • Greg Forster

       /  May 1, 2012

      Adam’s got the right response. What actions will be legal? is a moral question. For example, pretty much everyone in the American mainstream agrees that murder and theft should be illegal. But what actions count as murder or theft? Is abortion murder (or manslaughter)? Is it theft when a judge rejiggers the bankruptcy laws ex post facto in order to eliminate bondholders’ standing in the bailout of GM? Your answer to that kind of question will grow from your larger religious/metaphysical view of the universe. A functioning society requres at least a certain minimal level of agreement on these questions.

      I’m going to return to this in part 3 of the article, so stay tuned!

      Reply

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