Should Christians Be Afraid?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have heard it all before. For the past century, conservative evangelicals have warned that their religious beliefs have made them the target of anti-Christian religious discrimination and persecution. Today we hear the same warning from radical young-earth creationist Ken Ham. So should Christians be afraid?

ken ham ny lawFirst, the history: In spite of today’s rosy nostalgia, evangelical Protestants have always felt themselves the targets of creeping secular attack. To pick just one example, when SCOTUS ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools in 1963, evangelicals responded with apocalyptic alarm.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.”  No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried.  Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America.  In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed.  The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

But! We might say that those conservatives were wrong, but today’s might be right. As Ken Ham warned his Twitter followers this morning, perhaps “It’s coming!” Maybe New York’s new gender law really will put conservative evangelical pastors in a legal bind.

After all, it is not only radical young-earthers who are concerned. Conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher have similarly warned of the creeping overreach of today’s secular gender ideology.

And in some ways, as higher-ed watchers like me have noticed, changes really are afoot. Institutions such as universities that rely on federal student-loan dollars to stay afloat might face intense pressure to comply with anti-discrimination guidelines.

But will a preacher ever be pulled out of his pulpit for “preach[ing] faithfully from God’s Word that there’s only two human genders God created”? No. That’s not how religious discrimination works in the USA. Just ask any historically persecuted minority.

For example, the federal government has long shelled out huge subsidies to farmers, including hog farmers. Does that mean that religious preachers who tell their audiences that eating pork is sinful are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Similarly, the federal government has funded school textbooks that teach basic chemistry. They teach that the core of a substance is determined by its molecular makeup. Does that mean that Roman Catholic priests who tell parishes that wine has been transubstantiated into blood are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Or, to take the most painful 20th-century example from the world of evangelical Protestantism, when the federal government passed legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, were white evangelical preachers ever stopped from including racist content in their Sunday sermons? No.

In spite of what alarmist preachers might say, the problem for conservatives won’t be about their pulpits. When they want to refuse service to same-sex couples or refuse admission to transgender students they might have to deal with a new legal reality.

But the idea that the amped-up gender police will storm into churches to arrest pastors is more Thief in the Night than Queer Nation.

Can a Woman Teach a Man?

Does it count as un-biblical if a woman teaches a man in seminary classes?  That’s the question debated recently in the pages of Christianity Today.

The issue was sparked by a change in policy at Cedarville University.  The relatively new president, Thomas White, recently announced that only women may enroll in a Bible class taught by a female faculty member.  This has been part of a continuing shift toward greater conservatism by the new administration, which one journalist described as being “taken over by Southern Baptists.”

The question is one of a “complementarian” view of gender relations.  I’m out of my theological depth here, so I invite correction if I get this wrong, but as I understand it, a complementarian view in evangelical Protestantism suggests that men and women have different roles to fulfill in family and church.  Males are meant by God to be the head and women are meant to be helpmates.  Complementarians, I understand, insist that this is not a question of chauvinism or male supremacy.  Rather, both men and women are understood to be equal but different.  In church affairs, following a complementarian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3 (“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”) only men should teach men about church doctrine.

For secular folks like me, this is a difficult cultural pill to swallow.  The core of my social morality is that people are equal.  Talk about “different roles” for men and women, or for different social groups, makes me extremely uneasy.  To folks like me, this sounds like just window dressing for traditional hierarchical domination.

Smart complementarians get this.  Evangelical writers have explained the subtleties of complementarianism and what one woman called the “holy beauty of submission.”

In conservative Christian colleges, the question is whether women can teach men theology.  At Cedarville, the new answer is no.  In the pages of Christianity Today, evangelicals debated the issue. Mind you, this debate seems to have been within the ranks of complementarian theologians.  Respondents did not argue that men and women should be seen as equal.  Rather, those who thought women should be allowed to teach men argued that colleges were different than church.  In church, they granted, women must not lead men.  But college was different.

Those who agreed with the Cedarville policy argued that schools should be logically consistent.  If women should not be leaders of men, then women should not be teachers of men.

To outsiders like me, this debate illustrates the deep cultural divide between conservative evangelical Christian colleges and pluralist ones.  Even the terms of this discussion are foreign to folks like me.  For many secular folks, even the idea of such a discussion seems horrifying.  Even to ask if women should be allowed to take on leadership roles seems like a terrible revival of traditionalist hierarchy.

Yet if we outsiders want to understand conservative thinking, we need to try to understand debates like this one, precisely because the terms of the debate are so far beyond the pale of our thinking.  For example, as Dorothy Patterson, the “first lady” of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary responded, when in doubt, go with God.  Though teaching in the university may be a complementarian “gray area,” Patterson conceded, it was better to stay on the theological safe side.  God, Patterson concluded,

is going to have far greater pleasure in seeing a male theologian in the classroom than in our seeing if we couldn’t put a woman in simply because she’s gifted.

Unless and until secular folks like me make an effort to understand the worldview behind statements like that, we’ll never understand conservatism.


Jesus in Public Schools: In through the Back Door?

Is it okay for religious missionaries to use public schools as recruiting grounds?

Usually we say no.  But what about when the religious missionaries just want to help struggling districts?  What if they promise to leave the Jesus at the door and just provide social services to low-income students?

In the pages of Christianity Today we read of the public-school leadership of evangelical Don Coleman.  Coleman recently won election as chair of Richmond, Virginia’s school board.

For those of us who watch the intersections of public education and religiosity, ought we be concerned by Coleman’s attitude that “education is one of the greatest open doors for urban missions”?

According to the Christianity Today piece, Coleman supports a heavily intertwined church and state.  Local churches “adopt” students, in order to help students overcome significant personal problems.  Coleman wants local churches to become so helpful to schools in low-income areas that the public schools eventually welcome churches’ help.

The story raises some tricky questions.  Personally, I think a students-first approach is a good idea.  As Coleman says, “We don’t fight over prayer.”  Why can’t churches help struggling public schools?  Seems like a win-win.  Seems like someone would have to be pretty heartless to oppose helping a young woman go to college while the rest of her family languishes in jail.

But the underlying issues don’t seem any different from other school-church cases.  Constitutionally, public schools ought to be institutions in which all students are made to feel welcome, regardless of religious or non-religious background.  What about non-Christian students in Richmond schools?  Will they feel equally at home in schools “adopted” by evangelical Christian churches?  Or what about atheist students?  Ought public schools be places in which they have the gospel preached to them by outside missionaries?

Worst of all, we must ask if there is a racial or class bias at play here.  Richmond’s schools are heavily black and poor.  Would students in a more affluent or whiter school district be subjected to religious proselytization as part of their school day?  Or, if they were, wouldn’t activist groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have more to say about it?




Those Krazy Kids ‘n’ Their Young-Earth Creationism!

A fascinating recent column in Christianity Today can give us a couple of clues to help navigate our educational culture wars.

In her latest “Wrestling with Angels” column, the singer and author Carolyn Arends describes her recent heart-to-heart with her fourteen-year-old son, an ardent young-earth creationist.  No way, her son told her, would he ever want to go to the wrong university, where he would have to “sit in some biology class in a secular school and be told I descended from apes.”

Arends was surprised.  Though she admits she was a “keen young-earth creationist as a teenager,” she had come to agree that the world had been created through “evolutionary processes.”  With a reassuring evolution-friendly quotation from Billy Graham, circa 1964, her son was consoled.

“Maybe you’re not a total heretic,” he conceded.

Two things in this column jumped out at me.  First, it adds more fuel to my growing, but still uncomfortable conviction that the best way to teach evolution might be to push MORE religion in public schools, not less.

As Arends writes, “if I believed that the Bible truly asked me to reject the scientific consensus, it would be the end of the debate.”  Creationists like Arends and her son will not often embrace evolution due to the overwhelming scientific evidence alone.  But they will (or might) accept evolution if they can be convinced that they can accept that overwhelming evidence while being true to their faiths.  If “resistant” students—to borrow Lee Meadows’ term—can be convinced of the theological acceptability of evolution, then the scientific evidence will have much more success.

The second striking point about Arends’ column is its reminder that we Americans can live in parallel universes, where everything looks the same but all the meanings have reversed themselves.  I can’t imagine my daughter will ever go through a young-earth creationist “phase.”  But if we substitute the phrase “anarcho-syndicalism” or “joys of marijuana” for “young-earth creationism” then I can imagine a very similar scenario to Arends’.

As it is, for many Americans, a belief in young-earth creationism is a sensible, even logical conclusion.  Smart young people in Arends’ world may experiment with it the way I expect my daughter might experiment with funny hairdos or goth boyfriends.



The Evolution of Liberty University

First flip-flops, now College Democrats.  What is next for Liberty University?

Karen Swallow Prior commented recently on the changing face of the school founded by Jerry Falwell just over forty years ago.  Prior, chair of Liberty’s English department, notes the remarkable achievements of Liberty.  Since 1971, it has grown to almost 100,000 students (including online) and has almost hit one BILLION dollars in net assets.

Like other Protestant fundamentalist schools, Liberty was founded with the specific intention of educating conservative evangelical Christian students in an environment that encouraged their faith.

Prior argued in Christianity Today that the school has been evolving.  A few years back, it eased up its dress code, allowing students to wear jeans and sandals if they preferred.  As Prior put it, “Administrators knew that the university couldn’t meet the goal of its founder of becoming a ‘world class’ evangelical university by requiring its students to dress like Mormons on mission.”

More recently, Prior writes, the school has had to wrestle with the thornier question of student politics.  Might a school explicitly founded as a conservative institution allow an organization of College Democrats?  As has been the question for fundamentalist higher education since the 1920s, there is an enduring tension between growth and fidelity to mission.  As I’ve analyzed in my 1920s book and an article in History of Education Quarterly, fundamentalist colleges have struggled to understand themselves as either “world class” universities or intentionally provincial ones.  Can they escape from the “scandal of the evangelical mind” without abandoning their unique faith mission?

At Bob Jones University, for example, founded in 1926, students have had to pledge their fidelity to an iron-bound statement of faith.  They have also had to pledge that they will prevent the school from every wavering from its commitment to those principles.

Doubtless Liberty will continue to struggle with this tension.  As Prior explains,

“whether Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian, Liberty students seem to recognize that none of the political parties aligns consistently with their faith. And so, they seem less willing than preceding generations of students to put their faith in politics.”

Required Reading: The Big Tent of Creationism

Creationism ruffles feathers.  As the belligerent atheist Richard Dawkins memorably quipped, those who do not believe in evolution must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”  There is comfort in Dawkins’ dismissal.  An insightful article in the most recent Christianity Today, however, probes deeper into the complexities of creationism.

I still remember my first introduction to the world of creation science.  I was a staunch outsider, having had little interaction with creationism until my mid-30s.  In graduate school, reading Ron Numbers’ The Creationists, I was astounded to learn that nearly 50% of American adults agree with a young-earth creationism, according to Gallup polls.  And one-quarter of those creationists have college degrees.

Much of my academic research has been devoted to puzzling out how such a thing is possible.  Since the 1920s (my Scopes book now available in paperback!), creationism has entrenched itself in schools, colleges, and alternative scientific organizations.  It has become a viable way for millions of Americans to understand the origins of life on Earth.

Glib dismissals like those of Richard Dawkins do not help us understand this cultural phenomenon.  What will help are thoughtful, sympathetic explorations like that of Tim Stafford in July’s Christianity Today.  In “A Tale of Two Scientists,” Stafford explores the lives and careers of two evangelical scientists, Darrell Falk and Todd Wood.  Falk is an evolutionary creationist, Wood a young-earth creationist.

Falk describes his falling away from his upbringing in the Nazarene Church.  As a graduate student, he had fallen in love with the beauty of genetics, and soon found himself estranged from the church.  When he watched his two daughters growing up, he knew he wanted to find them a church home like the one he had known.  He was worried about a cold reception from church members, but as a tenure-track scientist at Syracuse University, he looked for a church he could join.  At first, he was nervous.  As Stafford tells the story,

“Falk went alone, like a spy, into the church for a worship service.

“After the service, he found himself surrounded by friendly faces. They seemed delighted that he was a professor at Syracuse. Falk went home and told his wife, ‘We might have a church after all.’

“So it proved to be. Though the church certainly didn’t believe in evolution, and came to know that Falk did, they never bothered about it. ‘That church, God’s gift to us, built a bridge to us and welcomed us just as we were, gradual creation perspective and all.’ The pastor helped Falk as he found his way to a fuller, more robust faith, eventually asking him to teach a Sunday school class for young adults.”

Wood had a very different upbringing and career.  As he explains in the article, he never moved away from the assumption that the Bible’s description of a six-day creation tells the real story of the origins of life.  But that did not mean that he was somehow ignorant of evolution.  As Stafford writes,

“The first human genome sequence was published the year that Wood began graduate school, providing strong evidence for evolution. The DNA for chimps and humans was virtually the same. Traces of common origins were everywhere: Humans even possessed a broken version of the gene that lizards and birds use to produce eggs. Wood remained fully committed to a six-day creation—he says he never doubted it for a minute—because he saw no other way to read the Bible. But that didn’t keep him from recognizing that evolution had powerful attestation.”

The two men have very different ideas about the origins of life.  Yet they can both describe themselves as “creationists.”  And, unlike the harsh denunciations of critics like Dawkins, neither scientist is stupid, insane, or ignorant.  Rather, their relationships to mainstream science have been profoundly shaped by their religious beliefs.  This does not mean they have been brainwashed or indoctrinated.  Nor does it mean they are anti-science.  Rather, they came to very different conclusions about the need to reconcile science and religion, all within the big tent of creationism.

We do not have to agree with their conclusions in order to recognize the intellectual complexities of their positions.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, it will help to dig deeper than Dawkins’ brand of simplistic denunciation.

The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp

If we listen to the voices of Fundamentalist America, we might conclude that public schools in America are terrible places to be.  Twenty years ago, John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research warned that public schools had become “aggressively anti-Christian.”  The problems, Morris declared, went beyond the obvious:

Open drug sales and use, ethnic gang wars, and student/teacher violence are easily recognized problems, but how about the more subtle attempts at “values clarification,” or the encouragement of experimentation in “sex education” classes, or the inclusion of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, or easy access to abortions through school clinics.

Other conservative Christian activists agree.  Thirty years ago, Jerry Combee wrote,

the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn.

More recently, activists involved in the Exodus Mandate have warned that public schools “are no more reformable than Soviet collective farms. . . . Conservative school reformers are a lot like Civil War reenactors who specialize in Pickett’s Charge.  They never take the high ground; they never really win.”

This staggering decline in the quality of public schools began, many conservatives insist, when the US Supreme Court kicked God out of schools in 1962 and 1963.  In 1962, as we’ve seen, the court decreed that states could not impose a non-sectarian prayer in public schools.  More devastating to many conservative Christians, in 1963 the court ruled in the decision Abington Township School District v. Schempp that even Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer had no legitimate place in those schools.

Despite what many outsiders might think, the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism in America is truly kaleidoscopic, to borrow the phrase of religious historian Timothy L. Smith.  Different schools of thought among Bible believers disagree vehemently on questions of politics, culture, and theology.  Ask twenty “fundamentalists” what the Bible means and you’ll get at least twenty different answers.  Yet when it came to the Schempp decision, a variety of voices from around this diverse world all agreed.  This decision meant not only that God had been kicked out of public schools, but that Christianity itself had been kicked out of American public life.

For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Schempp decision, separatist Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire still hoped that concerted political action might overturn it.  McIntire helped organize “Project America” to press politicians to adopt a Constitutional amendment in favor of prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  At first, McIntire repeatedly stressed his feeling that huge majorities of Americans would support such an amendment.  After a bitter political fight, however, McIntire acknowledged that it was hopeless.  Writers in McIntire’s Christian Beacon began to emphasize the notion that their beliefs made them a beleaguered minority in American life.  In 1965 one writer warned that America was “moving farther and farther from its Christian heritage.”  Another predicted that soon mainstream Americans would resort to “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

Other evangelical voices made similar about-faces in the aftermath of Schempp.  Baptist fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice reflected that the relationship between evangelical faith and public schooling had changed drastically.  He recounted for his readers how things had been radically different in the not-too-distant past:

Once when I was engaged in revival services in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I was invited to speak in every high school in the city and in the principal grade schools, both white and colored, and was gladly received.  The only people offended were those involved in the few elementary schools where I could not come for lack of time. 

Such halcyon days, however, had been destroyed by the cowardly Supreme Court.  Worst of all, Rice concluded, the court seemed to have the support of “the public sentiment.”

This sense of a drastic and sudden shift in the relationship between evangelical belief and public life was widely shared among all different sorts of conservative evangelical Protestants in the aftermath of Schempp.  One writer in the Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Monthly, for example, concluded that evangelicals must retreat to play the role of God’s “witnesses and lights in a dark place” in mainstream American culture.

Similarly, the intellectuals at Christianity Today articulated their shock and dismay of the implications of Schempp. At first, the editors believed that America’s “devout masses” still supported school prayer.  As did other evangelicals, however, they concluded bitterly that “In the schools secularization has triumphed.”  Instead of relying on devout masses, the editors soon hoped only to energize the “believing remnant” in America to support Bible-reading and prayer in public schools.

As we’ll see in future posts, the Schempp decision might not have had the drastic impact many of these writers assumed at the time.  Nevertheless, the degree of unanimity among a wide variety of conservative evangelical Protestants is remarkable.  From separatist fundamentalists to more ecumenical neo-evangelicals, prominent voices all agreed that this momentous decision had done more than just kicked God out of public schools.  In their opinions, Schempp had forced a sudden recalculation of the role of Bible believers in all of American public life.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part III: What thunderbolt?

The Bible in America: The Thunderbolt, Part I: Engel v. Vitale

Lots of fundamentalists feel that America has foolishly kicked God out of its public schools.  Try a simple Google search of “God kicked out of public school,” and you will find an endless collection of news alerts, opinion pieces, and videos from fundamentalists decrying the de-theized state of public education.

Many of these fundamentalist pundits insist that the start of the breakdown of public religion and morality was the US Supreme Court’s decision in 1962’s Engel v. Vitale.  In this case, the court ruled that New York State had no Constitutional authority to impose a short, bland, state-written prayer in its public schools.  The prayer mushed along in a no-man’s-land of interdenominationalism: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Due to both the blandness of this prayer and its imposition by state authorities, though, most leading Protestant evangelicals at the time SUPPORTED the court’s decision.  As opposed to later conservatives who locate the start of America’s public decline at the precise moment of the 1962 anti-prayer decision, the majority of conservative evangelical Protestants in 1962 thought the court had made the right decision.  As I argue in an article appearing soon in the Journal of Religious History, leading evangelical and fundamentalist intellectuals in 1962 showed surprising unanimity in their approval of Engel v. Vitale.

For example, William Culbertson of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute praised the decision.  “The public as a whole,” Culbertson argued,

“and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.  On the other hand, the case raised the ominous question of whether any kind of non-sectarian prayer or acknowledgement of dependence on God would be upheld by the Court.”

The editors of Christianity Today agreed that much conservative reaction to Engel had been “ill-informed and intemperate.”  Similarly, the National Association of Evangelicals commended the court’s decision.  Even the separatist fundamentalist Carl McIntire, who would soon become the pointman for conservative Protestant school activism, told a US House of Representatives committee in 1964 that he had originally supported the 1962 decision.

Not every conservative Protestant intellectual supported the Engel ruling.  Samuel Sutherland, president of Biola University, attacked Engel as pandering to a “very small, loud-mouthed minority.”  The decision was a sign, Sutherland believed, that the US was becoming “an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These days, with the benefit of hindsight, most prominent fundamentalist voices agree with Sutherland.  But at the time, conservative Protestants of many different backgrounds thought the court had done the right thing.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp and the de-theization of America’s public schools.

Fundamentalist America: A Lock for the GOP?

Casual observers might assume that every Fundamentalist vote is a lock for the GOP.  After all, at least since Reagan took the evangelical vote away from the evangelical Jimmy Carter, the Republican Party has cultivated an image as the staunch defender of life, family, and traditional values.

Reagan at the 1983 NAE Convention.


So even though the presumptive GOP nominee is a leader of the LDS Church, it is a general electoral rule of thumb that Bible voters will go for Romney in 2012.

But will they?

An article in this week’s Economist tries to pick apart the “evangelical vote.”  The article offers some interesting numbers.  Here are a few to consider:  in 2008, 65% of (self-identified) white evangelicals called themselves Republicans.  A recent poll put that number at 70%.  Self-identified white evangelicals made up 44% of Republican primary voters in 2008, compared to “over half” in the first 16 GOP primaries in 2012.  That’s a strong vote of support.

But look at the other side of those numbers.  In 2008, almost one-quarter of evangelical voters voted for Barack Obama.  Part of that support comes from a closer look at the meaning of “evangelical.”  President Obama, according to the Economist article (citing a Pew Research Center poll), enjoys a 93-point lead over Governor Romney among African American voters.  And those voters, after all, include a large percentage who are evangelicals.

The numbers get even dicier when we expand our understanding of “Fundamentalist America” beyond the boundaries of evangelical Protestantism.  Many conservative Catholic voters line up these days with conservative Protestants to vote for a vision of traditional Christian values.  And the conservative Catholic vote includes large numbers of Latino voters.  Such voters may vote for the GOP as the pro-life, pro-family, pro-Jesus party.  But many Latinos might be turned off by the Republicans’ growing support for harsh anti-immigration laws, many of which seem to target Latinos specifically.  As the Economist article points out, President Obama leads Governor Romney by 67% to 27% among surveyed Latino voters.

Could these numbers harken a shake-up of the relationship between Fundamentalist America and the two major parties?  For those who know their history, it would not be the first time.  After all, before the 1980 presidential elections, white evangelicals often portrayed themselves as above party politics.  They claimed to vote for candidates who best embodied the values of Bible-believing America.  And before the 1930s, African American voters reliably voted Republican, the Party of Lincoln.

Could we be on the verge of another party shake-up?  Could the Democratic Party attract young and non-white conservative Christians by appealing to social justice issues?  Could the GOP fumble by alienating non-white Fundamentalists and young social-justice evangelicals?  Even more interesting, could we be on the verge of a vast party realignment, of the kind that has revolutionized party politics a few times in the past?  In the mid-1800s, the new Republican Party built a powerful coalition out of the remnants of the Whig Party, the American Party, and abolitionists.  In the 1930s, the Democratic Party built another blockbuster with a Solid (white) South, urban “ethnic” voters, the union vote, and non-whites.

These powerful electoral coalitions don’t need to be logical.  But a new party that combined today’s Democratic Party’s tradition of social justice, plus the GOP’s tradition of traditional Christian values, could capture this broad middle from Fundamentalist America.

A Fundamentalist Mystery: Protestants and the Supreme Court

Why aren’t conservative Protestants more interested in the religious makeup of today’s US Supreme Court?  Today’s Court is made up of six Catholics (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Sotomayor) and three Jewish members (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan).  Fundamentalist Protestants are intensely interested in the Court, since it has turned into the government agency most closely associated with ultimate decisions about abortion, gay rights, and religion in the public square.  At nearly any other time in American history, the notion that once-dominant Protestantism wouldn’t even have a representative on the Court would have sparked ugly and angry denunciations of the Court’s legitimacy.  Today, I don’t hear much about it.  Just before the most recent new justice, Elena Kagan, was nominated, a Gallup poll asked respondents if they cared if the new judge was Protestant. Only 7% of respondents thought it was “essential.”  This indifference is puzzling.  Is it simply due to the fact that the cultural animosity between Protestants, Jews, and Catholics has been overcome by other cultural identities?  This was James Davison Hunter’s thesis in his 1992 book Culture Wars.  He argued that the differences between groups had diminished, in favor of a more important distinction between orthodox and progressive variants of each individual group.  One of contemporary evangelicalism’s premier evangelicals agreed.  In a 2010 article in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, historian Mark Noll noted that evangelicals have given “intense” support to the nomination of conservative religious justices, even when those justices were Catholic.  More decidedly fundamentalist Protestant intellectuals agreed.  Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University law school, noted in the same CT article, “I don’t think a person’s religious affiliation matters as much as their judicial philosophy.”

It makes sense.  But anyone familiar with the bitter twentieth-century hostility of many conservative Protestants to Catholicism might find this explanation a little too pat.  Has it really dissipated to such a remarkable extent?  Are there other likely explanations for the deafening silence among America’s Protestant fundamentalists on this issue?