The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die

It happens sometimes. Academic historians think they have consigned a myth safely to long-deserved oblivion, only to see it pop up again and again. This time, New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman repeats the tired old falsehood that conservative evangelicals only got into politics in the 1970s. What do we have to do to get rid of this misleading but popular timeline?

Gods own party

Read a book…

Here’s the story the way it is often told: White evangelicals had always steered clear of politics, but when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, conservative white evangelicals rallied against him. Jerry Falwell Sr. led them out of their churches and into polling booths to elect Ronald Reagan and become a political force.

It’s a compelling timeline, but it’s just not true.

So why do intelligent journalists keep taking the myth at face value? As Haberman puts it incorrectly,

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so.

It just didn’t happen that way. Even the celebrity historians Haberman talks to could have told him that. For example, in the long video, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer gives the real story. In the late 1970s, Balmer explained,

For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.

Getting into bed with the GOP is not at all the same thing as getting into politics. I thought historians such as Daniel K. Williams had long made this point clear to everyone. As Williams put it in God’s Own Party,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Sutton underlined the point that white evangelicals had never really been out of politics. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story of evangelical involvement in politics was beloved by fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr., but it doesn’t match the historical record. As Sutton explained, fundamentalists’

Sutton

…for Christ’s sake!

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I told a similar story in Fundamentalist U. Especially at Bible Institutes, the long-held and cherished myth that evangelicals were above politics is just not true. Even at the other-worldliest of schools, Moody Bible Institute, leaders in the 1920s such as James M. Gray always considered themselves ardent political operatives. Sorry to quote myself, but as I wrote in Fundamentalist U, in 1928,

When MBI’s radio station came under political pressure . . . Gray came out swinging. “The time for fighting has begun,” Gray intoned ominously. If MBI’s lawyer was not powerful enough to protect the school’s rights, Gray insisted, then the school should enlist the political support of allies such as Missouri senator James M. Reed. There was no doubt in Gray’s mind that his institution must engage with mainstream politics. Retreat and withdrawal, Gray reasoned, would compromise his school’s missionary testimony.

As the savvy historians quoted in the NYT piece are very well aware—leaders in the field such as Randall Balmer and John Fea—there has never been a time when white evangelicals were really out of politics. Rather, unique among American religious groups, America’s white evangelicals have always considered themselves both outside the world and, in America at least, the proper people to be in charge of it.

It has been white evangelical leaders who have promoted this myth that they were once outside of politics, and only reluctantly got involved in the scary secular seventies. If we really want to understand American history and politics—let alone the enormous support for Trump among white evangelicals—we need to stop re-telling this convenient evangelical myth as if it were true.

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