The Myth About Evangelical Politics Just Won’t Die

Big-name pundits such as Newt Gingrich and Kevin Kruse are battling about one historical myth. Meanwhile, in a quieter corner, there’s another myth that just won’t go away. Among historians, there is no doubt that conservative evangelicals never really retreated from politics. As one evangelical writer just demonstrated, however, that historical fact hasn’t sunk very deep roots yet. What’s it gonna take for people to stop saying that evangelicals retreated from politics between the 1920s and the 1970s?

Gods own party

Evangelicals have ALWAYS been political…

First, the history. Let’s start with Daniel K. Williams’ work, God’s Own Party. In this terrific book, Prof. Williams demonstrates that conservative evangelicals did not retreat from politics in the 1920s only to re-emerge with the Moral Majority in the 1970s. That was a convenient story for evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., who could claim to be a reluctant politico. It just wasn’t true. As Williams concludes,

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 Avery Sutton argued in American Apocalypse that the “rise-fall-rebirth” myth of evangelical politics doesn’t match reality. As Prof. Sutton wrote, the fundamentalists’

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

For what it’s worth, I made a similar case in Fundamentalist U. Ever since the 1920s, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical intellectuals remained closely involved with politics, keenly interested in protecting their rights to radio airtime, leading anti-communism rallies and networks, and allying with secular conservatives to fight in the political arena against a variety of foes, including racial integration.

SuttonJust as the furor over the recent 1619 Project demonstrated that we can have vast discrepancies between well-established historical truths and widely held popular opinions about history, so this non-controversial historical truth about evangelical politics seems to be limited mainly to academic circles.

The latest case in point: In a recent article in Christianity Today about Classical Christian schools, Louis Markos repeated the old, false myth about evangelical politics without a blush. As Markos put it,

In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.

As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist world­view, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).

This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom.

…really? Politics aside, a description of mid-century evangelical higher education as a “Bible-only approach to learning” would come as a nasty surprise to twentieth-century fundamentalist scholars such as J. Gresham Machen and Gordon Clark, not to mention hundreds of less-famous evangelical teachers of the period. Clark, in particular, was famous at Wheaton College in Illinois for teaching classical philosophy. With his Ivy-League doctorate, Clark helped launch the careers of many well-known evangelical scholars, including Edward Carnell, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. And Prof. Clark did it by challenging the comfortable assumptions of his students, having them read and debate anti-Christian and pre-Christian philosophy. To be sure, Clark’s approach was controversial at the time, but it was anything but a “Bible-only approach to learning.”

Or consider the final exam from Harold Lindsell’s class at Fuller Seminary in 1961. Students who enrolled in Lindsell’s “Critique of Communism” course confronted the following final exam:

Select any FIVE of the following and write a short and concise statement of what each term means:

  1. Democratic centralism
  2. Socialism in one country
  3. Class struggle
  4. Surplus value
  5. Imperialism
  6. State socialism
  7. Utopian socialism

SELECT ANY THREE OF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND WRITE AN ESSAY ON EACH ONE OF THEM.

  • Analyze the concept of DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, showing what its ideas and components consist in and how it is related to the Weltanschauung of Communism.
  • Describe the unique contribution made to Communism by Lenin.
  • Discuss in detail the Communist system of ethics and indicate how this ethical system operates in actual practice at home and abroad.
  • Construct your own plan of action as an answer to Communism and show what specific steops you would take in order to meet this danger.
  • Analyze the ways in which the views of Marx and Engels have proved to be wrong and state what changes have been made since then to modify their original theories.

Does this sound like a course at a school that had withdrawn from politics? That taught students only the Bible? That was “withdraw[n] from society”? Quite the contrary, and Lindsell’s course was only unusual in that he retained all the papers—including the final exams—in his voluminous files for later historians like me to uncover.

Yet intelligent, informed writers like Markos still default to the old “retreat” story without hesitation. Why? We know—or we have a good guess—why some political conservatives resist the lessons of the 1619 Project so vociferously. But why do smart evangelicals these days embrace this myth of evangelical politics so consistently? And why cling to it when it has been rejected so completely by historians?

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