Since the presidential election of 2004, when the Christian Right was widely credited for handing George W. Bush a narrow victory, moderate and liberal religious leaders have been fussing about the “God-Gap” that gives the religious right a leg up on the secular left. Why can’t the Christian Left energize liberal politics? Why haven’t more progressive expressions of evangelicalism taken root in America?
George Lakoff teaches progressive politicians to learn the language of moral values so they can appeal to religious voters.
Since the 2004 election, a cadre of young, post-partisan evangelicals has been challenging the marriage of evangelical theology and small-government conservatism that passes for mainstream Christian piety in America. Christians should stand in solidarity with the poor, the new evangelicals say, they should embrace “creation care” and work for racial reconciliation.
Dr. Lydia Bean, a former Baylor sociology professor who is now organizing Black and Latino evangelicals in Texas, sympathizes with this quest to close the God-Gap, but her intense study of evangelicalism in the United States and Canada makes her wary. Her new book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada (Princeton University Press) explains why American evangelicals became so closely aligned with the Republican Party.
“Partisanship and political attitudes are anchored in social group memberships and networks,” Bean says.
When Christian Right frames resonate, it is because they are woven into everyday religious practice, reinforcing a powerful connection between religious identity and partisanship.
if other movements want to challenge the Christian Right for their own constituency, it will not be enough to engage in top-down messaging about faith and values. New moral issues will only take on a sacred quality if they become part of the lived religion of rank-and-file evangelicals, who are embedded in local congregations.
Liberals may be doing a poor job of translating their message into the language of faith and moral values, but that isn’t the real problem. Until we can create new forms of religious community in which solidarity with the poor, creation care and racial reconciliation become sacred through integration into the everyday community life of real congregations, we can’t compete with the Christian Right.
Dr. Bean returns again and again to a simple affirmation: the close association between religious piety and political partisanship is a carefully cultivated phenomenon that doesn’t flow from the core tenets of evangelical theology.
When she compared evangelical congregations in the United States and Canada, Bean discovered a stark contrast. Let’s begin south of the border.
American evangelicals have engineered a highly partisan and politicized religion rooted in narratives of Christian nationalism and visions of national revival that results in an almost Manichean drama pitting good against evil. Economic and political forms of conservatism have taken on a sacred quality by being associated with the intimate “identity-work” of congregational life.
It wasn’t always so. To this day, evangelical Christians on both sides of the border take a dim view of politicians and see the world of politics as corrupt and corrupting. Bridging the gulf between politics and pew took some really heavy lifting. Bean writes:
There has always been a divide between the religious worlds of rank-and-file evangelicals and the halls of power, where interest groups and parties operate. The challenge for Christian Right elites has been to bridge this gap between politics and lived religion, so that rank-and-file evangelicals experienced their agenda as an authentic, sacred expression of their faith.”
Beginning in the 1940s, Bean argues, religious and political elites worked out a form of Christian nationalism that created a fearsome symmetry between conservative theology, small-government politics and laissez-faire economics.
In other words, “evangelicalism became bundled with small-government conservatism through a historical process of partisan coalition-building.” “The Christian Right,” Bean argues, “has not just ‘represented’ the values and policy priorities of evangelicals; it has served as an internal movement to shape what these values and policy priorities should be.”
Religious identity has become “so closely intertwined with partisanship,” Bean says, that it has become “socially impossible for evangelicals to identify with the Democratic Party.”
Lydia Bean spent a full year shuttling back and forth between Buffalo, New York and Hamilton, Ontario visiting two churches in each community: one Baptist, the other Pentecostal. The people in these four churches shared a common evangelical identity. The subjects of this study were all theologically conservative and committed to traditional moral values: opposition to gay rights and abortion rights was all but universal on both sides of the border.
There was common agreement that evangelism was the central role of Christian ministry: calling people to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As a consequence, pastors in both Buffalo and Hamilton had problems with a “social gospel” that emphasized social righteousness to the exclusion of individual redemption.
All four churches emphasized the importance of “traditional family values”, but they embraced an authoritative, rather than an authoritarian, parenting style, and this colored their attitude to the non-Christian world. It was okay to draw strong, us-them, distinctions between the Christian community and the secular world, but believers were encouraged to bridge this gulf with grace and compassion.
Bean was working on a PhD in sociology at Harvard university when she conducted her year-long study, and gained acceptance by introducing herself, honestly, as the daughter of a Baptist minister who had made a personal decision to follow Jesus. Church people were amazed that a secular school like Harvard had signed off on this kind of study and were normally happy to participate. It was generally assumed that committed Christians like Lydia would feel out of place in an Ivy League setting.
As Bean shares in a revealing preface, her scholarly curiosity was rooted in an unusual personal history. She grew up in evangelical churches in Canada and the United States and her gut told her that this kind of comparative study could be extremely fruitful:
Most of my Biblical education took place around the dinner table, reading Scripture aloud and discussing the text’s relationship to everyday life and current events. Between church and home, my parents surrounded us with an idiosyncratic brand of Christianity that combined evangelical piety with a strong commitment to social justice.
Lydia, and her brothers, Adam and Amos, were exposed to the rifts within American evangelicalism in an intensely painful way in 1989 when the Bean family returned to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky where Nancy and I had earned our M.Div degrees a decade earlier.
“In 1991,” Lydia relates, “I was baptized at Crescent Hill Baptist Church, a moderate Southern Baptist church that was subsequently expelled from the denomination. By my twelfth birthday, the denominational culture that I knew best no longer existed.”
The Bean family’s involvement with the Tulia drug sting between 1999 and 2003 also made a profound impression on Lydia, then a student at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. “Friends of Justice met on Sunday nights to worship, read the Bible, and plan strategy,” Lydia remembers. “Ultimately, we were able to draw in national allies to help us bring the Tulia drug sting to national attention . . . This was a formative experience for me, as a scholar and as a person.”
When Bean arrived at Harvard, she intended to do her dissertation on mass incarceration, a theme close to the heart of Friends of Justice. Then came the 2004 election.
Suddenly, people around me were bewildered and threatened by people who I considered entirely ordinary. Evangelicals, conservatives, people in small and medium-sized cities, people in the so-called flyover states. The kind of people I knew best. Where did this mutual mis-comprehension come from? Why had the battle-lines hardened in these particular ways?
Bean focused on four congregations in the Buffalo-Hamilton region, two Baptist and two Pentecostal. In the American churches, she encountered warm, earnest Christians with a strong partisan attachment to the Republican Party, small-government conservatism, and laissez-faire economics. “Conservative” and “Christian” were often used as virtual synonyms. Secular liberals and godless Democrats were the enemy, not because they were perceived as wicked people, but because they stood in the way of the God-ordained revival that was spreading across the nation.
America was God’s chosen nation, a people dedicated to the biblical principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. In recent years, tragically, the nation had been distracted from her true calling by secular liberals who were embarrassed by America’s religious heritage. In this context, voting for the Republican Party could be conceived as a religious act.
American evangelicals, Bean discovered, didn’t reason from religious principles to conservative political and economic views; they imbibed their partisan religious views from the environment that engulfed them on all sides.
The species of religion Bean encountered in the American evangelical churches she studied, was a marriage of convenience that had been cobbled together by conservative think tanks and para-church ministries. This movement was heavily reliant upon culture war captains, congregational opinion leaders who imbibed this new nationalistic religion outside the cloistered world of established evangelical life and carried it back to their congregations.
But regardless of whether culture war captains picked up their new partisan world view from the anti-abortion movement or a Focus on the Family conference, they were immersed in all the symbols, songs and therapeutic messaging they grew up with in their churches.
“Ironically,” Bean observes, “these groups exercised political influence by actively engaging lay people . . . in spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, and family devotion.” Even anti-abortion groups were not primarily focused on ending abortion per se. Every meeting was “bathed in prayer.” One woman in Buffalo described her involvement in an anti-abortion organization like this:
We would pray for people’s requests . . . and definitely we were praying for the nation in general, and plus the presidency, and Governor Spitzer, we’d pray for all of that . . . I prayed for godly people to be placed in positions and that they would be surrounded by godly people also that would influence them . . . definitely before presidential elections, we pray that God would put men of God in the presidency.
This constant interplay between prayer for person issues and prayer for the nation lent a sacred aspect to the fight against abortion. This explains the central place of anti-abortion rhetoric within the Christian Right. According to Bean,
Abortion has become sacred for rank-and-file evangelicals because it strengthens a sense of cultural tension with their environment. Understood as a spiritual drama between good and evil, the pro-life cause helps Christians to define their moral and social boundaries against the world.
Crossing the border into Canada, Bean encountered a familiar, yet definitely altered religious landscape. The Baptist and Pentecostal churches in Hamilton, Ontario preached a familiar evangelical theology centered in that all-important decision to accept Jesus as one’s “personal Lord and Savior.” Moreover, the Canadian evangelicals Lydia encountered were just as opposed to abortion and the gay rights movement as their American counterparts.
But the differences were striking.
In the American churches, opinion leaders frequently shared partisan political views in the course of Sunday school classes, Bible studies and (less frequently) worship services, with little fear of backlash. The rhetoric of Christian nationalism was so well-established in these churches, Bean found, that church members with contrary views never shared their misgivings in public. To be a Christian was to be a small-government Republican.
North of the border, political partisanship and evangelical piety were almost never bundled. Church members might vote for the Conservatives, Liberals or the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) without voicing their partisan political preferences in a religious setting. In Sunday school classes and Bible studies, partisan rhetoric was frowned upon and those who violated that taboo were gently-but-firmly disciplined.
The Canadian evangelicals Bean worked with were strangers to liberal-conservative dualism. The Canadian evangelicals viewed themselves as a small subculture making its way in a secular and culturally diverse nation.
The goal, therefore, was not to fight secular liberals for control of the nation, “but rather to carve out enough institutional space to safely reproduce their subculture.” Canadian evangelicals didn’t define themselves in opposition to the federal government or the non-Christian majority, and this impacted the way they viewed their mission to the poor.
American evangelicals, Bean noticed, felt obligated to serve the poor because the Bible gave them little choice, but they viewed their charity work as unmerited grace extended to undeserving recipients. Poverty was generally viewed as a sign of deficient character and the solution to poverty was accepting Jesus as personal savior and Lord.
In marked contrast, Canadian evangelicals embraced the poor as Canadian citizens (and Christians) in good standing. Christian charity and government welfare were rarely viewed as a zero-sum game in which government was usurping the role of the church. Most of the Canadian evangelicals Dr. Bean talked to were proud of the Canadian welfare and universal medicare programs and viewed them as a complement to the work of the church.
Canada and the United States are very different countries, of course. None of the major political parties in Canada speak of rolling back a woman’s right to abortion, and the debate over gay rights is a settled matter. Some of the Canadian evangelicals Lydia interviewed felt that the Conservatives were less “pro-abortion” than their political rivals, but it was largely a difference in tone. As a consequence, the fact that the Canadian evangelicals were theologically and morally conservative didn’t translate into political partisanship.
Bean’s North-South comparative study makes it clear that there is no necessary relationship between conservative theology and conservative politics. The high degree of political partisanship evident within American evangelicalism is a carefully cultivated hot-house plant that could not thrive under natural conditions.
But as Bean argues, those responsible for mainstreaming Christian nationalism succeeded because they understood the importance of relating their message to the songs, symbols, and therapeutic practices of real-world evangelical religion. By creating a coherent worldview and by making it virtually impossible for insiders to articulate an alternative vision, American evangelicalism has created a powerful synergy between politics and religion.
This being so, post-partisan evangelicals cannot further their cause without rending asunder a synergistic relationship that required careful planning and generations of patient toil to forge. Can it be done?
Perhaps, but it will be difficult. It is encouraging to note that post-partisan and progressive forms of evangelical piety are hard to square with the volunteerist tendencies within American political liberalism. Bean agrees with Michael Sandel’s observation: ““Since the 1970s, liberals have ‘embraced the language of neutrality and choice, and ceded moral and religious discourse to the emerging Christian right.” The only moral argument evangelicals get from the Left is “the language of personal choice.” If you don’t like swearing on television, don’t watch it. If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.”
In my 2011 review of Robert Bellah’s classic, Habits of the Heart, I put the problem like this:
American liberalism has largely lost contact with the biblical and republican traditions that have traditionally given birth to a vision of the common good. We need to face the simple truth: liberal morality in America emerges from the negotiation between separate selves. We select the norms and rules that seem good to us with little reference to the shared moral principles that shaped our nation.
Canada have retained a coherent narrative of the common good that is widely shared by religious and secular citizens; America has largely abandoned a shared moral narrative, and this has opened the door to the Christian Right.
It could be argued that the churches of the American Protestant Mainline are in decline precisely because denominational elites alienated rank-and-file congregants by pushing a civil rights narrative that nobody wanted. Perhaps, but how hard did denominational leaders work to incorporate the vision of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King into the rhythms, symbols and songs of their congregations?
I’m not sure I can answer that question, but post-partisan American evangelicals cannot thrive, or even survive, unless they have a clear narrative of the common good and unless they find ways to tie that narrative to the intimate details of every day Christian piety. Unless we can transform service to the poor, creation care and racial reconciliation into sacred sacraments we will get nowhere. These matters cannot be viewed as optional, or peripheral; they must be rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lydia Bean doesn’t think you can transform congregations dominated by a partisan vision of Christian nationalism into post-partisan subcultures driven by the radicality of the Christian gospel. She tells the story of a young woman in one of her Buffalo churches who could no longer accept the marriage of religion and partisan politics.
“In order to explore a post-Christian Right identity, Christa had to seek out a newly planted church composed almost exclusively of people in the 20s. It is not easy for younger evangelicals to jump ship to the Democratic Party, just because they have new concerns about poverty, the environment, and the way the church has treated gay people. Her experience is consistent with the experience reported by many young ‘post-partisan’ evangelical leaders, who protest that there is no room for intergenerational dialogue within existing evangelical churches and parachurch infrastructure.”
This suggests the need for new evangelical church plants that combine a genuinely biblical theology with a vision of the common good culled from the civil rights and creation care movements. This may sound unrealistic; but the alternative is too depressing to contemplate.