Modern evangelicalism was birthed in the harsh glare of victory. The United States of America had dropped the big one (twice) and won the Second World War. After a brief post-war slump, the American economy shifted into overdrive. Factories were popping up wherever you looked, families were relocating to unfamiliar parts of the country to build better lives. The petroleum business—especially in the West—was rocketing heavenward. And the military-industrial complex was supplying a web of installations encircling the globe.
Against this dynamic backdrop, Billy Graham and a few dozen close friends decided it was time to revive conservative Christianity. They weren’t “fundamentalists” anymore, they would be “evangelicals”. Conservative Christianity was modestly ecumenical, no longer anti-Catholic, and eager to build an interlocking network of parachurch organizations. The welcome mat was out for new media, new music and new alliances.
It was important to this new brand of religious entrepreneurs that the new evangelical movement shed its defensive, apolitical image. Evangelicals would be non-partisan, but outreach to power people, whether in government or industry, was an essential part of the recipe for success. Prayer breakfasts were organized in the nation’s capital. Graham reached out to Harry Truman (awkwardly) and Dwight Eisenhower (with greater success). New evangelicals were determined to surf the wave of optimism, confidence and power breaking over America.
It was also important to build good relations with the American military. Patriotism, always popular in wartime, became an abiding staple of American Christianity. Evangelicals wanted American flags in Christian sanctuaries, periodic patriotic services (replete with bunting) and, whenever possible, military men in full regalia marching down the center aisle.
At the time, the prominent American civil religion was a safe, nice, proper brand of Protestant mainline religion. Liberal Christianity ruled the roost. That was soon to change. By linking evangelicalism to presidential politics, the American military, patriotism, professional athletics, big business, prosperity and eternal optimism, Graham and company became the spiritual face of the nation.
American white evangelicals were fighters. They were winners. They liked to hang out with other winners. In their eyes, it was only appropriate that the greatest nation on earth should have the strongest military on earth and should be undergirded by the greatest religion on earth. It was a package deal.
Then came Vietnam. Suddenly, the American military was looking like the post-dynasty Yankees—we had the best players money could buy, but couldn’t seem to win the big game. A peasant army sent us packing. Worse still, the war had been a PR nightmare. There was the nastiness of napalm, the massacre of non-combatants, the sullen parade of body bags, horrible troop morale, street protests at home, and the endlessly hyped spectacle of soldiers being spit on in airports. A new term crept into the American vocabulary: “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. By the time the whole fiasco had ended, America’s glory days were done. It wasn’t over, over there; but we came home anyway.
The religious response to Vietnam moved in two very different directions. The liberal mainline wondered if Christians had embraced military adventurism with too holy a fervor. It was one thing to free the world from genocidal fascists; but was it really our business to dictate political policy to Southeast Asia? And what about the long-ignored pacifism of Jesus? Maybe the Savior was on to something. Even Billy Graham was worrying out loud that the arms race with the Soviet Union was threatening the survival of the planet. but his musings were quickly drowned out by more bellicose opinion leaders.
Conservatives were conducting their own Vietnam post mortem. America lost in Vietnam because she lacked resolve. Nervous Nellies in Washington forced our boys to fight with one hand behind their backs. If Joshua had lost confidence at the battle of Jericho, preachers thundered, he would have walked away without a fight.
If it was true that the American military had been stabbed in the back, conservatives reasoned, nothing short of a new military crusade could restore national confidence. White evangelicals threw their arms around this new doctrine with unseemly passion.
The first big opportunity came with Operation Desert Storm and the First Gulf War. I was working on my doctorate at the time, preaching on Sundays to a wonderful group of tobacco farmers in Southern Indiana. “How about that Stormin’ Norman!” a lovely woman asked as she greeted me at the door on Sunday morning. I saw a parishioner tying a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree in front of the church.
I cringed. I had built my sermon around the story of Micaiah Ben Imlah, an obscure Old Testament prophet who refused to endorse a military adventure in Yahweh’s name. I clearly wasn’t with the program.
When America invaded finally invaded Iraq in 2003, determined to get it right this time, the evangelical faithful were once again eager to see America regain her WWII glory. Nancy and I were attending a sports banquet in Tulia, Texas the day the invasion was announced. Somebody put Lee Greenwood’s paeon to patriotism on the PA:
And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.
And I gladly stand up, next to you and defend her still today.
Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA.
When Lee said he’d “gladly stand up,” two hundred Texans leapt to their feet as if they had been anticipating that line. But Nancy and I remained seated. All around us, good patriotic Americans, hands on hearts, shot us disapproving glances. We never heard a discouraging word, but our social skies were cloudy all day.
We all know the dismal denouement to that story. Once again, the Yankees crumbled in the postseason. Once again, it wasn’t over, over there, but our brave fighting men (and, now, women) came marching home anyway.
American white evangelicalism is desperate for a win. Among all the plagues afflicting the faithful, persistent military reversal is near the top. When Donald Trump said America would soon be winning so much, we’d grow tired of winning, a cynical press corps rolled its eyes and dutifully preserved the remark for posterity. But white evangelicals wanted more. They were so desperate for a win they could taste it. Having hitched their wagon to Mars, the god of war, they were stuck.
In an odd way, America is too good for empire. There is just enough distaste for the horrors of war to keep us from “winning” in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. We wreak our own special brand of havoc throughout the world, but we never close the deal. If it was a simple matter of firepower, we would win in a walk. But, as Pharaoh knew well, imperial power must be utterly ruthless. George Orwell put it best in this oft-quoted bit from 1984:
“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always— do not forget this, Winston— always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.”
That was Pharaoh’s MO and Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, and Octavian followed suit.
In the Exodus story, the children of Israel are forever pining for the fleshpots of Egypt. Manna was nice, at first. But, just as Francis grew weary of bread and jam in the children’s story, so Israel tired of the same weary fare. Life in Egypt might have been nasty, brutish and short, but at least you knew what to expect.
This pining for Egypt also took a more insidious form. Israel’s leaders were tempted to mimic the ruthless ways of Pharaoh.
The Bean family starts each day with the Anglican Daily Office Readings. This morning, I noticed that Psalm 79 was enclosed in parentheses. That meant the passagre might not be suitable for all audiences.
It didn’t disappoint. “O God, the nations have come into your inheritance,” old Asaph began, “they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.”
The psalm goes on in this vein for a bit before confronting Yahweh with the ask: “Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.”
When I turned to the next reading, a longish section from Nehemiah, I noticed that part of it had been flagged as well. And with good reason. “So the descendants went in and possessed the land, and thou didst subdue before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and thou didst give them into their hands, with their kings and the peoples of the land, that they might do with them as they would.”
Pharaoh would be proud.
The American white evangelical craving for victory is entirely biblical. A prophetic counternarrative runs straight through the Hebrew Scriptures, but it’s definitely a minority report. The Christian New Testament is less bellicose, largely because the Pharaoh of Rome practiced the brand of absolute power American white evangelicals seem to be shooting for. The two bold exceptions are the book of Revelation (in which Pharaoh’s ass is kicked hard—repeatedly and forever—and the words of Jesus.
Jesus was a pacifist. He was also a realist. When he flipped tables in the temple, he knew the Romans wouldn’t let him get away with it. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek, to forgive their enemies, to eschew retaliation no matter the provocation.
Jesus didn’t teach these things because he thought God could be trusted to defend the faithful after the manner of Psalm 79 and Nehemiah 9. Jesus walked the way of peace because, in his eyes, it was the only path to God.
You may have noticed the mix of Confederate and Christian iconography at the Capitol on January 6th. White evangelical preachers have a hard time disowning an attempted coup d’état. The cause is too popular within the ranks. A full 60% of evangelicals believe Trump is still president, and, within this group, 39% are down with armed insurrection.
The frustration has been building for half a century. The white evangelicals of America will either get with the Jesus program or they will drive themselves, and America, utterly mad. There is no third way.
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