If you’re an evangelical who doesn’t believe we should get involved in politics, then this column isn’t for you. Rather, it’s a plea for the already-involved evangelical to rekindle the fire that the first generation of the Christian Right had.
Admittedly, I’d have a bigger audience if I suggested those pioneers were on a fool’s quest and deserve our pity or mockery. But since so many others have plowed that ground for forty years, I think I’ll proceed in a different direction.
In rereading the “politics chapters” of Michael Lindsay’s excellent 2007 book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford University Press), I was struck by how fresh the material is — even after 10 years, Barack Obama, the 2016 election, and the first nine months of the evangelical-won White House of President Donald Trump.
Though I’m fairly certain I take different conclusions than Lindsay, this quote seems to have a particular relevance to the post-2016 political landscape:
“Indeed, the Christian Right, which used to exist as an independent political structure in the 1970s and 1980s, has now become integrated into the Republican Party. As Hanna Rosin wrote in the Washington Post in March 2005, ‘Evangelicals in public office have finally become so numerous that they’ve blended into the permanent Washington backdrop, a new establishment that has absorbed the local habits and mores. …In Washington, the evangelicals are the new Episcopalians—established, connected, respectable.’
Now, remember, this book was released before Obama even won the 2008 Iowa Caucus. It came before the rise of the Tea Party. Before Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio won Senate seats and Eric Cantor lost his primary bid to return to the House. This was before the evangelical and political scandals (John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Ted Haggard). James Dobson still led Focus on the Family and Richard Land still led the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Jerry Falwell had just died earlier in the year and D. James Kennedy died the same month this book released.
In those mid-to-late 2000s, a generational shift of leadership was occurring within the Religious Right. Many of the Christian Right’s “Greatest Generation” (mostly born from 1910-1930s) built institutions and become the key figures we think of when we study this movement: Falwell, Dobson, Kennedy, Adrian Rogers, and Pat Robertson.
But when Rosin, in 2005, wrote that “Evangelicals in public office have finally become so numerous” — these were mostly Baby Boomers who had come into power starting in the late 1980s. Only the earliest of Boomers born from 1945-1950 would have even been age-eligible (25 years old) to run for a seat in the House during the mid-1970s rise of a politically active evangelicalism.
Rosin’s “so numerous” observation was about Evangelicals in Congress that had reaped the fruit from trees they did not plant; they drunk the electoral-success water from wells they did not dig. The hard work of figuring out how to run for office, raise money, build databases, and win elections—or simply, convincing evangelicals in the pew that good Christians should get involved in the dirty business of politics—was fought and built by the older generation.
The older generation of builders did so with a grit, bombast, and fire-in-the-belly that often looked amateurish — because they were, in fact, amateurs. They didn’t spend their childhood dreaming of living and working in the unreal world of Washington D.C., and in so many cases they only were involved in politics out of a sense of desperation in looking at where the nation had been headed.
The point is that the first generation learned and earned every inch of political ground as pioneers, with all the mistakes that can bring — but also with all the helpfulness of having rough edges. Helpful? Yes, because it was in the rough-edges that the grassroots heard conviction and believability. They weren’t just fundraising to keep the lights on in a think-tank. They had an aim — something to win. Not just maintenance of a 501(c)3 or public notoriety.
As they have become integrated into the Republican establishment, evangelicals have certainly become more sophisticated politically. Gone is the bombast of placard-bearing protests, and in its place are Capitol Hill meetings and West Wing strategy sessions. But this dulling of the edges of the evangelical movement comes at a cost.
Evangelical politicians who are “more sophisticated” to the point that their edges are dull need someone to remind them that the end game of going to Congress isn’t to be a Congressman. It’s to represent their constituents and to act like something more important than their re-election is at stake.
It is often said of wealthy families: “1st generation earns it. 2nd generation maintains it. 3rd generation blows it.” Evangelical leaders and politicians need to get back to having a first generation mindset.
As Jerry Falwell, Jr. — someone who clearly has an “earn” mindset and is oblivious to elitist insults and evangelical scorn — said recently about the president:
“President Trump is something we haven’t had in national leadership in a long time. He’s substance over form. So many of our politicians, recent leaders, national leaders, have been form over substance. They tell people what they want to hear. They sugar coat everything, or they have sugarcoated everything. …One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct. He says what is in his heart, what he believes. Sometimes that gets him in trouble.”
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