What Evangelical Support for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump Suggests About the Future of American Evangelicalism

Journalists have spilled a great deal of ink trying to suss out which candidate conservative evangelicals would choose in the Republican primary. After all, two thirds of self-described evangelicals identify as Republicans, which makes them roughly half of the party’s base. Since 1976, Republican candidates have actively wooed evangelicals because they are the largest single voting bloc within the party.

Yet the question of which candidate evangelicals prefer is problematic because it assumes a certain homogeneity among evangelicals, as if they have one mind when it comes to politics and faith. That is a false assumption and this primary season has already highlighted major fault lines between Republican evangelicals. Those divisions presage significant changes within American evangelicalism that will affect how evangelicals in the coming generation vote, worship, and think.

Trumpangelicalism

It’s certainly true, as others have noted, that although Trump has won a plurality of evangelical voters in multiple states, a majority have opted for other candidates. And there’s a slight but significant negative correlation between religiosity and support for Trump. In short, Trump wins among evangelicals because he’s winning, period, but he under-performs with evangelicals compared to how well he does with non-evangelical voters. That said, I’m not sure we can just dismiss the fact that a third of evangelicals in, for example, South Carolina have voted for Trump. They certainly aren’t doing so because of their admiration for Trump’s business practices or the depth of his religious commitment.

However, when you dig a little deeper into the data a telling pattern emerges. Trump does well among self-described evangelicals, but not nearly so well with evangelicals who actually attend church. I’m not the first to notice that pattern–J.D. Vance’s article sparked the thought for me–but since no one has yet visually illustrated the point, I thought I’d do so with these side-by-side maps. On the left is a map showing the adherence rate in South Carolina, how many people per 1000 are members of churches. [I used the ARDA website, which should be a go to source for anybody looking for good data on religion in America.] On the right, is a map I made of county-by-county Republican primary results; the darker the color, the higher percentage of the vote Donald Trump received.

The correlation between church membership and a decreased likelihood of voting for Trump is especially apparent in the Upstate, where people are two or three times more likely to go to church regularly…and were half as likely to vote for Trump. There are individual county results that don’t fit the pattern, but there’s a clear line of best fit when you scatter plot the data. Counties with lower church adherence tend to have a higher percentage of Trump supporters.

Evangelicals who support Trump are more likely to be evangelicals in name only. They join evangelical churches at lower rates, attend church less regularly, and, I suspect, are less likely to adhere to key evangelical doctrines. They are cultural evangelicals. Think of them as you would Catholicism in France, where a majority of people profess to be Catholic (75%) but only a handful attend mass weekly (4.5%), give confession, or even ascribe to key church teachings. I grew up in South Carolina and can testify to the simultaneous pervasiveness and thinness of evangelicalism in the South. It’s the universal patois of the Bible Belt–a “Bless his heart” here and a “I’m born again” there–rather than a truly shared faith.

I don’t think we can consider these cultural evangelicals to be either the heart of the tradition or its future. If anything I’d expect that as the “sacred canopy” of Christendom cracks ever wider, these cultural evangelicals will slough off, dropping self-identification and formally (rather than simply practically) joining the ranks of the “nones.” For committed evangelicals, like popular pastor Tim Keller, that prospect isn’t all that alarming, because they see in that trend a healthy winnowing process that sorts true evangelical wheat from cultural evangelical chaff. Viewed in this light, Trump’s support among evangelicals signals the declining hold of evangelical social values on Southern culture and politics, but that might not be a bad thing for evangelicalism as an authentic religious movement.

What Concord Hath Cruz with Rubio?

Even discounting those cultural evangelicals backing Trump, the rump of evangelical voters in the Republican Party have split fairly evenly between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. It’s been proposed that the divide is generational, that older voters prefer Cruz while younger ones skew towards Rubio.  And there may be something to that idea. For example in Texas, Rubio outperformed among voters 18-29, barely losing that bracket to Cruz, who wiped up among older voters age 30-65. However, if you look at the SC exit polls then you’ll find Cruz outperforming his average with the youngest voters while Rubio has a slight edge among the oldest. (The Carolina polls are particularly useful because the state has a high percentage of evangelical voters at 72% and because Rubio and Cruz ran neck and neck in the final results.)

A much stronger variable that explains the divide is voters’ level of education. In SC Rubio took 32% of voters with postgraduate degrees to Cruz’s 18%. But the script flipped for those with no more than a high school education, giving Cruz 27% to Rubio’s 16%. I suspect that this educational divide explains the income gap as well, with wealthier voters in better-compensated occupations that require college or professional degrees favoring Rubio.

It’s possible that the evangelical divide between Rubio and Cruz is primarily a function of class. Cruz appeals to a similar demographic as Trump, the white working class (albeit those who take their evangelicalism a good bit more seriously). That’s because Cruz has, at least since 2013, adopted the hardest line on immigration among Republican candidates; or he would have were it not for Trump. The difference between the two on the issue is more about rhetorical style than policy substance. Educated professionals feel less threatened by wage competition from illegal immigrants than the working class does. So evangelical workers favor Cruz’s hard line on immigration while evangelical white-collar professionals prefer Rubio’s relatively moderate stance. Class is the primary variable on this issue, not religiosity.

Four Evangelicals (Two Politicians, A Historian, and a Pseudo-Historian) Walk into a Presidential Primary 

While class distinctions affect several of the major issues in this election cycle, I do still believe there are substantial theological differences between the evangelicals backing Ted Cruz and those backing Marco Rubio. And the easiest place to examine that divide is also one of the most surprising. Both campaigns have sought endorsements from prominent evangelical historians (although they are prominent in very different ways).

Ted Cruz gained the backing of David Barton, a self-taught historian who now runs one of Ted Cruz’s multi-million dollar Super PACs. Barton’s books and dvds are widely used by evangelical homeschoolers, who are attracted to his message that America was founded as a Christian nation. Barton portrays the bulk of the founding fathers as essentially fellow evangelicals. [Disclosure: As a high schooler, I took a tour of the Capitol in DC led by David Barton himself. No Bible verse etched in marble was left without comment.]

His work, however, has attracted scorn from trained historians, even those who are themselves evangelical. Barton uncritically cites secondhand sources, repeats fake quotations from the founders, and shows little understanding of the broader religious and political context of the late 18th century. Controversy over the scholarly demerits of Barton’s work erupted in 2012, resulting in one of his books being pulled by Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson.

One of the major, critical voices in that controversy was Thomas Kidd, a well-respected professor of history at Baylor University and a conservative Southern Baptist. Kidd’s research focus is 18th century evangelicalism; he’s written books on George Whitefield, Patrick Henry, the First Great Awakening, and the role played by religion in the Revolutionary War.  [Disclosure: During my first year in the history PhD program at Penn State, I worked remotely as a research assistant for Kidd.]

A few months after Barton signed on to Cruz’s Super PAC, Kidd joined a pro-Rubio religious liberty advisory board along with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, theologian Wayne Grudem, and a bevy of other evangelical heavyweights. In his explanation for signing on, Kidd referred to Barton’s support for Ted Cruz. Kidd had helped discredit Barton’s historical work and now he sought to minimize his influence with evangelical Republican voters. While the position seems mostly honorary, Kidd has since published several blog posts criticizing the Cruz campaign for its faulty use of history in the service of Christian nationalism.

It’s a remarkable moment. In the past evangelical intellectuals mostly stayed on the sidelines of intramural Republican politics. I can’t imagine Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Grant Wacker, or the previous generation of evangelical academics getting involved in partisan politics quite like this. They certainly took a few shots at a prior generation of Christian nationalists, but not in the formal, political arena. And their ideas did not penetrate very deeply into most church pews. Stop by an evangelical church book store today and you’re much more likely to find The Light and the Glory than you are The Search for Christian America. Up until now, the amateur evangelical historians have roundly beaten the professionals at their own game, but Kidd and other evangelical academics have been getting more play among evangelical clergy and laity than has previously been true. While it’s much too early to declare an end to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” these are positive developments.

Which Great Awakening?

Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said of the three leading candidates, “I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing, and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swaggart’ wing.” I don’t think this is a particularly useful taxonomy because 1) you’d think that Cruz, with his Pentecostal background and the backing of several prominent Pentecostal preachers, would be best qualified for the Swaggart nod and 2) Graham’s legacy is so widely embraced by evangelicals that the comparison with Rubio is mostly meaningless. Moore likes Rubio the best so he compared him to the historical doppelganger he admires the most. That said, I think Moore is right to try and put a finger on some substantive differences between the candidates and their supporters.

There’s a better historical comparison to be made between Cruz/Barton and Rubio/Kidd, but you have to go back several centuries. In short, Thomas Kidd’s view of evangelicalism hearkens back to the First Great Awakening, while David Barton is the heir of the Second Great Awakening. These two historians are promoting authentic but contradictory evangelical visions for engagement in the public square. And the tension between them says something about present day disagreements over the future of American evangelicalism.

Let’s deal first with my comparison of Ted Cruz / David Barton and the Second Great Awakening. There is a direct, lineal connection. Both Barton and Cruz were raised Pentecostals, an early twentieth century offshoot of the Holiness movement, which was itself tied to the rise of Arminian soteriology. 19th century revivalists emphasized humankind’s free will to choose or reject God. This perspective also encouraged social activism as evangelicals felt newly obliged to take an active hand in reshaping America even as they remade themselves. America would be purer, holier, and less given to sinful pursuits like drinking, gambling, and pornography. And by the second half of the 19th century, evangelicals had the cultural and political influence necessary to transform even Constitutional law. At the same time, dispensational theology grew in popularity by promising ordinary evangelicals that they could understand the pattern of world history and current events if they just read the Bible plainly, using their common sense. You didn’t need a fancy seminary degree or knowledge of Hebrew or Greek to understand the Scriptures.

You may already have grasped the similarities between this 19th century evangelical vision and that of Ted Cruz / David Barton. The issues have changed somewhat–Prohibition is no longer the dominant issue that it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries–but the basic logic is the same. They see an active role for evangelicals in making America more pleasing to God. They are culture warriors, children of the New Christian Right who seek to use political power to stem the social changes that they believe threaten an essentially Christian America. Ted Cruz’s father Rafael, who has actively campaigned for his son, is a “Seven Mountains Dominionist,” which combines a heaping of Christian Reconstructionism with a dose of the Prosperity Gospel and a pinch of a messianic complex.

Barton and Cruz, looking back to the 19th century, seek to maintain evangelicalism’s grasp over the American religious and cultural consensus even as that hold slips. As Rafael Cruz put it, “God has raised him [Ted Cruz] up for such a time as this….to beat back secularism and take control of this nation.” To which another pastor added while laying hands on Ted, “There’s a new birth, right now, for America, and it’s taking place right before our eyes….We see this nation being completely restored, completely delivered.” Even so, come, Ted Cruz!

Furthermore, there is a strain of anti-intellectualism in the Cruz / Barton community. Whenever Barton is criticized for his historical inaccuracies, he grumbles about historians belonging to “the most hostile to God…of any profession in the nation.” You don’t need that fancy book learning and formal training to recover America’s Christian past; all it takes is a common sense reading of historical documents. For the sake of time I’ll just briefly note that Barton’s lack of training shows in his credulous reading of secondary sources produced during the Second Great Awakening. He has taken up the two-century-old mantle of “Parson” Mason Weems, who fabricated stories in order to sell books to 19th century evangelicals who wanted to see themselves reflected in the image of the Founding Fathers. And now 21st century evangelicals are looking into the same, distorted mirror and falling in love with themselves all over again, Narcissus reborn.

Cruz and Barton share a majoritarian vision of evangelical public engagement. If most Americans are evangelicals, or so the logic goes, then holding back the tide of depravity simply requires waking Christian people up to the social changes happening before their eyes. Cruz’s presidential campaign is predicated on this very assumption, that winning the White House only requires boosting evangelical turnout on election day. We’ll see, but I want to highlight the way in which this majoritarian vision of evangelicalism clashes with the post-Christian turn in American society.

Simply put, Americans today may be as spiritual as ever, but their adherence to traditional Christian denominations is in decline. Now, it’s become something of an annual tradition for secularization theorists to predict the utter collapse of religion in the West and then be proved wrong. Still, in the last decade the numbers of religiously non-affiliated have risen sharply, membership in mainline and Catholic churches have dropped significantly, and even evangelical groups have seen a modest fall. If you look at the figure to the left, that’s a decline in the combined Mainline / Evangelical / Catholic adherence rate from 68.3% of Americans in 2007 to 60.9% in 2014. That’s a huge drop in just seven years! For sake of comparison, those groups had a combined share of of 87.7% of American churchgoers in 1850 (see Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, page 56). To find adherence rates as low as today’s, you have to go back to the 18th century. In other words, you have to look at the time of the First Great Awakening.

In the 18th century evangelicals were religious upstarts, tiny new denominations dwarfed by the much larger, established Congregationalist and Anglican churches. Evangelical ideas–especially their emphasis on individual soul liberty and congregationalism–challenged the existing social order, including paternal authority, slave-holding, and the entanglement of Church and State. Frequent jailings, beatings, and civil fines profoundly shaped how 18th century evangelicals like John Leland, Isaac Backus, and Samuel Davies thought about the role of their faith in the public square. They were a persecuted religious minority yearning for the liberty to practice their faith free from State interference. To that end, they allied with freethinkers like Thomas Jefferson and successfully fought for religious disestablishment in the brand new United States of America. They had little interest in fomenting sweeping social change, in using State power to make America more pious, holy, or Christian. They asked only for the freedom to be left alone, to “live peaceably with all men,” a Biblical injunction which Leland said “must come with greater force upon the conscience than the mere institutions of human legislators.” Political power could at best enforce the appearance of true religion, but it could not transform hearts. They opposed religious test clauses in the US and state constitutions and argued that true religious toleration required that even “Mahometans” be given the right to freely practice their religion.

I think it no accident that Thomas Kidd shares that more limited view of what evangelicals should seek from politics. At heart, he’s an 18th century evangelical. He’s not searching for “a political messiah,” a chosen one to turn America back to God. And his preferred presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, doesn’t dabble as much in Christian nationalist rhetoric; after all, Rubio is a religious polyglot, currently a member of the Catholic church but previously a Southern Baptist and even, for a brief period as a youngster, a Mormon. All three traditions know something of what it means to be a persecuted religious minority in America.

Kidd joined Rubio’s religious liberty advisory board, not a super PAC with the suspiciously covenantal name “Keep the Promise.” While Cruz and Barton cling to a majoritarian vision of a nation run by and for evangelicals, Rubio and Kidd promote a principled pluralism that ostensibly defends religious liberty for all. (Although it would be nice if in his advisory capacity Kidd would tell Rubio to lay off with the anti-Islamic hyperbole. Kidd did quite literally write the book on Islam and evangelicalism in colonial America.)

American evangelicals are two centuries out of practice when it comes to living as “strangers in a strange land,” but the pluralistic vision of evangelicalism promoted by Thomas Kidd and Marco Rubio is a better fit for our increasingly post-Christian society than the majoritarian fantasies of Ted Cruz and David Barton.

Mary Dyer’s “Monstrous Birth” and (Our) Puritan Hypocrisy

marydyerstatue

Puritans were no more dour, provincial, or narrow-minded than anybody else. That caricature was created much later by the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and HL Mencken. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter tells us more about the theological controversies of the 19th century than it does the 17th century. And when Mencken pithily defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” he was really criticizing religious conservatives of his own day. In reality, early American Puritans were an unusually cosmopolitan, well-educated lot. Take Henry Vane, who was educated at Oxford and worked for the English ambassador in Vienna before traveling to Massachusetts and serving a term as governor.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have to work too hard to create their caricatures. Puritans gave critics plenty of ammunition, especially in regards to the entanglement of church and state in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It doesn’t take more than a few hanged Quakers or burnt “witches” to make one thankful for religious toleration.

Let’s consider for a moment the story of Mary Dyer and her “monstrous birth.” Imagine that you’re a young mother (~26) who has just given birth to a stillborn daughter with anencephaly and obvious physical deformities. You bury her secretly because at the time deformed children are seen as signs of God’s displeasure. Your religious and political opponents pressure a friend into telling them where your daughter was buried. Then the civil authorities exhume your child without permission, write up a description of her deformities, mail copies to every minister in your area, and further publish a book that uses her as proof that you are under God’s judgement for your religious beliefs. All of this is done in order to bring your good friend to trial and banishment.

John Winthrop exploited the pain of a traumatized woman for political gain on the basis of questionable theology.

Winthrop leveraged the political controversy into a successful bid for the governorship and banished Dyer. She went to England and became a Quaker. When she returned to Massachusetts twenty years later, Winthrop was dead, but his successor and political ally, John Endecott, had enacted a ban on Quakers in the colony punishable by death. He hanged Dyer from an elm tree. Other Quakers were whipped, had their ears shaved off, and their tongues bored through with a hot iron. Like I said, Hawthorne and Mencken didn’t have too work too hard to construct their caricatures.

I’m no Quaker, but given the circumstances I find myself of one accord with Dyer’s last words. After she watched two other Quakers hanged, she approached the ladder to the gallows. One of her former pastors, John Wilson, called on her to repent and save her life and she replied, “Nay, man, I am not now to repent.” She was then asked if she wanted some of the church elders present to pray for her soul, to which she gave the biting answer, “I know never an Elder here.” Indeed.

I have a short moral for this story. There has been a revival of interest in Reformed theology among conservative evangelicals over the past two decades. Evangelicals are suddenly reading Puritan divines like John Owen. Yale University Press has been steadily publishing the complete works of Jonathan Edwards. You can even buy a t-shirt emblazoned with “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.” (That said t-shirt is made of the finest “organic cotton” is no small irony. Ahem.)

Yet while this embrace of Puritan theology and history is heartening, it has been selective. We read Edwards, not John Cotton. Owen, not Cotton Mather. When Winthrop is mentioned it’s usually some imagination-deprived politico spouting off about America as a “city upon a hill.” Winthrop’s scurrilous attacks on a grieving mother? Yeah, that’s been forgotten. This selective reading of American Puritanism prevents evangelicals from learning from Puritan vices as well as their virtues. Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans have rightly been taken to task for their ownership of slaves, but who speaks for Mary Dyer?

A group of Puritan religious dissenters fled England for the sake of their religious freedom, a freedom they then denied to Baptist and Quaker dissenters. For sure, the entangling of church and state was an older mistake, but age did not impart one whit of grace to the harm that necessarily resulted from using the sword of the State to advance the Church. While erecting their city on a hill, Puritans forgot that they were strangers in a strange land. If contemporary evangelicals better understood their Puritan past, perhaps they would be less likely to repeat their mistakes.

Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism – Michael McVicar

Christian Reconstructionism has long functioned as a bogeyman in electoral politics. Politicians identified with the New Christian Right are routinely tarred by accusations of proto-theonomy, the belief that the government should enforce Old Testament civil and moral laws. Fear is an effective means of getting out the vote, so around every election season you’ll find a profusion of essays, even entire books, suggesting that a vote for [insert conservative politician] is the first step towards laws punishing homosexuality, witchcraft, and even childish rebellion with stoning. The slippery slope towards Christian Reconstructionism functions for the Left as accusations of incipient socialism do for the Right.

Apologists for Christian Reconstructionism typically respond by saying that this common depiction of their movement is skewed. Yes, they believe that in an ideal society these sins would be punishable by the civil authorities, but the advent of that society is many generations removed from the present. By that point in time, society will have already been remade voluntarily by Christian families and thus homosexuality and other sins will be much rarer than they are today. Government sanctions would hardly even be necessary. (I’m not sure that this line of Reconstructionist reasoning has ever reassured anybody anywhere who wasn’t already a convinced Reconstructionist.) In any case, the apologist avers, it’s unfair to fixate on one small, controversial part of Reconstructionist ideology while ignoring the broader intellectual framework.

Michael McVicar’s book, the first critical history of Christian Reconstructionism, digs deeper into the ideology of the movement than either the shallow criticisms of previous books or the self-congratulatory work produced by Reconstructionists themselves. McVicar had unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal papers and thus was able to reconstruct the theologian’s intellectual evolution in his own words. The portrait of Rushdoony that emerges is of a theological lone-wolf who patched together a system of thought by borrowing from a surprising variety of sources.

From his mentor at UC Berkeley, German expat Ernst Kantorowicz, Rushdoony imbibed a romantic nostalgia for early modern European Christendom. As McVicar puts it, he was compelled by the “ways in which abstract theological conceptions of God and man had concretized into the political infrastructure of the medieval and modern worlds.” Rushdoony wanted to bring that missing sense of religious enchantment back to American politics. Not long after his time at Berkeley, Rushdoony chanced upon the work of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til, a theology professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, had created a system of Christian apologetics known as presuppositionalism. Van Til argued that epistemology is always grounded in presuppositions about the nature of the universe. In short, a belief in God so drastically alters a Christian’s approach to learning the truth that an uncrossable chasm opens up between theology and secular philosophy. By combining Kantorowicz’s political theology and Van Til’s system, Rushdoony created a critique of State progressivism. He believed that the government’s efforts to solve social ills without reference to God were not only doomed to failure but actively harmful.

Rushdoony’s first ministry was as a missionary pastor to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. Rushdoony believed the social disorder on the reservation was the result of the heavy hand of a State that had divorced itself from God’s law. As Rushdoony griped, “[The state] is the giver of all things, the course of power, of land, and (having built a reservoir for irrigation here) even of water….The government hospital delivers the children, and the government army taketh them away, and blessed is the name of the government each Memorial Day.” In the face of widespread drunkenness and gambling on the reservation, Rushdoony’s messages of individual salvation seemed insufficient. The reservation, and American society more broadly, needed a full-orbed reconstruction along Biblical lines.

While on the reservation, Rushdoony encountered the third major ideological strand that composed Christian Reconstructionism. Rushdoony had grown dissatisfied with premillennial eschatology, the belief that society would sink into ever greater depravity until the second coming of Christ to earth. Rushdoony rejected premillennialism’s pessimistic outlook in favor of postmillennialism, the belief that Christians would actively usher in the kingdom of God. Christ would return once a truly Christian society had pervaded every corner of the globe. The telos of history, according to one postmillennial scholar found in Rushdoony’s personal library, “is nothing less than a Christianized world.”

These three major components of Rushdoony’s thought–Kantorowicz, Van Til, postmillennialism–were all borrowed from other sources, but he gave them his own spin by adding a novel scriptural hermeneutic. Traditionally, Reformed theologians had distinguished between three kinds of Old Testament law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The ceremonial laws were fulfilled by the first coming of Christ and the civil laws ceased to apply after the transition from theocratic Israel to the New Testament Church. Only the moral commandments remained fully binding for Christians.

Rushdoony rejected this division between “two tables” of the law as excessively facile. He believed that the division between civil and moral law had been read into scripture rather than pulled from the text itself. Furthermore, even ceremonial law, while technically superseded by the new covenant in Christ, remained instructive as a series of principles that should inform proper Christian living today. Rushdoony’s opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, applied these Old Testament laws and principles to modern American society in mind-numbing detail. For example, the OT prohibition on mixing linen and wool threads when weaving clothes and harnessing oxes and donkeys together while plowing (Deutoronomy 22:11) elicited a lengthy discussion on the dangers of genetic hybridization, bestiality, interracial marriages, and the wanton use of the pesticide DDT.

Indeed, that odd list of issues is evocative of the idiosyncratic nature of Reconstructionism. Rushdoony attempted to harmonize three discrete streams of thought and the rough edges show through. For example, Rushdoony believed that America was headed to hell in a handbasket. (Gary North later pinned his hopes on Y2K.) That’s a grand narrative usually associated with premillennialism. Yet once America had been debased Christian Reconstructionists, organized around patriarchal family units, would rebuild a Kingdom society brick by brick. Rushdoony wedded the pessimistic assumptions prevalent on the Right during the New Deal and early Cold War with an optimistic future view of the Kingdom associated with postmillennialism. Similarly, Rushdoony’s distrust of heavy government intervention from his days on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation led him to advocate for a radically decentralized, shrunken State. And yet his hermeneutic also led him to conclude that the Bible commanded a massive extension of civil authority to protect and advance the institution of the church and Biblical morals. It’s the natural outcome of an ideological project that mingled the fears of mid-20th century conservative political culture, the political theology of a German romantic historian, and the theology of two Dutch Reformed intellectuals.

Much of the rest of McVicar’s book is an interesting account of Rushdoony’s mostly failed attempts to work with conservative think tanks. Because of his Van Til-ian presuppositionalism, he kept pushing broadly-based conservative groups to adopt stricter policies on employing Catholics and agnostics. Rushdoony’s disciples, including his son-in-law Gary North, spread his ideas to a wider audience by being willing to view non-Reformed conservatives as co-belligerents in the fight for a Christianized America. They also connected Christian Reconstructionism to the survivalist movement, which turned out to be a very profitable source of income for North in particular. It wasn’t long before Rushdoony, North, and other Reconstructionists started squabbling over who represented the future of the movement. (North even insinuated that his father-in-law had gone insane for living in godless California.)

If I have one critique of McVicar’s book, it’s that I think he exaggerates the influence of formal Reconstructionist thought on the broader New Christian Right. In his final chapter, he argues that everyone from Francis Schaeffer to Pat Robertson borrowed ideas from Rushdoony. I suspect McVicar gets this from Rushdoony himself, who frequently grumbled about people stealing his ideas without giving him credit. Yet while the language of “dominion” certainly bounced about in Right-wing discourse, I’m not sure that McVicar gives strong evidence that those ideas necessarily came from Christian Reconstructionism. New Christian Right intellectuals were more likely to cite Abraham Kuyper or Cornelius Van Til than Rousas Rushdoony. I’ve embedded a Google Ngram for “Abraham Kuyper,” “Rousas Rushdoony,” and Cornelius Van Til. It’s hardly scientific, but it’s suggestive as to their relative weight on conservative Christian political theology.

Take the example of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s books, How Should We Then Live? and A Christian Manifesto, were hugely influential among evangelicals interested in cultural engagement during the 1970s and 1980. McVicar credits Rushdoony with a “distant, complex influence on the genesis of Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto” and recounts one of Rushdoony’s journal entries: “Read Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Manifesto, another book using some of my material…with no mention of me…Not faith but timidity is the mark of too many Christians today, including able men like Francis.” Yet while Rushdoony may have felt that Schaeffer borrowed his ideas, it seems just as likely that Schaeffer merely pulled from the same streams as Rushdoony had. Schaeffer attended Westminster Theological Seminary and had taken classes from Cornelius Van Til. He certainly borrowed Van Til’s ideas, but I’m not sure McVicar gives any direct evidence that Schaeffer borrowed from, or even read, anything by Rushdoony. A visit to Schaeffer’s archives might have shed light on the matter, but in this and other instances, McVicar is too willing to take Rushdoony’s assertions at face value.

I’ll close with a personal comment. (That’s the advantage of writing a review for your own website!) As a Reformed Christian myself, I found the sections of McVicar’s book that touched on Rushdoony’s hermeneutic of Scripture deeply disturbing. Oddly enough, I do agree with Rushdoony on one point, that the traditional division between “two tables” of Old Testament law is facile. It’s just not that neat and tidy when you get down into the weeds. However, I push that observation to exactly the opposite conclusion. I agree with David Dorsey’s view in “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise.” The New Testament authors say that the entire Old Testament law code is fulfilled in Christ and is thus voided for the New Testament believer. While pieces of the Old Testament law are restated and even expanded upon in the new covenant, the Mosaic law code is no longer binding upon the life of the Christian. Period. The OT law does have value inasmuch as it tells us something about the character of the God who wrote it, but it should not be fodder for endless speculation on how to apply OT law to NT life. That feels more like something learnt sitting at the seat of Gameliel than at the foot of the Cross.

And it’s worth noting where Rushdoony’s hermeneutical logic led him. McVicar includes the following anecdote. At one of Rushdoony’s Bible studies, a student asked him, What would happen to a Hindu in a reconstructed America? Rushdoony, bouncing a child on his knee, responded, “As long as he didn’t practice his faith, the Hindu would be fine.” The student pushed again. And what if said Hindu did practice his faith? Well then, Rushdoony replied, “He’d be guilty of violating the laws of the state.” And? “And be subject to capital punishment.” Rushdoony pushed his vision of a postmillennial Christendom enforcing Old Testament law to its logical extreme.

German-American Lutherans and World War II

During World War I, German-Americans had endured a great deal of suspicion and legal persecution. Some states banned them from instructing their kids in German and/or forced them to attend public rather than their own parochial schools. The pressure very quickly turned petty; German cuisine was renamed such that sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and “hot dog” became the new term for frankfurter. A majority of German-American immigrants were Lutheran, but their evangelical identity didn’t do much to protect them from their neighbors.

By World War II, Lutheran denominational leadership had shifted from German-speaking first generation immigrants to a bilingual second generation. As the ties to the old country weakened, Lutherans started embracing American patriotic symbols, flying American flags in their sanctuaries, buying war bonds, and allowing military service and chaplaincy.

Even so, those cultural affinities die slowly and and you might be surprised by what replaces them. In January 1941 a Lutheran pastor in Virginia wrote to a radio station manager. The manager had previously asked the pastor, when speaking on the air, to use “negroes” instead of “darkies” or “colored people.”

One way for German-Americans to fit in was to adopt the dominant racial mores. White supremacy was a way of asserting American identity. Hey, I may be a cabbage-eating Kraut, but at least I’m white! The most extreme expression of this impulse was the German American Bund, the authorized American arm of the Nazi Party. Here’s an infamous picture from a 1939 Bund rally in Madison Square Garden which was attended by 22,000.

Nazi George Washington

 

I don’t know if the pastor in the letter at hand was a Bund member. In any case, he replied to the manager that he would be more careful in the future and concluded with this line:

Living in a southern, pro-British, Rooseveltian atmosphere in itself makes me rather cautious. Behind all this dirty weather in the world the sun of Grace is still shining!

The pastor was an isolationist opposed to US intervention against Germany in World War II. He likely has in mind the pending Lend Lease Act, passed in March 1941, which would funnel military supplies to the British government on credit (before, the Brits had to pay cash, which they were running out of).

It reads strangely today, doesn’t it? I don’t think that’s just because he’s an isolationist, but because he represents a kind of nationalism which is alien to us. He’s writing in English which makes it likely he’s at least a second generation German-American. Yet his affinity for Germany (and antipathy for Britain) is affecting his views of US policy. He then cloaks that nationalism in religious language. The threat of American intervention is “dirty weather” covering up the “sun of Grace,” implying that God is on the German-American isolationist side.

I think moments like these are instructive for us today. I do not doubt that for this Lutheran pastor his hybridized national identity felt as natural as breathing. This should provoke us to reflect on how our own national and racial identities sub-consciously shape our attitudes, politics, and loyalties.

Christian Nationalism in Surprising Places

 

David Barton, Harold Ockenga

Photo Rights, David Barton: cwmemory.com Photo Rights, Harold Ockenga: Fuller Seminary David Allan Hubbard Library

American Christian nationalists believe that God anointed the United States of America as a spiritual successor to the Old Testament nation of Israel. America was chosen, so the story goes, because of the faith of the colonial settlers. The Puritans founded an American “city on a hill” that was tasked with an exceptional mission to shine the gospel light on the rest of the world. Then the Founding Fathers, most of whom were evangelical believers, enshrined Christian values in the Constitution. Unfortunately, later generations of Americans have fallen away from that state of grace. But should Americans repent and turn from their secular humanist ways, America might once again find itself the recipient of God’s blessing.

Christian nationalism is both theologically and historically hogwash, but it’s not my purpose in this post to specify why; better historians than I have already given it their best shots. What I do want to point out is that Christian nationalist thinking has been much more mainstream among evangelicals than is commonly portrayed in contemporary discussions about New Christian Right activists.

Take the example of Harold J. Ockenga, who is known for his role in the creation of a “new evangelicalism” during the 1940s and 1950s. Theoretically he represents a milder, less militant form of fundamentalism. Yet here is a 1943 address he gave at the founding convention of the moderate National Association of Evangelicals under the heading, “America Will Determine World Destiny” [emphases my own]:

I believe that the United States of America has been assigned a destiny comparable to that of ancient Israel which was favored, preserved, endowed, guided and used of God. Historically, God has prepared this nation with a vast and united country, with a population drawn from innumerable blood streams, with a wealth which is unequaled, with an ideological strength drawn from the traditions of classical and radical philosophy, with a government held accountable to law, as no other government except Israel has ever been, and with an enlightenment in the minds of the average citizen which is the climax of social development.

He continued later,

Apparently the last great privilege of ministering to mankind was committed to this particular nation. That is a tremendous responsibility for which we are answerable. We have the enlightenment. We have the historical tradition. We have the material means. We have the leadership. We have everything which is necessary in order to evangelize the world. Now we have entered into our maturity, and we are facing an accounting for that destiny. If America fails to discharge its responsibility darkness must ensue.

Ockenga was appealing for the creation of a united evangelical front in America. As I argue in my dissertation, this was the moment when “evangelicalism” transformed from a mere description of theology into a term of identity. Ockenga harnessed this Christian nationalist rhetoric because he believed it would unite disparate Protestant groups–including Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists among many other groups–against their common enemies (modernists, Catholics, etc). Christian nationalism has been at the heart of American evangelical identity for much longer than you may have thought.

Ockenga’s speech was transcribed in the Pentecostal Holiness Advocate, vol 27, no 3 (20 May 1943).

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution – John W. Compton

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution

I recently finished reading John W. Compton‘s new book The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution. Compton’s argument about nineteenth century jurisprudence is intriguing to me as a twentieth century historian because it challenges a common conservative perspective on Constitutional history. There are few phrases that the New Christian Right loathes more than “a living constitution.” America is in its current dire straits, so the story goes, because secular humanists conspired to both destroy American morals and to undermine the US Constitution. Liberals had encroached on private property, banned school prayer, enshrined abortion rights, and protected pornography. These nefarious progressives saw the Constitution as a “living document” that should be routinely updated according to changing social customs and political needs. In response, conservatives, led by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, have rallied around the banner of “originalism”; Constitutional meaning is fixed and thus judges and legal scholars should attempt to return jurisprudence as much as possible to the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

Compton, however, turns that story on its head. He shows that the major tenets of living constitutional jurisprudence were not inventions of the Progressive Era but the result of nineteenth century evangelical activism. When contemporary evangelicals complain about the “living constitution,” they are complaining about a judicial philosophy that their ancestors did much to foment.

The Founding generation were no laissez-faire libertarians; they assumed the need for regulation of lotteries and alcohol but for the sake of public order, not the suppression of vice. During the colonial era alcohol licenses were required “not, ultimately, to minimize liquor consumption but rather to ensure that inns and taverns did not become disorderly” (44). Taxes on liquor sales were a significant source of revenue for the federal and state governments and lotteries funded most infrastructure development in the early Republic. If a town needed a new church building or bridge, the congregation or town sought permission from the state legislature to run a lottery to pay for it. Lotteries enabled the construction of infrastructure in the absence of concentrated capital and without reliance on government control.

That old attitude towards regulation changed with the rise of evangelicalism from persecuted minority in the 18th century to religious and cultural majority by the mid-nineteenth century. That rise to prominence also corresponded with a significant theological shift. The old style Calvinism–with its emphasis on human depravity–had given way to the Wesleyan pursuit of sanctified perfection. The old Anglican planters in Virginia and Puritan divines in New England believed that the presence of sin was an ever present reality on earth. This was true for individuals, yes, but for broader society as well. Thus, laws aimed at eradicating vice were a fool’s errand. The best that could be hoped for was to control vice to limit its harmful consequences, not eradicate it altogether. The Wesleyans–including not only Methodists but also many Baptists and Presbyterians–believed that sinless perfection was attainable. And what kind of man would deny the benefit of moral living to his fellow men? Surely the law could give Americans a useful little push along the road to righteousness. Furthermore, the rise of postmillennial eschatology meant that a majority of evangelicals believed that they and the government had a role to play in ushering in the millennial kingdom of God on earth. And those pearly gates didn’t need lottery funding or liquor tax revenue!

Yet evangelicals hit a major legal roadblock in the US Constitution’s guarantees of private property (touched on in six of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights). The Constitution protects life, liberty, and property which is deeply inconvenient when one is determined to rid the country of a particular kind of property. In order to get the social outcomes they desired, evangelicals had to weaken the contract clause, massively expand the definition of interstate commerce, and deny individual rights to property. And it was a roaring success. You’ll have to read the book for the dirty details.

Nineteenth century evangelicals might not have ushered in the kingdom of God, but they had given front row seating to the essentially unlimited government of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Ironically, when nineteenth century evangelicals weakened Constitutional protections for individual property and liberty, they left their twenty-first century descendants vulnerable to a new wave of anti-vice laws. But this time around the targets are racism and homophobia rather than drinking and gambling. Oh, you think that business is your property so you can dispose of its goods and services as you will? Think again and thank your evangelical predecessors.

Meanwhile, I’ll go enjoy a nice dram of Elijah Craig, named for the eighteenth century Baptist preacher who founded an early distillery in Kentucky. Cheers to the (probably apocryphal) father of Bourbon!