I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ.
• Mike Huckabee, 1998
• • •
Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.
We are looking at material from three books, the first of which is Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God.
Although the 1800s have been characterized as the “Christian” century in the United States, during those years strong forces of modernity were also rising up and threatening to flood the land. The nation was becoming increasingly diverse because of immigration, humans were accomplishing more through innovative technological and industrial means, the cities were growing and offering a different ethos than rural and small town life , science was discovering facts about the world, the universe, and life itself that seemed to contradict what many felt were the plain teachings of the Bible. Furthermore, some began to apply principles of “evolutionary” theory to the Bible itself, giving birth to the discipline of biblical criticism, which seemed to attack the very nature of scripture as “God’s Word,” its authority and credibility.
These dramatic changes that overtook the United States at the end of the nineteenth century are crucial for understanding the rise of American fundamentalism. For these were more than changes. These were ruptures in the fabric of traditional American life— the rural, Protestant, and Anglo-American way of life— that had dominated the United States since the Second Great Awakening. Christian America— as the nineteenth century had defined Christian America— was rapidly disappearing into a vast sea of immigrants, Catholics, alien folkways, and organized labor….and startling new developments in modern science.
In the early 20th century a movement developed to defend the “fundamentals” of the faith. These boiled down to five propositions:
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
- The substitutionary atonement
- The bodily resurrection of Jesus
- Jesus’ imminent return
Richard Hughes makes the cogent observation that placing a statement about the Bible first in this list is telling.
Earlier generations of Christians, reaching all the way back to the ancient church, had understood the Bible as a theology text— that is, a book that probed the mysteries of God and the meaning of human life in the light of God’s work as creator, sustainer, and redeemer. That age-old understanding of the Bible made room for paradox, for ambiguity, and for meaningful reflection on the mysteries of God and the mysteries of the universe. It also made room for metaphor and symbolic expression— qualities essential to Christian theology if, as Christians have always claimed, God as the Infinite One is beyond human comprehension.
But the fundamentalists’ understanding of the Bible as an inerrant text, both scientifically and theologically, robbed the Bible of all its symbolic and metaphoric qualities. It therefore placed God, the Bible, and the entire Christian tradition in an intellectual straightjacket. Either the Bible was true or it was false. Either you believed it or you didn’t. And, of course, since the Bible always said what it meant and meant what it said, there was only one way to understand it. Such assumptions lent to American fundamentalism a rigid and brittle quality that made it uncomfortable with dialogue, ill at ease with diversity, and suspicious of pluralism.
The fundamentalists were minor players on the national stage throughout much of the 20th century (with notable exceptions, such as during the Scopes trial). They separated themselves from public culture, from universities, and from Christian denominations that they accused of compromising with “modernism,” creating their own denominations, churches, Bible schools, and missions.
After World War II, a movement arose that summoned fundamentalists to become less separatistic, to engage with the world and its ideas once more. This was “evangelicalism.” Its intellectual leader, Carl F.H Henry, edited the evangelicals’ flagship publication, Christianity Today, and the popular face of the movement was evangelist Billy Graham. In essence, as Hughes notes, evangelicalism was a call to return to the Christian spirit of the nineteenth century that grew out of the Second Great Awakening. This included engagement with American culture and participation in social concerns that the fundamentalists had abandoned for fear of losing their dogmatic identity and slipping into the “social gospel.”
It was in the 1970s and 80s, Hughes observes, that segments of evangelicalism and fundamentalism began merging and emerging into a new cultural force, this time in reaction to the social upheavals of the 1960s. Formerly non-political fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell summoned their people “out of their cultural isolation, to mobilize them for active involvement in American politics, and in that way, to renew the vision of Christian America that had dominated the nineteenth century” (p. 152). Moral Majorities, Christian Coalitions, and the Religious Right were born.
Thus, fundamentalist separatism became transformed into public activism as many of its spokespersons led a new charge, this time not so much against theological and doctrinal errors, but against the social and cultural degradation they saw happening in the U.S. Issues such as abortion, the breakdown of the nuclear family, women’s liberation, and later gay rights, motivated them to action. Joining with evangelicals and Roman Catholics and others with conservative moral positions, they “did something relatively new.” They “entered foursquare into the political arena and sought to achieve its objectives chiefly through the exercise of political power” (p. 153).
The rise of the Christian Right may be chronicled from the “Year of the Evangelical” in 1976 through the Reagan years in the 1980s through a time of building coalitions and electing candidates until it reached its zenith in the presidential terms of George W. Bush. In 2000, 68% of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians supported Bush, and in 2004 that figure rose to 78%.
…the majority of fundamentalists and evangelicals viewed George W. Bush as one of them. He was, after all, a born-again Christian, converted by the evangelical preacher and pastor to presidents, Billy Graham. And though he belonged to a mainline denomination whose theology ranged from moderate to liberal— the United Methodist Church— Bush had far more in common with fundamentalism than he did with his denomination. Fundamentalists and evangelicals understood that well, and when they voted for George W. Bush in 2000, they voted to place in the White House a Christian whose theology, style, and demeanor reflected familiarity with— and even affection for— a fundamentalist-evangelical perspective and worldview.
…At a Bush reelection rally, Gary Walby from Destin, Florida, told the president, “This is the very first time that I have felt God was in the White House.”
Richard Hughes suggests that the Bush administration advanced the myths of a “Christian America” that we have discussed in this series. “In their view,” he writes, “America embraced the right, her enemies embraced the wrong, and God stood on the side of the United States, leading her in the redemption of the world” (p. 163).
Hughes is critical of that perspective. As he argues throughout his book, nations may claim to be “Christian,” but they act like nations. And nations by nature function in ways that resemble Babylon more than Jesus.
Like that ancient empire [The Holy Roman Empire], the United States abounds in Christian trappings. And yet the United States embraces virtually all the values that have been common to empires for centuries on end. It pays lip service to peace but thrives on violence, exalts the rich over the poor, prefers power to humility, places vengeance above forgiveness, extravagance above modesty, and luxury above simplicity. In a word, it rejects the values of Jesus.