Part of me feels like I should just step aside and let Jeff and Michael duke this one out, because I’m really interested in this question of the cosmopolitans and the populists, and who counts as which, and who is more prominent, and who is new. When I was researching the history of Christian conservatives’ involvement in politics, I sort of lost the thread around the early eighties. Before that it was relatively clear. If you loved Billy Graham and Christianity Today you were an evangelical. If not, you were sticking with the fundamentalists.
Then came Carter, and suddenly everyone was involved, and it was hard to pick them apart. Premillenialists like Tim LaHaye were sounding like Methodists and urging everyone to fix our broken nation. Baptists were running for office, sometimes against other Baptists. I asked LaHaye this basic question once–Why does someone with such a strong premillenialist streak get so exercised about earthly politics?–but he dismissed the question as the product of the biased left wing media trying to exclude people like him from politics.
I’m still sort of confused. Jerry, do you have an answer for me?
For the moment I’m going with Jeff’s phrase–fundamentalist avant-garde. That seems the most descriptive of, say, the kids at Patrick Henry College, who are still pretty fundamentalist in their theology but wildly ambitious on a grand, national scale (“the genes that tilt American democracy toward messianic empire,” as Jeff put it).
One thing stops me about this description, though. Temperamentally, they don’t behave like an avant-garde. They inherited this idiom from their fundamentalist parents but they don’t speak it with the same rebel yell. Their true ambitions are more respectable–spouse, some small fraction of ten kids, decent elected office.
So Jeff, are you saying this business about evangelicals newly in the halls of power is overblown? They’ve always been there and we just haven’t noticed? Or a new segment of them has recently appeared and merged with the old?
Here is something that’s perfectly emblematic to me about this confused moment in evangelical, fundamentalist, whatever you want to call it involvement in politics: Bob Jones III’s endorsement of Mitt Romney. Romney, as we all know, is a Mormon, and we can all imagine what the talk is around the Jones dinner table about the Mormon creed. Hillary Clinton is a lifelong Methodist who has tried hard to make peace with religious America but is only getting cold hard stares back.
Is this the temper of the new fundamentalist avant-garde, still freely offensive about Mormonism but more practical minded in their political alliances? (“As a Christian I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism,” Jones said. “But I’m not voting for a preacher. I’m voting for a president. It boils down to who can best represent conservative American beliefs, not religious beliefs.”) Does this represent progress and political sophistication? Or ever more backwardness? Is this yet more evidence of how Christians have sold their soul for a seat at the table? At the very least, I have to say there is something unseemly, un-Christian one might even say, at the community’s salivating over the prospects of She-Devil’s nomination.
One final question: What do you all think about the influence of the traditional family values organizations? The conventional wisdom is that it’s waning. They’re saying they’re raising as much money as ever. It’s hard to figure this out before we know who the nominees are, but curious on your views.