The Evangelicalization of Secular America (Jeff Sharlet)

posted by nsymmonds

Since I’m going to disagree with Hanna, I’ll start with some good feelings about her new book, God’s Harvard, the first real work of narrative nonfiction about Christian fundamentalism and political power. Hanna has gone further than any other writer in exploring this story using the tools of fiction — character, scene, metaphor — combined with the rigors of great reporting. And, of course, the insights of a longtime observer of Christian conservative politics.

Writing about the conservative former home schoolers of Patrick Henry College, Hanna notes that “when they were younger they had the impression that the culture was not worth saving or knowing. Their kitchen, with their mom and their siblings and worship music playing, was like Augustine’s City of God, with the fallen men living out there, somewhere far away.” Like all kids, these fundamentalists learn that “the world” is not so far away, after all, and so they “train up” for culture war. In doing so, they find themselves taking on some of the coloring of the very culture they oppose: “Was all this music really immoral?” they ask. “Was Nietzsche really beneath contempt?” Ah, Nietzsche — second only to Dostoyevsky, I suspect, in his power to disorient young fundamentalist minds.
But would-be evangelical culture warriors almost always recover their balance. And they’re the stronger for the experience — they’re culturally bi-lingual in ways that most non-evangelicals aren’t. That flexibility — that ability to speak secular –- is perhaps what leads Hanna to assert that “It’s pretty clear that evangelicals have become just another part of the Washington establishment.”
The idea there, I think, is that evangelicals have learned to play the game and thus are no longer the right-wing, undemocratic force they were when Jerry Falwell strode the earth. That argument seems implicit, too, in D. Michael Lindsay’s new book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. It’s a variation on the old melting pot notion.
But who’s assimilating who? My research over the last several years has taken me deep into the archives of evangelical political activity dating back seventy years, to the upper class evangelical pushback against the New Deal, considered by many to be an affront to God’s sovereignty. As early as 1942, evangelical activists pursued their ends as insiders.The elite of this elite looked not just to scripture for guidance, but also to more worldly sources: Communism. Fervently anti-communist, many elite evangelical activists of the 40s, 50s, and 60s nonetheless admired what they perceived as red discipline and stealthiness. Words such as “infiltration” and “avant-garde” became elite evangelical terms for the long, slow work of turning American power away from liberalism.
They succeeded. So well, in fact, that when a new generation of working and lower-middle class evangelicals grew politically restive in the late 1970s, the two branches of evangelical conservatism — its elite and its popular front — barely recognized one another. The press saw only the latter, the sweaty Southern men in too-tight suits. And so the presence of “powerful evangelicals” within the establishment, concerned not so much with abortion and homosexuality as with foreign policy and free markets, went overlooked.
But now the elite and populist branches of evangelical conservatism have merged. We see the students of the populists in elite positions, and notice, for the first time, the elites who’ve been there all along. For some secularists, this is deeply alarming: it seems as if evangelical political power went from 0 to 60. To others, it’s reassuring –- anyone this embedded in the establishment, goes the thinking, won’t rock the boat.
Are these powerful evangelicals “good or bad for America” — or are they “just” another part of the Washington establishment?
They’re not “just” anything — they’re the mutant strand of DNA that makes American politics so different from those of other developed nations, the genes that tilt American democracy toward messianic empire. And yet to say that they’re “bad” for America is to suggest that there’s an America to be neatly distinguished from evangelicalism. I don’t think so, and neither do the conservative evangelical leaders — elite and populist — I’ve spoken with over the years. The smartest among them recognize that it’s not evangelicals who are becoming more like secular America, but secular America that’s becoming more like evangelicals. The example with which Hanna closes -– Hillary’s penchant for theological talk -– goes right to the heart of elite evangelicalism’s success. Not in the trenches of culture war, but behind the lines.
Good or bad? Good: unlike Hanna, I welcome a public discourse of sin and evil, stark language that may cut through some of the haze of cold war consensus culture that still dims American politics nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bad: like Hanna, I fear a generation for whom such morally blunt language is not a weapon with which to smash complacency – as it was for evangelical abolitionists in the 19th century and countercultural radicals in the 20th – but simply the mother tongue. The new evangelical elite is indeed bi-lingual, but not out of a love for language. Rather, only as a means to an end. And that end is not to win a place at the table, but to run it, just as it’s always been run. That’s not theocracy. It’s even more depressing: a new establishment, a new “democratic unfreedom,” same as the old.

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posted October 16, 2007 at 9:11 pm

Jeff Sharlet tells it like it is. Christian evangelicalism is something to be watched suspiciously and it is a duty of all freedom loving Americans to cry foul when it extends its power. We can’t hate Christian evangelicalism because they are us: our neighbors, our family, our friends. Why these ideas has such a hold on those I hold dear, I don’t know. But I truly believe that without it our nation would finally live up to some of its highest ideals. In the meantime, we truly need voices like Jeff Sharlet to point out the truth. Hopefully more will listen.

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Jeff Sharlet

posted October 17, 2007 at 10:28 am

Thanks, Bryon. But, just to be difficult, I’ll argue with you as well: I don’t think the U.S. would live up to its highest ideals without evangelicalism because A) America without evangelicalism simply isn’t America. It’d be so radically different I can’t imagine what it’s ideals would be. B) “Ideals” themselves are pretty far down the path of evangelicalism. I’m not sure that we’d be thinking in terms of national ideals absent evangelicalism. And many of the idealist moments of American life — such as have been infused with evangelicalism.
I’d like to also say that “suspicion” isn’t really the right attitude, but then I’m reminded by Jerry Jenkins’ entry of the evangelical penchant for calling the powerful “servants.” Of course I understand the scriptural basis of this — but any time a powerful person tells you he or she is just a servant, suspicion — hell, disbelief — is warranted.

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Jerry B. Jenkins

posted October 17, 2007 at 2:08 pm

I couldn’t agree more, Jeff. That’s why I began by saying I have long been uneasy about Evangelicals in positions of political power. Some may begin with that servanthood ideal, but too many are quickly influenced by the perks of attention and wealth.

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posted October 17, 2007 at 2:39 pm

As someone who works in politics, I have to say, Mr. Jenkins, that your last sentence applies to many of the people I run into in my profession.
They profess a desire to “make good public policy,” but, their actions often prove otherwise — that they’re more interested in the attention and wealth. Undoubtedly, many — like myself — entered politics to be true public servants, but were led astray as they grew in recognition, power and wealth. So this isn’t something that only applies to the religious right.

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posted October 18, 2007 at 4:35 am

My perception of evangelicals, which may or may not be accurate, is that they are trying to put new wine into old bottles. The new wine is modern culture, the old bottle is old time religion. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with old religion. Indeed there is much to praise there.
But religion can’t remain locked in the past any more than the arts, technology or anything else in our culture. The Bible is the story of spiritual growth. The concept of God in the New Testament is much fuller, richer, and more intimately tied to mankind than the God of the Old Testament. He is more compassionate and less authoritarian. He is more positive than negative (Love your enemies, love your neighbor instead of thou shalt not kill, covet, steal….). Religion must grow along with everything else or it will get “left behind.”
We see it already in the waning influence of the old organized religions. Their decline has nothing to do with people’s lack of interest in God. People overwhelmingly believe in God, but the old religion fails to satisfy their growing understanding. The concept of God as pure Love is taking hold, and the implications of that are startling. Old religion still expect the world to cling to Old Testament notions of a god whose love is conditional. That is like telling a high school student he needs to get back into first grade.

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S. John

posted October 19, 2007 at 4:31 pm

Jeff, does that mean that one needs to be suspicious of Jesus, Son of God, the servant?

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Jeff Sharlet

posted October 20, 2007 at 9:51 am

S. John — Well, I’m Jewish. So, uh, yeah. I’m skeptical of Christ’s claims.
But that’s neither here nor there. Jerry and I were talking about contemporary politicians. Is Jesus running for something?
Or how about this: Is someone who claims to be representing God’s will running for something? Yes, you should be very suspicious of anyone who claims such an anointing.

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S. John

posted October 20, 2007 at 7:49 pm

Jewish? Then you should be aware of the importance of leaders on the side of good not evil, past and present.
Your Prophet Isaiah said, “…a Son will be given us; and the Government will be on His shoulders; His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (Is 9:6)
We should be suspicious of a representative who is godless, has no morals, no conscience, promotes promiscuity and lawlessness, being voted into office by felons, illegals and the deceased.
When (the Jew) Jesus’ birth was announced by angels, they said “On earth peace, willing good among men.” Wow, that’s diabolical… His followers should be carefully monitored…

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Jeff Sharlet

posted October 21, 2007 at 9:26 pm

S. John — I’m sure you didn’t mean to, but you just crossed the line. Don’t kid yourself — your philo-semitism is anti-semitism by another name. Trying to tell me that “my” prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming of Jesus. Please. That’s repugnant and insulting.

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Richard W. Chadburn

posted October 22, 2007 at 10:41 am

All: I am strongly opposed to any efforts to “Christianize” the USA. We are a secular nation that reverently respects all beliefs/lack of beliefs. We are not and have never been a Christian nation. I stand for a complete separation of church and state. Atheists/agnostics have made valuable contributions to our pluralistic country. Respectfully, Richard

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S. John

posted October 23, 2007 at 10:40 am

Sorry Jeff, I’m just 13, didn’t mean say something wrong.

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