By now, everyone has seen the disastrous American presidential debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
We all know that Trump has garnered the evangelical vote. According to some estimates up to 81% of evangelical support in 2016. Although, there is some dispute over this statistic but the source over this dispute is The Gospel Coalition. As with any statistic, we should take it with a grain of salt. The connection between the evangelical party (that is, the Christian right) in America is not only correlated but deeply intertwined.
Let’s look at the problem of separation of church and state in America.
NOTE: Most of the topics I am discussing here are directly discussed in my book, Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century. If you want to look into this topic further, I discuss it at length there in my chapter on The Human Rights of the Christian.
Secular thinkers will claim that church and state should be separated in a democratic society that accepts each individual based on their distinct human rights. Indeed, Susan Jacoby explains in Strange Gods:
“It took 150 years, the Enlightenment, and more instruction in the horror of theocracies in the Old World before the United States of America became the first nation on the planet to uphold the legal separation of church and state.”
We do not want to get rid of this separation since it took so long to establish.
To reiterate, to live freely with one another, deeply moralized topics such as abortion, same-sex relations, immigration, and traditional family values have to be settled by separating Church dogma and teaching from society. From the way I see it, that would be the only way we can effectively cohabitate. It would be democratically unjust to not allow someone the freedom to express their views, to the same extent that it would be unjust to not allow someone to act out their freedoms, such as to pursue an abortion, to the legal measure allowed in society.
Although, all of these topics that I want to discuss in this chapter come with many nuances and exceptions. I do not expect to do them any justice here. I want to simply touch on some of the human rights concerns that the Christian right allows for and show the overarching theme that could help us in society get past our differences and learn to cohabitate.
In America, the separation of church and state in the Constitution, even if it was only on the federal level, allowed some evangelical denominations, including the Methodists and Baptists, to spread the gospel without limits despite the presence of established churches in many states, as was the case in Connecticut and Virginia, for example.
Frances FitzGerald writes in The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, that the American Constitution “created a marketplace of religion, giving all denominations and sects an incentive to increase their flocks, and beginning a process that made America the most religious country in the developed world.”
Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, the influence of Christianity in politics in America fluctuates depending on religious involvement in state affairs and vice versa. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, more than 200 years ago, America was marked by a tremendously influential evangelical community. Christians “dominated” all cultural institutions, public schools, and universities; In fact, Fitzgerald explains that, “In this period there was no real distinction between religion and politics.”
Fast forward 160 years later, and Christian influence in American politics starts to deteriorate. By the 1960s and ’70s, a Catholic becomes president (a seemingly impossible divide between Protestants and Catholics breached), the Supreme Court ban prayer and Bible-reading in schools, social reformers start the civil rights movement, citizens flock the Washington Monument and the White House to protest against the Vietnam War, and the Supreme Court passes Roe v. Wade, making abortion a constitutional right.
Because of the rapid decline of Christian influence in the ’60s in America, many today seem to forget that the Republican Party was not always as closely knit with the Christian right and the evangelical community as it is today. We think of the Republican party as the evangelical party because of Donald Trump’s victory in the federal election in 2016, where he boasted over 81 percent of the evangelical vote. It was not always so, however. It was not until Richard Nixon’s presidency that the Christian right became mobilized for personal political gain.
The Faith of American Presidents
Consider the fact that Billy Graham, one of the most popular evangelists in American history, and the “pastor to presidents,” has given spiritual counsel to presidents from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. The question is, why would these presidents need spiritual counsel in the first place in a country that has separated church from politics? Indeed, Billy Graham, ever fearful of the moral impact on America if Christianity lost its overbearing presence in the public space, would often urge America to repent because of their sins. In one of his impactful sermons, he called on Americans:
“Repent ye! Repent ye! . . . There is no alternative! If Sodom and Gomorrah could not get away with sin, if Pompeii and Rome could not escape, neither can Los Angeles! . . . If we don’t have a revival . . . in the next month or next year, we might not have any more time. Like Israel in the time of Isaiah, America is drifting away from God.”
Graham’s close acquaintance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was among those impacted by Graham’s call for repentance and even made a connection between the “personal faith” of American citizens and the potential “health of the nation.”
President Woodrow Wilson similarly claimed that America is the last spiritual hope for the world at large. Hugh Lamb, the Catholic bishop of Philadelphia, called democracy without God, “an empty word”; Lewis Mumford, a cultural critic, argued that religion served as an “absolute standard” to “measure social policies and correct the course of the state. The theme was consistent across the American Evangelical community and the Christian right in America in the latter half of the 20th century.
Eisenhower regularly used religious rhetoric in public life, more than any other president before him. Under his presidency, Eisenhower instituted national prayer breakfasts, Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on the currency, making it a national motto. Unsurprisingly, this granted Eisenhower favor from the evangelical community. Indeed, the Republican National Committee in 1955 called Eisenhower, “not only the political leader but the spiritual leader of our times.”
Other presidents followed suit. The Democratic presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist, often spoke of his “born-again” experience, which was popularized by Billy Graham at his signature revivals. President Gerald Ford, an Episcopalian, similarly described himself as born-again and was the first American president to directly address the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an influential Christian denomination of the Christian right.
Few predicted the influence of the Christian right in politics. Indeed, Fitzgerald writes that “The eruption of the Christian right was sudden.” Political observers were shocked by the political influence of the Christian right in the 1980s. “After all, John F. Kennedy, and most recently Jimmy Carter . . . had drawn bright lines between their religious beliefs and their public commitments.” Despite this theoretical separation of church and state, reality proved a bleak picture for secularists and moderates that thought that religious persuasion ought to be a personal affair.
The Christian right in America in the 1990s was rooted in churches, influencing state school boards when it came to strictly Christian education and science-denial (Creationism), but also in limiting access to abortion. One of the strongest voices and forces against the legalization of abortion in America was who Fitzgerald calls “the most curious and contradictory of all the Christian right leaders,” Pat Robertson.
Robertson was the “standard-bearer” for the Christian Coalition movement at its political height from 1987 to 1998. After Bill Clinton’s election, the Coalition experienced unprecedented growth in both membership and financing. Robertson even argued that the U.S. Constitution did not say anything about the separation of church and state and that America had “fallen away” from the faith of the Founding Fathers.
It was arguably because of the Christian right’s hatred of Bill Clinton and his, for the time progressive wife, Hillary, that the Coalition experienced such growth. It went from 250,000 to 1.6 million members in three years, amassing an annual budget of $25 million. In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush understood the Christian right’s political importance, along with his political strategist Karl Rove, and surrounded himself with conservative Christians. Forty percent of his staff regularly attended prayer meetings and Bible studies in the White House. Bush also formed the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which took federal money and fueled religious social service providers. Fitzgerald writes:
“To many Democrats and moderate Republicans, the White House and the Republican leadership had seemed to have become a captive of the Christian right. To many evangelicals, the opposite seemed to be the case: the Christian right had become a function of Republican politics.”
When it came to Christianity’s influence in America, the Christian involvement in politics created noticeable social resentment in the late 2000s. In 2008, 45 percent of people agreed that religious leaders, such as Rick Warren or Billy Graham, should not try to influence voting, an increase by 15 percent from 1991. Eric Kaufmann writes in Whiteshift that “[T]he overreach of the religious right seemed to have accelerated a trend towards secularization among Millennial Americans.” Indeed we can see this trend in the increase of Americans that never attended religious services from 15 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2008.
Along with the public’s increasing denouncement of Christian involvement in politics, intellectuals took to pen and paper to advocate for more separation between church and state. Books criticizing religion were growing in popularity across America. These books included, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, and Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett. Fitzgerald explains that toward the end of Bush’s presidency, “the political landscape had changed”; “The Republicans had lost control of the Congress, and the Christian right for the first time faced challenges from within the evangelical community.”
Biblical Separation of Church & State
The Christian right understandably felt some resentment toward their weakening influence in state affairs. Some Christian thinkers assured the Christian public that they should not be disappointed. In The Myth of a Christian Nation, revered Gregory A. Boyd, the head of a large conservative church in St. Paul, Minnesota, argued that America could never become a “Christian nation” in the first place.
Boyd argued that Christ’s kingdom was “not of this world”; that the Constitution never hinted at establishing a Christian nation, and that America never resembled the “domain of God.” He warned that evangelicals in America falsely see themselves as “moral guardians,” and end up making certain “minor” sins into “major” sins because of this. Boyd pointed out that the Bible mentions divorce and remarriage more than same-sex marriage and that focusing on same-sex marriage is “self-serving.”
Most importantly, Boyd pointed out that Paul taught that he could never judge those outside of the church since they are not held accountable for the same sins as members of Christ’s body. That is not to say that Christians are not to witness to unbelievers or share their moral convictions but instead that they should not enforce “their righteous will on others.”
Boyd’s convictions for the separation of church and state were not as popular with the Christian right who thought that their weakening political influence meant that their freedoms would be tampered with, if not outright abolished. Indeed, many evangelicals thought President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, was a crushing blow, or in the words of SBC leader, Albert Mohler, an “unmitigated disaster.” Fitzgerald points out that the political victories of the Democrats would often provoke “end times rhetoric.”
Glenn Beck, the popular Christian radio host, even called on his audience to buy farmland and guns and pull their kids from public schools in light of Obama’s election. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, blamed Obama for the moral downfall of America, and for “pluralism,” callously stating that, “The President is leading the nation on a sinful course, and God will judge him and us as a nation if we don’t repent.” James Dobson argued that the traditional family “will likely crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization.”
These calls can be explained by what sociologists call a “Reconstructionist ideology” of “dominionism,” the belief that “Christians had a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions.” If you really believed that the Creator of the Universe divinely orchestrated your morals, then little is stopping you from forcing your beliefs on others. In the end, these morals and understanding the Gospel, are a matter of life and death. Or at least, that is how they are perceived from the Christian right. Arguably, this type of dominionism was the same logic that applied to the colonization of developing nations by the Christian West from the 1600s to the 1900s.
And that should certainly trouble us.
If you want to read more, I have written the already mentioned book where I mention some of these topics! Let me know if you have any comments! I would love to add your insight/critique into future editions of the book.
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,