“The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” W. Shakespeare
I’ve got to be honest with you. There’s not a lot of things that truly, deeply scare me. In fact, there’s only two things, really.
One is the fear of being lost in space. It’s irrational, I know, but the thought of flying untethered through space like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” gives me the creeps. Thank God, that’s easily avoided by not going to space.
The other fear is the deep anxiety I feel whenever I see Mike Pence. There’s something creepy about this guy. And my fears get confirmed whenever he opens his mouth. Here’s a selection of quotes from the current Vice President of the United States of America.
“By enacting this legislation, we take an important step in protecting the unborn, while still providing an exception for the life of the mother. I sign this legislation with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families.” — Pence, when he signed into a law a bill expanding Indiana’s already restrictive abortion laws.
“What I’m for is protecting, with the highest standards in our courts, the religious liberties of Hoosiers. I signed the bill. (…) But I stand by this law. ” — Pence defending the “religious freedom” bill he signed into law, which critics said would allow Indiana businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians.
“Republicans will stand firmly on principle that the American people don’t want to see the American military used to advance a liberal political agenda.” — Pence, in 2010, speaking out for retaining a ban on gays serving openly in the military.
“Most climatologists agree that, at best, global warming is a theory about future climactic conditions and cannot be proven based upon the historic record.”
“For me, it all begins with faith; it begins with what matters most, and I try and put what I believe to be moral truth first. My philosophy of government second. And my politics third.”
Quite simply put, all of these things are slightly … off. As if he was saying something, but meaning another thing, and I couldn’t grasp what the real meaning behind his words were. What does he mean when he says ‘moral truth’? (How can truth be moral? Isn’t the basic definition of truth that it doesn’t depend on circumstances?)
And the more I looked for it, the more those words kept popping up, not just in Pence’s speeches, but whenever a Republican Politician was making statements. They talk about ‘single-issue voters’ and ‘moral issues’ and ‘rebuilding America’. Listen to any speech given by a Republican Politician on abortion, and you’ll hear it too.
It took Frances Fritzgerald’s excellent book “The Evangelicals – The Struggle to Shape America” to understand that the missing puzzle piece was distinctively cross-shaped.
See, before we start to dive into this, I should give you some background. I grew up in a really Catholic region. Like, SUPER Catholic. But I’m from Germany, which means I’m also familiar with the Reformation, and the struggle of the separation of religion and the State. In fact, one of the major battles of the Thirty Year’s War was not fought too far from where I studied! All in all, I thought, I had a good grasp on the entire Catholicism vs. Protestantism debate.
But until I read this book, I had no idea that European Protestants are not like American Protestants. American Protestants give the Roman Catholic Church a run for their money when it comes to meddling with politics.
So. I’m gonna skip most of the history bit that Fitzgerald elaborates on, but here’s the quick summary: It all started with a rebellion against the established Protestant Churches. This rebellion led to the establishment of Evangelicalism as the dominant religious force in the US.
Evangelicalism is defined by two major points: a literal interpretation of the Bible – meaning that the Bible is God’s true word and has to be interpreted literally – and a missionary zeal to spread the word.
Until the 19th century, almost all Protestants in the US were Evangelicals. During the Civil War, the churches in the North became Modernists. They were advocating social reform and became overall more like the Protestants we know in Europe.
In the South, things were different. Southern Evangelists knew that any kind of social reform would lead to the eventual abolition of slavery, which they very much didn’t want, thank you very much. So all attempts at social reform were seen as a threat to the established social order. The only way to improve society, they decided, was through individual salvation by bringing people into the church. (If this rings a bell and reminds you of Republican Policies today, you are not wrong.)
So in a nutshell, the North became more liberal, and the South became fundamentalist.
Fundamentalism is characterized by a militancy of anti-modernism. For them, the world is always stuck in an epic struggle of good vs. evil. There is no moral ambiguity – things are always either good or bad, and facts never change.
One really interesting thing about fundamentalism in general is that it needs the conflict with modernity. That’s why the Amish aren’t fundamentalists – they are cut off from modernity and don’t interact with it at all.
“Fundamentalism is most likely to be found at points where tradition is meeting modernity rather than where modernity is most remote.” (Nancy Ammerman)
It therefore always flares up in times of rapid social change – and that’s what you can see in this book, too. The high points of Evangelical activism is always shortly after periods of intense social change – the 1920s, the 1950s and the 2000s.
And one of the things that was most fascinating for me to see throughout this book is how the Evangelicals moved gradually into politics. In the beginning, they weren’t interested in this at all. In fact, they proclaimed that they would only be interested in God’s Kingdom of Heaven, and not in earthly politics.
However, it was politicians who opened the door and invited the Evangelicals in, mostly to support their domestic and foreign policy goals. It was a gradual shift, and Fitzgerald explains how it ended with Evangelicals being the single most important voter block for Republicans.
It all started with Eisenhower who connected religion and patriotism. He invited the Evangelical leader Billy Graham into the White House to pray with him. Eisenhower wanted to use religion as another way of fighting the Cold War – the Atheist Soviet Union vs the Godly USA.
He played right into the Fundamentalists’ cards. Remember when I spoke about them referring to an eternal fight between good and evil? For them, the Soviet Union and the Communists were Satan’s agents in this fight, and it was their Christian duty to fight them. (Of course, this also meant that no compromise was possible. You cannot find common ground with the Devil, after all.)
Then, in the 1960s, shit really hit the fan. Evangelicals fear disorder at the best of times, and the constant protests against everything and everyone just made them lose it. They saw the Vietnam Protests and the Civil Rights Movement, and this disorder, combined with their healthy dose of Racism, made them turn even further to the right.
They saw Martin Luther King Jr. and learnt the wrong lesson: Instead of thinking of how they could be Good Christians and fight racism and poverty, they realized that religious leaders could be politicians, too.
This realization gave rise to a whole crowd of new leaders of the religious right. Fitzgerald describes them in detail – perhaps a bit too much detail, because after a while, all those biographies blend together.
But one thing is clear – the 60s mark the emergence of ‘moral issues’. This mostly means one thing – the absolute opposition to abortion. (The fight against gay rights later joins, and the two define the ‘single issue’ that voters care so much about.)
All these new leaders agree on one thing: the chaos that they see in the world is because the biblical rules were discarded. The only way to save the country is to return to the Good Old Fashioned Rules, when wives obeyed their husbands, husbands obeyed their priests, and everything was just dandy.
(It must be said that the Evangelical Right is White Middle Class, which should surprise absolutely nobody.)
So all of this is good and fine, but they needed an in to politics – someone stupid enough to try to take advantage of them, who doesn’t understand their larger agenda, and who would need any help he could get to get elected.
Enter Reagan. (Fuck Reagan. The more I learn about this guy, the more I hate him.)
So Reagan starts actively courting the Evangelical vote, and he gets it. Once in the White House, he promptly ignores them and stops returning their calls.
But the damage is done – ever since Reagan, Republicans came to represent religious conservatives, and Democrats were the party for religious and secular liberals. The South becomes an absolute Republican domain, thanks to the Evangelical idea of the ‘Civic Gospel’.
It goes like this: The US was funded as a Christian Nation but has fallen away from the one true belief. Christians therefore need to lead the Nation back, to restore it to its glory.
This is helped, as always, by the underlying racism in the South – Poor Whites were afraid that government spending will only help Blacks, so they voted Republican, who promised small government and no help to anybody.
Of course, this started a vicious circle, in which Evangelicals voted Republican, the Republicans turn further right to serve their Evangelical voters, this in turn turns other, more moderate voters away, which makes Evangelicals all the more important to the Republicans.
So the next big moment for the Evangelicals comes during the George W Bush presidency, because G W truly is Reagan’s hardest competition for biggest asshole to ever become President.
Good old GW was the most sympathetic president the Christian Right had ever experienced. He doesn’t just invite them to the White House, he gave them policy jobs and money. (In my opinion, Fitzgerald should have talked a bit more about how Republican policy programs benefited the Christian Right. That was one of the most important and interesting bits in this book, and it would have deserved more time and explanation.)
And that’s when things get really crazy. So 9/11 happens and Bush reacts with a moral simplicity that brings tears to every Evangelist. He invokes the evangelical notion of American Goodness in a fallen world, of being attacked by an evil force, of this fight of good vs evil.
The Evangelists love this stuff, and therefore fully support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If you ever want to get truly scared shitless, read the bit in the book about how the Christian Right got Bush to invade Iraq. See, the idea is that the return of the Jews to Israel will bring on the end times, Armageddon, all that stuff that normal people would avoid at all costs. But for the Christian Right, who lived by God’s rules, this is the ultimate goal.
So it’s really in everyone’s best interest to bring on Armageddon as quickly as possible, and causing shit in the Middle East will bring this on. (Small hint: It’s also no coincidence that Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem, because Christian Zionists were really, really eager about that.)
Seriously, I would read an entire book about evangelistic missionaries in Iraq. That entire idea is so fucked up and yet it happened and I had no idea until now. The world is truly a scary place, people.
And because we are truly living in the timeline that God abandoned, the Christian Right then found an equally nasty group of people with a broader appeal – the Tea Party. The Tea Party is essentially the Republican Right in new garb. The majority of the members are Evangelical Protestants, which means white, old and racist.
If you listen to them, you’ll hear a lot of Evangelical ideas – that ‘America was stolen from them’, that government programs are supporting lazy people, that if you are poor, it’s your own fault.
It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party emerged after a Recession, and during the Presidency of the first African American President. In retrospect, it was inevitable.
We all know how this ends: The Tea Party moves the Republicans sharply to the right. In fact, as Fitzgerald shows, the congregations become more conservative than their leaders.
One of the great ironies of history is that the Evangelical leaders tried all they could to derail Trump’s presidency – they saw his moral failings, they pointed them out, but their flock wouldn’t follow their shepherd.
Seems like racism trumps everything, even the good Christian values.
This is a good book, and a very important one. I must admit that the first half lags a bit – I expected something more of a current perspective on things, but this truly is a History of Evangelicalism in the US.
And another thing – the editing in this book is a bit weird. I have a thing about chapters being about equal length, but this isn’t the case here at all. The shortest chapter has only eight pages, the longest one (about G W Bush) has 102! What’s up with that, editor?
And another thing –
There’s so much that I didn’t mention, but if you want to learn more about the weird thing called ‘prosperity gospel’, please watch John Oliver’s piece about it.
And next week –
we’re looking more at the US national identity, because this topic just won’t let me go.