The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.
White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.
Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”
Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life. Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.” The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.
But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.
Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.
But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.
A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.
Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”
When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.
Democracy is on the ropes. In the United States and abroad, citizens of democracies are feeling increasingly alienated, disaffected, and powerless. Some are even asking themselves a question that feels almost too dangerous to say out loud: is democracy fundamentally broken?
Today on Radiolab, just a day before the American midterm elections, we ask a different question: how do we fix it? We scrutinize one proposed tweak to the way we vote that could make politics in this country more representative, more moderate, and most shocking of all, more civil. Could this one surprisingly do-able mathematical fix really turn political campaigning from a rude bloodsport to a campfire singalong? And even if we could do that, would we want to?
John Oliver discusses the growing number of authoritarian leaders around the world, their common characteristics, and whether or not one of them is currently our president.
- Projecting Strength
- Demonizing Enemies
- Dismantling Institutions: The Press, Courts
We probably disagree on this, but as I see it, people like Putin, Duterte, and Trump are not actually restoring law and order. I don’t think that is what authoritarian leaders do, it is what they promise. Remember that Nixon was the “law and order president”. As I see it, they are making a mockery of law and order, turning it into a tool that an authoritarian leader can use to advance his own interests, hound his enemies, protect his friends, hide his own actions, and enrich himself. I am extremely concerned about law and order, I just want to make sure that it applies to the president as well. I have some examples in mind, I want to avoid giving them now simply because I want to avoid putting hot-button issues into a post at this point of the conversation. We may well disagree on my examples, I would like to find a calm way to discuss them in order to be able to discuss and learn together.
In the long run, if I’m right and this becomes obvious to people, then they may judge both Christianity and the pro-life movement as political pawns with little moral authority if we are fiercely loyal to them. I think that’s what happened in Europe as the children of Germans realized that their Christian parents had generally supported the Nazis. I think the same might well have happened in the United States if Christians of all races had not marched together against racist laws.
I think it is really important to have some moral distance from any political leader. I’m probably a lot more concerned about Trump than you are.
.. I don’t think democracy “works” and I don’t think it’s stable in the long run. I don’t really sit around worrying about “how to make democracy work”, either.
.. I guess the difference is I’m not part of the “we” of trying to make political change happen – instead, I think political change happens because God is ultimately orchestrating the affairs of men. If men don’t voluntarily choose to stop doing a grievous sin like abortion (or world wars, or the Holocaust, or all manner of other evil), God eventually intervenes. And I don’t think God is constrained by the democratic process.
.. Ending abortion, or dealing with roving drug gangs, is definitely restoring some kind of law and order. It’s not an ideal, but it’s improvement in the right direction. And I think it’s a consequence of us more progressive-minded people being so obsessed with laws and rules that we end up letting criminals get away with turning cities into war zones because we were so fixated on the rights of criminals to due process and so forth.
.. I do pray that God will intervene, but I worry about American Christians anointing a strongman who promises to beat up our enemies. I see some religious leaders treating Trump as “God’s anointed”, sent to save America from our sins. The Trump Prophecy and many things coming out of Liberty University seem to approach idolatry, as does the billboard Jeremy mentioned.
.. If I were to advise Christians, I’d tell then to follow the Bible, which necessarily means not voting, not fighting in wars, not killing people, and so on. Regardless, abortion will only be ended through force. God is in charge of using that force. Persuasion doesn’t stop murder.
.. I think abortion will not be ended by force, unless you mean the return of Christ as an act of force. Abortion pills are too easy to transport, even if they were to become illegal.
A change of heart, that is conversion (not persuasion, although that too will help), is the best way to end abortions. Meanwhile, we can reduce abortions with easy free access to birth control, free prenatal care, free birthing centers, and reducing other financial barriers to parenthood.