The election of Bill Clinton brought to an end 12 years of Republican control of the White House. Just as importantly, and of special interest to those who still believe that religion is the wellspring of democracy, the November election may have also signaled the demise of Protestant evangelicalism as a major player in American life. After storming into the public limelight 15 years ago, there is good reason to believe that the “evangelical moment” is passing. In the aftermath of the most recent election, serious, public-minded evangelicals are having to rethink the connection between their religious beliefs and democratic life.
From the time of its coming of age in the early nineteenth century, evangelical Protestantism has been defined by a commitment to Biblical authority and the imperative of a “born again” experience. And, for much of the twentieth century, evangelicalism—at one time more commonly known as fundamentalism—was content to be ostracized from the main currents of American intellectual, theological, and political life. Loathing apostate “modernism” in its myriad cultural forms, and preoccupied with saving souls, American evangelicals wandered in exile until the 1970s.
Then many evangelicals discovered politics, or what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called “the power option.” The evangelical turn to political activism, most notably associated with the “Christian Right,” represented a remarkable transformation from separation to engagement. The subject of Menckenesque ridicule for much of this century, post-’70s evangelical political activism represented an aggressive, self-confident, and formidable new force on the American political landscape.
The growing secularization of American life—discerned in public controversies over prayer in schools, abortion, funding for the arts, and homosexual rights—provided evangelicals with troubling confirmation that America was no longer a nation anchored to Judeo-Christian values. Ironically, in light of their past anti-Catholicism, evangelicals found common ground with conservative Catholics in these concerns and began forging ecumenical political strategies to change America via the ballot box.
Just how successful this embrace of “the power option” has been depends on how it is viewed. On the one hand, the Christian Right made a big splash during the 1980s. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson became familiar names, while evangelical leaders and organizations were no longer dismissed as irrelevant by the print and electronic media. The Christian Right’s clout was most evident within the Republican Party, culminating in its near control of the 1992 Republican National Convention. Some evangelical leaders were so confident in its aftermath that they began to talk of a takeover of the Party.
Measured in this way, evangelical political activism has been successful: political organizations like Pat Robertson’s Christian Roundtable have become quite adept at the technology and strategy of interest group politics. On the other hand, while the voices of the Religious Right get louder, their impact upon the cultural moorings of American life grows more faint. Indeed, it is also ironic that evangelicals, who have been critical for so long of theological liberalism’s accommodation to the modern impulse of politicizing everything, should come to view America’s moral-cultural crisis as a political problem requiring political solutions. Fortunately, this irony has not been lost on all evangelicals.
Don Eberly is one of a growing number of young evangelical leaders who have begun to speak forcefully of the need for evangelicals to re-assess the nature of their public activism. Eberly, a former White House aide and presently director of a Pennsylvania-based think tank devoted to state policy issues, has long been interested in the nexus between religion and politics. Recently, however, in private memoranda and in a barrage of public interviews and published articles, he has spoken repeatedly of the dangers of “overselling politics”; he warns that if evangelicalism becomes “just a Christian jihad in American politics… it has a dim future.”
Eberly admonishes that “there is a real possibility that the church will be reduced to just another interest group in [an] American society clamoring for political power and political solutions.” Furthermore, and fundamentally, evangelical political activists misread the direction of influence between culture and politics. “The paradox today,” Eberly says, “is that while the church can be heard revving its tanks on the political battlefield, it is unarmed in the cultural arena, where the real task of restoring our society’s values must be carried out.”
From the perspective of the present moment, the signs of the times do not bode well for the moral-cultural commitments of those associated with the ecumenical alliance of orthodox Christians—Protestant as well as Catholic—who feel increasingly disconnected from modern, secular America. Among evangelicals, voices like Don Eberly’s speak an important truth: namely, that America’s future will ultimately be determined on the battlefields of culture, not at the ballot box.