Evangelicals and Politics

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Bicentennial postcardDuring most of the 20th century, American evangelicalism as a movement was generally perceived as being reticent about politics because its sights were focused on what seemed more important tasks: evangelism, missions, and nurturing the faithful. All that seemed to change, however, in the 1970s when evangelicals visibly “re-entered” the national spotlight with the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist layman who unabashedly claimed to be “born again.”

But the most visible aspect of this new political sensibility was the appearance of right-wing organizations like the Moral Majority and Concerned Women for America. This new “Religious Right” was credited with playing a major role in the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 (and the ironic ouster of the evangelical President Carter, for the much-less obviously pious Reagan). In retrospect, it now seems clear that the part these organizations played in this outcome was not as great as either the news media or conservative evangelicals once believed. Unarguably, however, there was a new evangelical interest in political participation, which subsequently gave birth to a new generation of “Religious Right” organizations, such as the Christian Coalition.

The reasons for this resurgence are many, including: a natural desire to have a positive impact on culture and society (a subtle indication, perhaps, of the decline of some types of evangelical prophetic interpretations that emphasized an imminent Second Coming); concern over abortion and changing sexual mores in society; and dissatisfaction with the content, direction and power of the mass media and popular culture. However, what seems to have been the single overarching factor has been the post-WWII expansion of the Federal Government into areas and responsibilities that were previously the domain of the state and local government, the individual, the family, and the church.

Reagan at NAEYet, it must be made clear that there is no monolithic consensus among evangelicals on politics, any more than there is on theological matters. While the movement is conservative in many regards, there are many evangelicals who would identify their political orientation as liberal or "progressive" and some, like the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., who are leftist in nature.

In terms of party affiliation, the movement has been traditionally perceived as Republican. This impression, however, reflects a bias that centers on the Northern, Midwestern evangelicals of the NAE “card-carrying” variety. When the huge numbers of Southern white and black evangelicals are factored in, it is probably more accurate to say that in the years before 1970 the “average” evangelical was more likely to be a Democrat. With the defection of large numbers of white Southerners to the Republicans in recent decades, the political make-up of evangelicalism has changed. Today, the overall political tenor of the movement could be described as moderately conservative and predominantly Republican. But, recent election trends and changing attitudes—particularly among younger evangelicals—may signal a shift towards a general realignment of evangelical political affiliation.

Evangelicals and the Media >  

©Larry Eskridge, 1996. Revised 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012

Bicentennial postcardDuring most of the 20th century, American evangelicalism as a movement was generally perceived as being reticent about politics because its sights were focused on what seemed more important tasks: evangelism, missions, and nurturing the faithful. All that seemed to change, however, in the 1970s when evangelicals visibly “re-entered” the national spotlight with the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist layman who unabashedly claimed to be “born again.”

But the most visible aspect of this new political sensibility was the appearance of right-wing organizations like the Moral Majority and Concerned Women for America. This new “Religious Right” was credited with playing a major role in the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 (and the ironic ouster of the evangelical President Carter, for the much-less obviously pious Reagan). In retrospect, it now seems clear that the part these organizations played in this outcome was not as great as either the news media or conservative evangelicals once believed. Unarguably, however, there was a new evangelical interest in political participation, which subsequently gave birth to a new generation of “Religious Right” organizations, such as the Christian Coalition.

The reasons for this resurgence are many, including: a natural desire to have a positive impact on culture and society (a subtle indication, perhaps, of the decline of some types of evangelical prophetic interpretations that emphasized an imminent Second Coming); concern over abortion and changing sexual mores in society; and dissatisfaction with the content, direction and power of the mass media and popular culture. However, what seems to have been the single overarching factor has been the post-WWII expansion of the Federal Government into areas and responsibilities that were previously the domain of the state and local government, the individual, the family, and the church.

Reagan at NAEYet, it must be made clear that there is no monolithic consensus among evangelicals on politics, any more than there is on theological matters. While the movement is conservative in many regards, there are many evangelicals who would identify their political orientation as liberal or "progressive" and some, like the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., who are leftist in nature.

In terms of party affiliation, the movement has been traditionally perceived as Republican. This impression, however, reflects a bias that centers on the Northern, Midwestern evangelicals of the NAE “card-carrying” variety. When the huge numbers of Southern white and black evangelicals are factored in, it is probably more accurate to say that in the years before 1970 the “average” evangelical was more likely to be a Democrat. With the defection of large numbers of white Southerners to the Republicans in recent decades, the political make-up of evangelicalism has changed. Today, the overall political tenor of the movement could be described as moderately conservative and predominantly Republican. But, recent election trends and changing attitudes—particularly among younger evangelicals—may signal a shift towards a general realignment of evangelical political affiliation.

Evangelicals and the Media >  

©Larry Eskridge, 1996. Revised 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012