SUMMARY: How did the Republican party and white evangelicals become synonymous? Has abortion always been the focus of the Republican party and white evangelicals? In a tight, accessible 100 pages, author Randall Balmer traces the roots of the Religious Right and its wedding to the Republican party from the 1830s through the 1970s and then links the movement to its current iteration in the 21st century.
In the early 19th century most American Christians ascribed to postmillennialism, the belief that Jesus will return after the 1000-year peace predicted in the book of Revelation. The 1000-year peace period is also known as the millennium. Christians saw it as their duty to bring heaven down to earth in preparation for Jesus’ second coming. The abolition of slavery, women’s rights, education, and prison reform are just some of the issues Christians advocated for.
After four years of civil war from 1861-1865 and well over half a million dead, many Christians began to rethink their postmillennialism viewpoint. Around the same time Anglican priest, John Nelson Darby began advocating for a premillennialism (Jesus will return before the millennium) reading of the Bible. This interpretation allowed Christians to forgo addressing any social ills. As a result, many white evangelicals retracted from public life and started to create their own subculture.
“Having already embraced premillennialism, the doctrine that Jesus would return to earth at the moment to rain judgment on the unrighteous, evangelicals set about to construct the evangelical subculture, an interlocking network of congregations, denominations, Bible camps, Bible institutes, colleges, seminaries, missionary societies, and publishing houses.”
For decades this subculture was left alone. During this time frame, many private schools and colleges were created in response to desegregation. Perhaps the most notable example is Bob Jones University, an institution that didn’t admit Black people until 1971 following the Green v. Connally ruling that took away the tax-exempt status from private schools that engaged in racially discriminatory practices.
The Green v. Connally ruling, a ruling that addressed tax-exempt status for racially segregated institutions (racism), spurred white evangelicals to political action and to form the Religious Right. For years, politically conservative activist Paul Weyrich had been trying to motivate white evangelicals to get involved politically. He tried issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and prayer in schools, but none of them stuck.
“It wasn’t the abortion issue, that wasn’t sufficient,” Weyrich said. “It was the recognition that isolation simply would no longer work in this society.”
So, why does this history matter? “As an evangelical, I come from a particular tradition and history and there are good and bad things about that,” author of The Liturgy of Politics Kaitlyn Schiess says. “I want to be aware of how my tradition has shaped my biases when it comes to reading Scripture and politics.”
Balmer states it more bluntly, “Unacknowledged and unaddressed racism has a tendency to fester.” That festering includes Jim Crow laws, redlining, and the almost unequivocal support of Donald Trump by evangelicals in 2016 and 2020.
81% of white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016, 75% in 2020 despite a long history of racist and sexist comments. What issue links the current state of the Republican party and evangelicals with the Republican party and evangelicals over 50 years ago? Racism.
Blamer aptly concludes that if racism didn’t appeal to evangelicals in 2016 or 2020, at the very least, it didn’t repel them. And that is something white American evangelicals need to come to terms with.
KEY QUOTE: “Sadly, the Religious Right was never about the advancement of biblical values. The modern, politically conservative evangelical activism we see today is a movement rooted in the perpetuation of racial segregation, and its affiliation with the hard-right fringes of the conservative movement beginning in the late 1970s produced a mutant form of evangelicalism inconsistent with the best traditions of evangelicalism itself.”
BONUS: Don’t have time to read the book? Listen to Balmer’s thorough interview on the Freedom Road Podcast.
BONUS II: To learn more about the wedding between the Republican party and evangelicals check out Evangelicals and Politics episode from the Up First Podcast.
DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
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