The Bedrock Beliefs of the Christian Right
From about 1925 to 1975, the evangelical community shied away from political action. The exception would be the 1928 presidential election. Here they worked hard to defeat Al Smith, the Democratic but Catholic candidate. In their attempt to stop the teaching of evolution in the public schools, the fundamentalists suffered a severe public image defeat and retreated to their subculture. Some ultra-fundamentalists became politically active, but their numbers were small. In the mid- to late-1970s, however, the evangelical community mobilized for political action, and they have been active ever since. Continuing into the early twenty-first century, they are a powerful political force, one that can be ignored only at great peril.
When a series of events pushed conservative Protestants into the political arena, they had an ideology, a set of beliefs shaping their actions.
Behind this powerful political force exists an ideology or a set of beliefs—the subject of this article. Clyde Wilcox defines the Christian Right as a “social movement that attempts to mobilize evangelical Protestants and other orthodox Christians into political action.” Supporters of the Christian Right praise the movement as an attempt to return America to its founding Christian principles. The opponents of the Christian Right see it as “baptizing” a political ideology in the name of Christianity. 1
Actually, the new Christian Right should be seen as one of the two traditions emerging from the Revolutionary era that dealt with religion and politics. The Christian Right represents a tradition, going back to the Puritans, which attempts to formulate the moral standards of the nation according to its vision. This conservative perspective tends to sanctify America, legitimizing its form of government, economy, and military activities. A second tradition goes back to at least Roger Williams, also in the seventeenth century. It recognized that even then America had deep religious and cultural divisions. So in respect to public life—once some basic standards designed to allow civilization to survive were established—explicit religion should be separate from politics. This tradition also tends to be more critical of the American political, economic, and social systems. Contemporary evangelicals have adopted both positions. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Christian Right represent the first tradition while Jimmy Carter upheld something resembling the second. 2
The roots of the Christian Right go back to the Protestant cultural dominance in the nineteenth century. A more immediate connection, however, can be made with the Old Christian Right. After fundamentalism’s defeat in the 1920s, most evangelicals abandoned the political arena. But there were exceptions to this trend—the Old Christian Right and some ultra-fundamentalists. A partial list would include Gerald B. Winrod, Gerald L. K. Smith, Carl McIntire, Verne P. Kaub, Edgar C. Bundy, and Billy Hargis. These ultra-fundamentalists did battle against the social gospel, liberalism, women’s rights, evolution, the New Deal, socialism, communism, and Catholicism. 3
The issues have changed somewhat. The Cold War has been replaced with the culture war. The New Christian Right focuses on family matters, abortion, homosexuality, feminism, prayer in the schools, pornography, and same-sex marriage. And because of these issues, conservative Catholics—instead of being enemies—are often allies with the evangelicals. But as Mark Noll has noted, the evangelical approach to these problems has remained largely the same, that is, “moral activism, populism, intuition, and biblicism.” 4
The bedrock beliefs of the new Christian Right closely resemble those of the Old Christian Right, but some new twists have arisen. As noted, some of the issues are different and, unlike its predecessor, the New Christian Right is at the very center of American politics—not at the margins of American society as was the Old Christian Right. Both the Old and the New Christian Right have explicit and implicit theological positions. There are some very clearly stated beliefs and some unstated ideas that covertly shape the activities of the New Christian Right (from now on, the Christian Right).
SCRIPTURE AND ITS INTERPRETATION
The Christian Right’s explicit source of authority is an inerrant Bible interpreted literally and often out of its context. Evangelicals love to proof text Scripture. Thus its meaning is clear, so there is no need for an interpretation by the educated elite. Because Scripture is accessible to all, this leads to a populist approach to politics. Political philosophies come from fallen human beings and are thus fallible. The evangelical Christian armed with Scripture, however, has direct access to God’s will and needs no human authorities for his or her political insights. Further, evangelicals tend to apply their interpretation of Scripture widely. Not only is the Bible the rule for personal morality and worship, but it is also the authority for politics and social organization. The attempt by many evangelicals to apply the commands of Scripture to the public arena is certainly a major factor in the culture wars. 5
The implicit authorities are varied but important. The old Manichaean worldview, which pervades the evangelical subculture, encourages them to interpret the Bible and much else in black and white terms. Consequently, world events are viewed as part of the conflict between good and evil, and one is either on God’s side or the devil’s. This view obviously discourages compromise, which is essential to political discourse. Prevailing theologies such as dispensationalism are accepted by millions of evangelicals as synonymous with the Word of God and not as just another human approach to Scripture. Growing out of this theology is a sense of an impending end to history, a situation that also impacts one’s political views. Christianity in the United States has become so Americanized that at times it is difficult to tell God’s Word from American culture. The Christian Right indeed interprets the Bible through a “glass darkly,” that is, the prism of American culture. This situation has dramatically influenced the Christian Right’s stance on both domestic and international politics.
CONVERSION, CREATIONISM, AND HUMAN NATURE
The evangelical distinctive centers on the conversion experience, and this informs its view of politics. As D. G. Hart notes, conversion is a “great leveler of privilege and rank because it results in a sanctified person who is capable of intuiting what is just or right in social and international affairs.” Thus evangelicals often find it difficult to understand how a truly converted person can oppose the political agenda of the Religious Right or embrace “liberal” views. Conversion is to produce a sanctified and pietistic person. This personal piety is broadened beyond the self to the wider society. It orients evangelicals toward public issues that have moral significance on a pietistic level but frequently blinds them to social problems. For example, evangelicals are often preoccupied with sexual sins while they ignore social evils such as poverty and racism. Conservative Protestants, indeed, believe that if religion is truly spiritual it will shape “the behavior of citizens” and order “the affairs of nations.” 6
Creationism is a big issue with the Christian Right. Believing in the literal interpretation of an inerrant Bible, in various degrees they are faithful to the Genesis account. God directly created the world—some say in six days, while others stretch his work over a vast period of time. Still, most reject evolution and this fuels a major issue for the Christian Right. They insist that creation science or intelligent design be taught as an alternative to evolution in the public schools. 7
Related to the creation story is the preeminence of men over women and the Christian Right’s rejection of feminism. The Genesis account in their view established woman as man’s helpmate. Feminism and the struggle for equal rights thus upsets the divinely ordained role and the order of creation. “No issue has caused evangelicals more consternation in the second half of the twentieth century than feminism,” says Randall Balmer. The women’s movement has challenged the worldview of conservative Protestants much like Darwinism and higher criticism did in the nineteenth century. 8
The Christian Right accepts literally the Genesis account regarding the fall of humanity and the consequences of this original sin. Their dim view of the human condition has political implications. Because of their negative view of human nature, they regard individual conversion—not social programs—as the answer to societal problems. This view also inclines the Christian Right to take a law and order approach and advocate more social controls than would liberals. But conversion can reverse the effects of the original sin. That is why the Religious Right and evangelicals in general support the election of “Christian politicians.” The new birth enables these “righteous ones” to rise above the usual corrupt situations that politicians face. This emphasis on conversion also reinforces the evangelical tendency to “Christianize” celebrity figures—whether they be in politics, business, athletics or entertainment. That person “is a Christian” they say, so he or she is more trustworthy. 9
THE COVENANT AND CHRISTIAN AMERICA
While the covenant receives little attention from evangelical pulpits, it has major political implications for the Christian Right. What are they? God had a covenant with Israel, which entailed moral injunctions. Would God bless or punish Israel? This depended on Israel’s obedience to the covenant. The Puritans transferred the covenant to America. Since then American civil religion has viewed the United States as a “chosen nation” with a unique role to play in God’s plan for the world. But America must be faithful to the divine commands. And since the 1960s, it has not been. This will bring God’s judgment, such as the nation experienced on September 11.
This chosen nation concept has been applied to many aspects of American life: prayer in the school, foreign policy, resistance to moral decadence, and support for military action. Gabriel Fackre writes that “the greatest departure from Christian doctrine” is the Religious Right’s transfer of the divine covenant with Israel to America. What we have is a “functional elevation of America to the place of the chosen nation.” This breeds intense nationalism and military adventurism in foreign affairs while dampening internal criticism of such policies. America’s “covenant status makes loyalty” to the nation an aspect of “loyalty to God.” 10
Many contemporary evangelicals desire to reform America. What fuels this passion? A central motivation is their vision of a Christian America. They believe that America was established on Christian principles and that it is a Christian nation with a special mission. They also insist that in recent years, the vision of a Christian America has been hijacked by the secularists and feminists.
The Puritans believed that they had a covenant with God and that America was a “city on a hill,” the “New Israel.” This idea was continued and enlarged upon in the nineteenth century. America now became a redeemer nation with a millennial mission to civilize and Christianize the world. Wars and depressions tarnished this vision during the first half of the twentieth century. But the fundamentalists still clung to the notion that America had been a Christian nation. During the patriotic 1950s, under the guidance of a benevolent president (Eisenhower) and the threat of communism, the vision received new life.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War and the social turbulence of that era created much cynicism regarding America’s divine mission. Still, such beliefs took on new life in the late twentieth century and became an article of faith with many evangelicals.
Why is a Christian America so important for God’s plans? America has four major tasks, and if it fails, God’s work will be set back. First, America must facilitate world evangelism. According to Jerry Falwell, “North America is the last logical base for world evangelization.” 11 Who is to do the evangelism is unclear, but America must provide the resources. The next great task is to protect the nation of Israel. In dispensational theology, at the end of time God has great plans for Israel. Third, America must protect the free world from the onslaught of godless communism. When communism collapsed in 1991, the Christian Right turned to domestic issues. But after September 11, terrorism replaced communism as the great external threat. Finally, America must be the guardian of liberty: religious, political, and economic. America must first preserve liberty at home from creeping liberalism and collectivism, and export it to the rest of the world. 12
Grant Wacker contends that the Christian Right can be “functionally defined by its commitment to the rebirth of Christian Civilization.” As described by the Christian Right and other conservative Christians, a Christian civilization rests on three pillars. Most basic is the belief that there are “numerous moral absolutes human beings do not create but discover.” As a result, there is only one correct answer for every moral question. Two, in a Christian civilization these moral absolutes ought to form “the laws that govern society.” They should regulate both private and public conduct. Lastly, the moral absolutes undergirding society are revealed in nature but most explicitly in the Bible. Given these views, the Christian Right is “fired by an interventionist rather than libertarian vision of society.” 13
THE MARKET ECONOMY AND LIMITED GOVERNMENT
Conservative politics and conservative economics are often fellow travelers. Evangelicalism embraced capitalism in the nineteenth century. The same characteristics, however, that forged an early marriage between capitalism and evangelicalism are alive and well in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The marriage is thus stable. Ever since Max Weber, scholars have debated the linkage between Protestantism and capitalism. To see a cause and effect would be an exaggeration. They nevertheless share many characteristics that make for a compatible relationship. Many of these same features can be found in contemporary evangelicalism and make for a cozy relationship with capitalism.
Being an evangelical does not demand that one automatically embrace the free enterprise system. But there is certainly a close connection. Evangelicalism centers on the conversion experience, which is an individual’s free decision. Conservative Protestants usually uphold the ideas of hard work, discipline, efficiency, and personal responsibility. All of these characteristics point the evangelical toward the free enterprise system and unregulated markets. Such evangelical features are also the requirements for running a small business. Evangelicals prize liberty of all forms and this intense devotion spills over into the market economic system. They hate all forms of collectivism and government control (unless it is to their benefit, of course). Individuals, in their opinion, should be free to use their talents and resources as they see fit. Many people will argue that the free enterprise system is the best economic system. But many conservative Protestants baptize this system, elevating it to the eleventh commandment. 14
Evangelicalism’s embrace of the market economy has been fueled by more than theory and the fact that they share certain common characteristics. Post World War II America, especially since 1980, has witnessed the triumph of consumerism. The nation has been riding a crest of prosperity, not withstanding the mounting personal and national debt. Conservative Protestants have not been left out of these developments. They have prospered and moved into the middle class and beyond. Evangelicals may be protesting the nation’s moral breakdown, but they are not complaining about its materialism. They build large homes, shop until they drop, and use the plastic card like most Americans. In this sense conservative Protestants have bought heavily into the American way of life.
If the free enterprise system has divine approval, what then is the role of government? Quite limited, say many evangelicals. They viewed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal with great suspicion and as an intrusion into God-given liberties. In fact, evangelicals inclined toward dispensationalism regarded such developments as preparation for the “man of sin,” and the “one world government.” For the most part, the negative attitude toward big government has continued down to the present. In economic matters, the Christian Right agrees with Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the government that governs least governs the best. The federal government in their opinion is the greatest threat to personal and economic freedoms. It has encroached upon the prerogatives of the family, church, school, and the business community. In the process, government has far exceeded its constitutional boundaries, which have been enlarged by activist judges. 15
The logic of the Christian Right in respect to limited government contains an apparent paradox. They plead for less government in economic matters and on some social issues. But in respect to moral concerns—especially abortion, same-sex marriages, homosexuality, and prayer in the public schools—they desire government legislation to rectify the current situation. In the words of conservative columnist William Safire: “the Rightists wanted to remove the government from the private sector, yet have it govern such intimate matters as abortion, sexual lifestyles, and prayer.” 16 In respect to abortion, conservative Protestants see their position as consistent with their philosophy that a government’s primary role is to protect people—this time the unborn. They also justify legislation on other moral issues with this argument: once America returns to its Christian principles, there will be no need to legislate morals.
In respect to the last three subjects—the Christian nation, the free enterprise system, and limited government—evangelicals have “baptized” America’s political and economic systems as they have sanctified many aspects of American culture. Limited government and the market economy may be outstanding systems—ones that have worked well for America. They may even be the key to America’s freedom and prosperity. And in part, they may reflect biblical principles. But they are also derived from secular sources, namely, the classical economists and Enlightenment political thinkers. Assuming that liberty is a Christian virtue, it has sources other than the Bible. Much of this Christianizing of the political and economic systems can be attributed to evangelicalism’s tendency to sanctify many aspects of the secular culture. 17
The end is coming say many evangelicals. This preoccupation plays an important but paradoxical role in the Christian Right’s political views. While the Christian Right embraces several eschatological views, most hold to the premillennial, pretribulational position. Such a position says that the world will get worse until Christ returns to rapture out believing Christians. Current events are watched closely and interpreted in light of an impending end. The premillennialists believe that the world must get worse and worse. But they still have a moral reform agenda for America.
While many evangelicals believe the end is very near, they have moved up the social ladder and are planning to continue the good life for the foreseeable future. The Christian Right’s view of the end closely relates to its dualistic worldview. What is going on right before their eyes is a cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness—and they are on God’s side. Of significant importance and as a result of its eschatology, the Christian Right has a great interest in Israel. The return of the Jews to Palestine set the divine clock ticking. Nothing else needs to be fulfilled before the end. Thus the Christian Right staunchly supports Israel’s interests in American foreign policy. 18
Driving the rise of the Christian Right are a number of beliefs—an inerrant Bible, the necessity of conversion, America’s Christian heritage, and the divinely sanctioned political and economic systems. But it took a series of events to trigger the conservative political resurgence of the late 1970s. Evangelicals had been a political and intellectual minority since the 1930s. They were, however, still part of the conservative cultural majority. Most Americans shared a similar vision on how a well-ordered society should be run. Evangelicals felt at home in the general religious tenor of the Eisenhower era. In their mind, America was “One Nation Under God.” The traditional family values of the time suited them. Women understood their child-rearing role and abortion-on-demand was not yet legal. The new medium of television did not offend the evangelical community. They watched “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver” and could identify with this lifestyle. In the public schools, the day still opened with Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer. After 1970, conservative Protestants longingly looked back to the America of the 1950s. They were not politically active from 1930 to 1970 because they did not have to be. 19
But the social and political turmoil of the 1960s drastically changed America. Life-altering events included the following: the civil rights movement, the counterculture, the women’s movement, increased immigration, opposition to the Vietnam War, a series of Supreme Court decisions, the sexual revolution, and an increased use of drugs. 20 Such developments made evangelicals increasingly uncomfortable with the America of the late twentieth century. The traditional values to which they adhered no longer held sway and often became the object of ridicule. And when a series of events pushed conservative Protestants into the political arena, they had an ideology, a set of beliefs shaping their actions.
This article was excerpted from the author’s book, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity, published in 2006 by Transaction Books of Rutgers University.
- Clyde Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996), 1006, 5 (quote); Erling Jorstad, The Politics of Moralism: The New Christian Right in American Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1981), 108; Michael Lienesch, “Right-Wing Religion: Christian Conservatism as a Political Movement,” Political Science Quarterly 97, no. 3 (1982): 407-9. Some people prefer the broader term, Religious Right, which encompasses not only conservative Protestants—who would still be the dominant element—but also conservative Catholics and Mormons.
- George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 96-97; Robert Wuthnow, “Divided We Fall: America’s Two Civil Religions,” Christian Century 20 April 1988, 398; idem, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 191-203; Sidney Blumenthal, “The Righteous Empire,” The New Republic, 22 October 1984, 20; Wesley G. Pippert (intro), “Jimmy Carter: My Personal Faith in God,” Christianity Today 4 March 1983, 14-20.
- Richard V. Pierard, “The New Christian Right: A Formidable Force in American Politics,” Choice, 19, no. 7 (1982): 864; Donald C. Swift, Religion and the American Experience (Amonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998), 239-41; Robert S. Ellwood, 1950: Crossroads of American Religious Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2000); 185-86; Martin E. Marty, Modern American Religion: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), 371-72.
- Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 159-61.
- Gabriel Fackre, The Religious Right and the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982; D. G. Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 145; Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 190.
- Hart, 86, 146 (quotes); Fackre, 81-82; Richard V. Pierard, The Unequal Yoke: Evangelical Christianity and Political Conservatism (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1970), 38-39; Ellwood, 191.
- Fackre, 36-38.
- Randall Balmer, Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1999), 71 (quote); Martin Durham, The Christian Right, the Far Right and the Boundaries of American Conservatism (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000), 38.
- Fackre, 45, 46 (quote), Pierard, Unequal Yoke, 38. See John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, The Myth of the American Superhero (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
- Fackre, 59, 62 (quotes). See Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003); Tony Carnes, “The Bush Doctrine,” Christianity Today May 2003, 38-40; Howard Fineman, “Bush and God,” Newsweek, 10 March 2003, 23-30; George Wills, “Paradoxes of Public Piety,” Newsweek 15 March 2004, 80.
- Jerry Falwell, Listen America! (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 244.
- Robert Zwier, Born-Again Politics: The Christian Right in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982), 42, 43 (quote).
- Grant Wacker, “Searching for Norman Rockwell: Popular Evangelicalism in Contemporary America,” in The Evangelical Tradition in America, ed. Leonard I. Sweet (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 297-99, 301.
- Hart, 106-7; Zwier, 43; Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 197-98. See Robert Wuthnow, God and Mammon in America (New York: Free Press, 1994); Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2003).
- Zwier, 44; Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 190; Hart, 102, 160.
- Jorstad, 107 (quote).
- Jorstad, 108; Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 30. For a description of evangelicals baptizing the secular culture, see Carol Flake, Redemptorama: Culture, Politics, and the New Evangelicalism (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1984).
- For an overview of such materials see Richard Kyle, The Last Days Are Here Again: A History of the End Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998); Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004).
- Geoffrey Layman, The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 7-8; Hart, 149-50; William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway, 1996), 47-48.
- For a description of religion during the counterculture, see Mark Oppenheimer, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).