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An Obsolete Political Faith

By November 1, 2012 No Comments

by James Bratt

The most common theme running through postmortems of the presidential election has been demographic: the Republican Party’s mortal dependency on an eroding white male power base, mirrored by its pitiful share among the rising Latino sector in American society. Some 60 percent of whites voted GOP, and fully two-thirds of white males—the most lopsided outcome in that demographic in all American history. Yet these figures shrink next to the one adding religion to the mix: 79 percent of whites who self-identify as evangelical Christians went for Romney. That is, only 21 percent of white evangelicals picked the winner, sided with what Republican and Democratic talking-heads agree is the emerging future of American society. The presidential election now makes full-throated the question that has been gaining volume over the last decade or so: does evangelicalism have a future in a genuinely pluralistic America?

Well of course it does, if we untie the term from the shackles that political analysts have put upon it—and that the Christian Right has done much to clamp tight. The strongest segment of the Democratic coalition is also the most fervently Bible-believing, conversionist, supernaturalist cohort on the American religious scene. That would be African Americans, who voted Democratic 93 to 7. Repeat: 93 to 7. Superevangelical, yet somehow they don’t get counted in. Nor do Latinos lack (to put it mildly) Pentecostal numbers. But they don’t count in the camp of this faith either. Could it be their body count in the voting results (71 percent Democratic) has put them outside the pale? Could that be why Mormons get evangelical hugs when it comes to political chumming up?

The public leaders and a whole lot of the rank and file of evangelicalism have chosen a racial image that belies their official theology, and that has come round to bite them on a very sensitive part of their anatomy. Their operational church has become the Right edge of the Republican Party, and their real litmus test of orthodoxy gives not a hoot for the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, sola fides, or the man in the moon, but the sex agenda at politics: anti-abortion and legal disregard for same-sex relationships. These would seem more likely to be the markers of a fertility cult than of biblical religion—another plus for Mormonism—but never mind. As Christian Right pope R. Albert Mohler declared the morning after the election: the 2012 elections amount to a “catastrophe on moral issues.” “Morality” here being defined by sexual association.

A way forward for white evangelicalism would embrace holistic biblical morality instead—a concern for all of life, not just before birth, and for justice and equity in economic matters. It would seem the way of prudence too. Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times’ house conservatives, marked out the path already after the first Obama triumph, in Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (2009). “Family values” must include sustainability and hope for the family as an economic unit, its oldest function, and that requires a break from bondage to big capital and freemarket orthodoxies. Former George W. Bush advisor David Frum made a similar point about abortion in a CNN column just a week before the election. “As a general rule, societies that do the most to support mothers and child-bearing have the fewest abortions. Societies that do the least to support mothers and child-bearing have more abortions.” Such support begins with health care and economic viability.

A “catastrophe” the 2012 elections might have been for evangelicalism—a smashing of the idols of the tribe, together with a chance for repentance and a new creative contribution to American politics. We’ll see if new leaders can arise and seize the chance. That would serve better than a centenarian Billy Graham taking down Mormonism from his hit list.

James Bratt teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This article originally appeared on the Perspectives blog, The Twelve.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin University, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. He is the author of several books including Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, widely considered the definitive Kuyper biography.