The rise of a new conservative grass roots fueled by a secular revulsion at government spending is stirring fears among leaders of the old conservative grass roots, the evangelical Christian right.
Ben Smith, Politico
There is something about rises and falls that makes for great social analysis, which for this writer, means great fun. It’s not so fun for those involved, though, and counting myself among those evangelicals whose political influence may (or may not) be waning, I have a kind of Schadenfreude reading this Politico article on Tea Party-animals and evangelical culture warriors. I’ve said before that the Tea Party will be disappointed eventually, and withdraw in a snippy, still-engaged-but-without-stable-identity kind of way. However, my forte is History. I’m not really so good at predicting, and I don’t really have the clairvoyance to say what will happen to Tea Partiers or Christian neocons.
But evangelical politicos really did gain significance in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And they (we) are living in a secular, non-millenial world. That is, none of us are going to bring the millennium, and for those of us who believe it will still come, we don’t have a sure-fire way of relating redemptive history in time to the causes and effects going on in the world around us. Augustine stamped this into our minds by vehemently distinguishing between the City of God and the City of Man, a sort of non-dualistic dualism – distinguishing God’s work through the Church from goings-on in the world around, without condemning the world, per se.
All this means the influence of evangelicals in American politics is taking place in secular time, and that influence may decrease. If that happens, we have a host of declining examples whose steps are worn and ready for re-pacing: postwar Europe, 19th century monarchs and aristocrats, or the San Francisco 49ers.
The country itself can take an evangelical political decline without much notice. The Politico article basically depicts only two known Christian political issues: abortion and gay-marriage. Christian justification, on faith-grounds, of other issues, may have been part of what bolstered the Republican Party in the 1980s, but possibly the GOP can do without those justifications. Which is the more alluring argument: the measurable economic effects of free trade policy, or a theological justification of economic practice on ontological grounds? Politically, it is the former.
A decline is a sad thing, when the senescent party is grasping at its last threads. But evangelicals have many interests besides politics, like evangelizing and becoming more like Christ. The question is whether evangelicals, in their identity as evangelicals, can continue to rouse a Constitution-thumping rant of the heart – the visceral defense of self that articulates their national identity as well as spiritual. And if not, what is an evangelical in America? A desert hermit? An underground counterculture? Would their religious identity be bolstered, like immigrant Catholics in the 19th and early 20th century?
When we try to think about what would happen, or if it were possible to dissociate national identity from American evangelicalism, we are of course running up to that strange Puritan heritage, and Christian tradition, in this country that has shaped both our politics and our religion. But the republic is only stable in so many ways. Another radical phase of our history could come (but we are definitely not there yet) when the little-c constitution is not defended so readily. And if evangelicals lose their place –that would therefore affect American identity for everyone, as much as it would the evangelical identity for the confused remnant.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.