I was still fairly new to evangelicalism in 1980 when Ronald Reagan first ran for President. I had been a believer for a little more than four years, and up until that year I had not noticed any overall political bias toward either the Democratic or Republican parties among my fellow believers.
But in my local church, a conservative Open Plymouth Brethren assembly, the campaigns of 1980 seemed to create a new a political rift between those who preferred Jimmy Carter because he was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, and those who were fed up with the state of the economy and the low level of national morale and wanted him out. The latter group seemed vaguely aware that Reagan also professed some form of Christian belief, but for the most part did not think that either man’s profession of faith should be a determining factor in whether he was elected.
And then there was a very small group, perhaps only two people, who could remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s New Deal legislation from the perspective of those who had to support a family during the Great Depression. They expressed an undying gratitude to the Democratic party itself, and would vote for Carter for that reason alone.
The fact that these people were suddenly (from my perspective at least) expressing strong political opinions was something of an eye opener for me. They had hardly ever talked politics before in my presence, at least not at this depth and with this much emotion (which, by today’s standards, was rather subdued).
Like other Brethren assemblies, LaGrange Gospel Chapel was committed to a strongly Dispensationalist theological system, the most popular version of which has as one of its key ingredients the doctrine of an imminent, supernatural “Rapture” of believers from this world immediately prior to a seven-year period known as “The Great Tribulation.” This, in turn, is to be followed by the Battle of Armageddon, Christ’s Second Coming, and the establishment of His millennial kingdom on earth. I believe that by 1980 most churches that considered themselves conservative evangelical, and virtually all that were fundamentalist, subscribed to this set of beliefs. Thanks to such bestsellers as Hal Lindsey‘s The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970), and Tim LaHaye‘s and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind (1995), many non-Dispensationalists have also become familiar with this “end-times scenario.”
One of the practical implications that many of this system’s adherents drew from this scenario was that everything around us was in an irreversible state of decay and degeneration. Things can only get worse and worse leading up to the Great Tribulation, because almost as soon as it begins “the Antichrist” will take control of a willing world, and so, in a lot of Dispensationalists’ minds this meant that things must be going on right now to make the world receptive to him—evil things that the world’s rulers, elected and unelected, are doing to pave the way for his domination. So, according to a minority opinion among Dispensationalists (which at various times has actually been a majority view), not only was there no use in pinning one’s hopes on politics, but a Christian should not even vote, since in their minds it somehow, in the short run, aided and abetted either the current evil world system, and in the long run perhaps even Antichrist himself.
This component of the standard Dispensationalist mindset made the politicization of conservative evangelicalism, which was greatly encouraged by Jerry Falwell‘s new brand of fundamentalism (remember the Moral Majority?), one of the most intriguing turnabouts in American church history. One could also mention the influence of non-Dispensationalists like Francis Schaeffer and others, but it remains nevertheless amazing that a branch of Christianity that had consciously withdrawn as far as it had from political involvement—and not because of any ideological commitment to the separation of church and state, but for purely theological reasons—should have so completely changed its mind in such a short span of time. There have been and continue to be dyed-in-the-wool holdouts, to be sure, but the vast majority have jumped on the political involvement bandwagon to one extent or another, even if it’s only to the point of now feeling free to openly express their opinions.
The seeds of evangelical disenchantment with Jimmy Carter actually began to be sown shortly after he took office and it became apparent that his theological views were not completely as advertised. As an avid listener of the primary Christian radio station in the Chicago area, the Moody Bible Institute‘s WMBI, I remember hearing some expressions of disappointment in the late ’70s over the fact that he seemed to be a little too impressed by the writings of liberal theologians. Even today he writes, “I still refer on occasion to the books on my shelves by Karl Barth, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Küng, and other theologians…” (Our Endangered Values, [New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005], 23), seemingly oblivious to the fact that his infatuation with authors who deny the inerrancy and in some cases the authority of Scripture went a long way toward alienating him from conservative evangelicals, many of whom still remember how Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, had blasted Billy Graham (cf. Grant Wacker, “The Billy Pulpit,” in The Christian Century, November 15, 2003). And his support of the Supreme Court‘s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, in spite of his own personal anti-abortion views, proved detrimental at a time when the Pro-Life movement was gathering political strength.
One of my friends from that period was WMBI’s radio pastor, Donald Cole, who had a regular program providing his perspectives on the news. For a while in 1979 and ’80 we would find ourselves on the same train as he was heading to work in the city and I was heading to my bank job in Oak Park. He was always an equal-opportunity critic, and the station itself seemed to bend over backwards to remain neutral, but in our private conversations he began to make his views known to me. Some time before there was any certainty over who the Democratic and Republican nominees would be, he expressed his personal dread over a repeat of the election of 1976, when to many people the only substantive difference between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter was the question of which one of them had pardoned Richard Nixon.
“I’d like to see a real liberal go toe-to-toe with a true conservative,” I remember him saying. “Give the people a real choice.”
“Who do you think of as a real conservative?” I asked, being truly unfamiliar with the political landscape at that time.
He paused only for a moment and said, much to my surprise, “Reagan.”
“In this election?” Don said, “Sure he does!”
We were still months away from the Republican convention. A couple months after the November election, as I watched Reagan’s inauguration on TV, those words echoed again in my ears. But it was still sinking in on me and the rest of the evangelical community that we had been instrumental in removing someone we still thought of as one of our own from office and replaced him with someone more to our liking. In four short years we had gone from political cluelessness to political clout. Post-1980 hindsight shows a number of forces coming together to make it happen. Even the Watergate scandal ended up having an evangelical dimension with the 1976 publication of Chuck Colson‘s Born Again.
But the one overarching issue that made it possible was abortion. But this became a stepping-stone not only to Reagan’s election, but to establishing a bond between evangelicals and politically-conservative Republicans on other issues as well, including the economy and national defense. In many ways evangelicalism learned its political ABC’s in the 1980s and ’90s, and the tree that sprouted in the soil of moral impulse has since born fruit that early 20th century evangelicals would scarcely recognize, massive political involvement itself being one of them.
The wave that began in Lynchburg, Virginia, at Thomas Road Baptist Church, long ago reached the West Coast. But now a new wave is trying to begin from there and make its way back. The evangelical moral issue of the ’80s was abortion. The issue that Rick Warren is now trying bring to the fore is AIDS. Jerry Falwell had money behind his issue, but it was largely the money of wealthy donors and underwriters. Thanks to the phenomenal success of his book The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren has his own money, and plenty of it.
But after considering these dynamics, the analogies become more difficult to find. A person’s stance on abortion revolves around the question of whether he or she considers it the moral equivalent of murder. A person’s stance on what to do about AIDS is a bit more complicated, due to its status as a sexually-transmitted disease, and hence, rightly or wrongly, perceived as less urgent. And while abortions in the U.S. are taking place at the rate of around one million each year (more then 48 million since Roe v. Wade) less than one-half of one percent percent of all Americans (about 1.2 million in 2005) have full-blown AIDS. Furthermore, while abortion cuts straight across social and economic boundaries, two-thirds of U.S. AIDS cases have been attributed to male homosexual behavior by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization. All of these factors tend to add inertia and reduce traction for the AIDS issue among evangelicals.
Nevertheless, the very fact that Warren has been able to take this as far as he has is indicative not only of his own leadership abilities, but also of subsurface changes in evangelicalism that are beginning to form outcroppings. It’s difficult to imagine Warren succeeding in establishing an annual “Global Summit on AIDS and the Church” back in the days when the Jerry Falwell-James Dobson–Pat Robertson triumvirate had its collective hands on the wheel. Perhaps it will require 2020 hindsight—the year 2020, that is, not the visual acuity measurement—before we can say that the first decade of the 21st century brought significant change to evangelical politics, but multiple forces do appear to be at work, as The Economist reports:
For many years, evangelicals have built a home with the Republican Party. The alliance has suited both sides. Conservative evangelicals have supplied votes, and received two conservative appointments to the Supreme Court in return. But the alliance has been based on a narrow spectrum of issues, such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Evangelicals care about many other things too. And they do not like coming across as doctrinaire and mean-spirited.
If evangelicals like Mr Warren are increasingly keen to refashion their relationship with the Republican Party, Republicans are also minded to keep their distance from conservative evangelicals. Even before the party was hammered at the polls on November 7th, some had warned that the party was too close to the religious right. If that defeat does not lead to a divorce from evangelicalism, it may at least spur frank marital discussion.
Has the evangelical community largely neglected biblical compassion in the face of AIDS? There can be no question but that it has. Is there room, and are there resources, for improved efforts in this area alongside evangelicalism’s anti-abortion efforts? I believe there is and there are. But there is also no question that Rick Warren hosting Barack Obama at his 2006 Global Summit on AIDS and the Church is a tad more than potentially divisive in an evangelical community that has become largely alienated from liberal politicians, especially pro-choice ones.