Reagan’s Christian revolt: How conservatives hijacked American religion

Once upon a time, America's religious communities were politically moderate. Then along came the evangelicals

Topics: Ronald Reagan, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, Religious Right, Christian Fundamentalism, Religion, Conservatism, Editor's Picks, Books,

Reagan's Christian revolt: How conservatives hijacked American religionRonald Reagan and Jerry Falwell at the Baptist Fundamentalism '84 conference, April 13, 1984 in Washington. (Credit: AP/Ira Schwarz)

As late as 1976, the political sensibilities of revivalist evangelicals were still unformed when many of them voted Democratic for Jimmy Carter, largely on the basis that he had declared himself “born again.” Prior to 1976, “born again” was not a familiar phrase in mainstream public discourse. Moreover, the term “evangelical” was seldom used, at least not in connection to politics. When Newsweek declared 1976 to be “The Year of the Evangelical,” the publicity helped to create a sense of potential among evangelicals, who began to think of themselves as a political force. Conservative evangelical and Catholic leaders, however, soon became disillusioned with President Carter. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, he did not take a stand against abortion, and he was friendly to the Democratic Party agenda to guarantee rights for homosexuals and to broaden the definition of the family. In that context, in 1979 fundamentalist Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political-action organization to mobilize religious conservatives. Revivalist evangelicalism had suddenly emerged as a conspicuous player in national politics.

The government was not, of course, the only force in furthering the sexual revolution. Rather, the courts and governmental agencies were responding to much larger social trends and agendas that were energized by vigorous movements and lobbies and supported by most of the media and the intellectual community. The mainstream media and commercial interests often supported the new permissiveness. Nonetheless, for those alarmed by the sexual revolution, the government’s role in permitting and promoting it was sufficient to provoke a political response, even among evangelicals who traditionally had warned against political involvements.

One of the factors evident in the support for Ronald Reagan in 1980 was nostalgia for the 1950s. Many conservative Americans had been alarmed by the cultural changes unleashed by the counterculture and antiwar movements of the 1960s and felt that something essential about the culture was fast slipping away. Reagan himself cultivated his image as a champion of traditional values. Just one of many examples was a “Morning in America” series of TV ads in his 1984 campaign depicting the small-town America of more peaceful and ordered days. Unquestionably, Reagan’s staunch anticommunism also evoked an image of the 1950s, a time when Americans were proud to be united by their flag-waving patriotism. Newly politicized revivalist evangelicals were no doubt attracted by this nostalgia, as were many other Republican voters, but they added their own variation on the theme. They were not simply proposing to bring America back to a time when traditional family values, respect for authority, and unquestioning love of nation were intact. Rather, they were blending such Reaganesque images with something more basic: America, they said, needed to return to its “Christian foundations.” And understanding what revivalist evangelicals had in mind by such rhetoric is one key to understanding the cultural wars and revivalist evangelicalism’s part in them.



The formulations of Francis Schaeffer, the most influential theorist of the evangelical side of the religious right, offer an illuminating window into some of the issues involved. Schaeffer was an American evangelist who spent most of his career ministering to young people at his chalet, called L’Abri, in Switzerland. During the late 1960s he became famous in American evangelical circles for a series of small popular books that provided critiques of Western cultural trends, arguing that Christianity was the only viable alternative to the emptiness and the relativism of modern thought. He was also an important influence in convincing many younger fundamentalists and evangelicals to engage with the arts, literature, and philosophy. In these early cultural analyses, he almost never mentioned politics, past or present. That changed dramatically in the mid-1970s. Not long after Roe v. Wade, while Schaeffer and his son Frank were working on a film series of his cultural critique, Frank argued that they should highlight abortion on demand as evidence of how America had gone wrong. At first the elder Schaeffer strongly resisted this suggestion, on the grounds that abortion was seen mostly as a “Catholic issue” and that he did not want to get into politics. He eventually changed his mind and decided to include it. A critique of the abortion decision became the culminating feature of the series, called “How Should We Then Live?” and the accompanying book by the same title. He and Frank also made the abortion issue the centerpiece of a second series that they developed with Dr. C. Everett Koop (later US surgeon general under Ronald Reagan), called “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?”

In addition to being a major force in raising consciousness among fundamentalists and many other evangelicals regarding the necessity of opposing legalized abortion, Schaeffer provided what became the most influential analyses of what he believed was the larger issue at the heart of the new culture wars. The choice for America, he proclaimed, was simply between a return to Christianity or a takeover by secular humanism and eventually authoritarianism. In “How Should We Then Live?” he wrote that humanists were determined to destroy Christianity and hence they would leave the culture with no adequate basis on which to maintain its values. But, he declared, “society cannot stand chaos.” Echoing Erich Fromm’s classic account of totalitarianism, Schaeffer continued: “Some group or person will fill the vacuum. An elite will offer us arbitrary absolutes and who will stand in its way?” Schaeffer intimated that this takeover could involve some cooperation with international movements, but he put most of his emphasis on the role of secular humanists in America itself. That formula quickly took root among American fundamentalists. Simple dichotomized choices were the stock in trade of fundamentalists, and Schaeffer, who had fundamentalist roots, was a master at dichotomizing. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell often repeated the Christianity-versus-secular-humanism formula, and Tim LaHaye elaborated on it in his very popular 1980 book “The Battle for the Mind.”

Schaeffer himself developed the theme in his most influential call to action, “A Christian Manifesto,” a 1981 book that Falwell described as “probably the most important piece of literature in America today.” As in his other recent works, Schaeffer stressed the inevitability of an authoritarian takeover if Bible-believing Christians remained indifferent to politics and failed to take a stand. He believed that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 might represent a window of opportunity to reassert Christian values. But he also warned that the power of relativistic secular humanism was so strong in the government, in the courts, and in the schools that it soon might be necessary for Christians to resist through civil disobedience—and even with violence—much as the United States had resisted British tyranny at the time of the American Revolution. Christianity and secular humanism, he emphasized, were opposites. “These two world views stand as totals in complete antithesis to each other,” he declared. “It is not too strong to say that we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in the struggle.”

Part of Schaeffer’s appeal was that he repeatedly reminded his audiences that the loss of what he called America’s “Christian consensus” had taken place only within living memory. “It is a horrible thing,” he wrote in his final book, “The Great Evangelical Disaster,” published in 1984, “for a man like myself to see my country and my culture go down the drain in my lifetime.” He remembered a time when the Christian consensus still prevailed. By a “Christian consensus,” he did not mean that everybody was Christian, but rather, that “the Christian worldview, and biblical knowledge in particular, were widely disseminated throughout the culture and were a decisive influence in giving shape to the culture.” Such outlooks were characteristic, he said, of “Reformation countries and in our own country until the last forty to sixty years,” when “most people believed these things—albeit sometimes only in a vague way.” Schaeffer’s audiences, at least in many regions of the country, especially across the South and in some areas of the Midwest, may have recalled the 1950s as the sort of time he was evoking, when evangelical Christianity was virtually the default religion. Schaeffer himself was from the Northeast, where the changes had come earlier; in the 1950s, he had already been a separatist fundamentalist attacking the mainstream culture and its churches. So he set the date of the end of the Christian consensus further back, to the 1930s.

Schaeffer combined nostalgia for more Christian-friendly times with his own version of an argument that was reemerging in popularity among fundamentalistic evangelicals around the bicentennial year of 1976: that America had been founded as a Christian nation. Schaeffer emphasized that the American nation was based on a Christian consensus inherited specifically from the Reformation. He argued that the principles on which the United States was founded, especially the idea that higher law applied even to kings, came from Scottish Protestantism at the time of the English Civil Wars of the mid-1600s. Even though Schaeffer acknowledged that most of the American founders were not born-again Christians, and that they had their blind spots (as regarding slavery), he nonetheless insisted that they still operated on the Reformation “Christian base.” Those principles, he believed, dominated American culture until recent decades. Secular humanism was destroying those principles and would inevitably lead to total relativism, chaos, and then totalitarianism. To remain neutral, as so many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians had tried to do at midcentury, would be to capitulate to government enforcement of a worldview that was the opposite of Christianity. As Schaeffer put it, “Here is a sentence to memorize: ‘To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.’”

Francis Schaeffer, of course, does not represent the whole of the religious right—he had, for instance, little connection with the important conservative Catholic part of the movement—but his outlook serves to illustrate some significant dimensions of the fundamentalistic evangelical wing of that movement. Viewed in relation to the mainstream American outlooks of the 1950s, one feature of the movement was its strong reaction against pragmatic liberalism, which it now understood in Schaeffer’s framework as part of the “secular humanism” that had led to the moral relativism evident in America since the late 1960s. Schaeffer added the motif, reminiscent of Erich Fromm, that if a society lost its moral moorings, totalitarianism would fill the vacuum. So pragmatic liberalism, which to its proponents in the 1950s seemed the best defense against ideological extremes, now could be seen as opening the door to totalitarianism. Even if Communists were rare on the home front in the 1980s, secular humanists were everywhere, and only a stance of cultural warfare could stop their destruction of American liberties. Schaeffer repeatedly called for reestablishing a Christian consensus, but ironically, “consensus” had become a fighting word. He depicted the cultural crises in the most urgent terms as he issued calls to arms. So he wrote in 1982 with typical hyperbole in a foreword to his associate John Whitehead’s “The Second American Revolution”: “If there is still an entity known as ‘the Christian church’ by the end of the century, operating with any semblance of liberty . . . it will probably have John Whitehead and his book to thank.” The book, he went on, “lays the foundation and framework for fighting the tyrannical, secularist, humanistic power.” Like the early American patriots, Christians would have to be ready to fight for their liberties. Restoring America’s “Christian base” would require enlisting in America’s culture wars.

Granting that there were and are many highly significant issues involved in these political concerns that deserve consideration on their merits, it is also important to recognize that once the matters are framed in terms of warfare and simple either-or choices it becomes virtually impossible to negotiate those issues in a pluralistic society. That is especially the case when the issues are framed in terms of returning America to its Christian roots, as is standard fare in the outlooks of the fundamentalist-evangelical political right. Partly the problem is rhetorical. Typically, evangelicals speak of their views as shaped by “the Bible alone.” The more fundamentalistic or militant they are, the more they divide reality into simple dichotomies, such as “Christian” and “non-Christian.” That leaves little room for making other distinctions. So when they talk about reinstituting America’s Christian basis, it sounds as though they are proposing a return to something like the early New England Puritan order of the 1600s, when the government was based on explicitly biblical principles, and discrimination against non-Christians was taken for granted.

Even though the rhetoric sounds authoritarian, as though the nation would be redefined as exclusively Christian and its law would be based on the Bible, the vast majority of fundamentalists and evangelicals of the religious right were—and are—in fact committed to religious liberty. Many are Baptists, whose forebears were in the forefront of the campaign for religious freedom at the time of the American Revolution. More broadly, despite their exclusive-sounding “Christian” rhetoric, they are also deeply committed to the principles embodied in the nation’s founding documents. They are heirs to the synthesis of Protestant and more secular principles that were characteristic of what is here being called the American enlightenment. Once again, they need to be understood as deeply ambivalent toward the American heritage. On the one hand, they often speak as prophetic outsiders proclaiming that the nation is under judgment for its many failings. On the other hand, they also speak as the true insiders who are preserving an eighteenth-century national heritage that was essentially “Christian.”

Fundamentalists and evangelicals of the religious right often have difficulty recognizing their own mix of biblical and more secular principles because they typically use only two categories in their analyses: Christian and non-Christian. That limitation can be best illustrated in the outpouring of books in recent decades claiming to prove that the founding fathers were Christians. In their own ministries, the authors of these books insist that only the “born again” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Yet when it comes to the nation’s founders, most of whom were not orthodox evangelical Christians, these very conservative biblicists end up endorsing a remarkably broad definition of “Christian.” Perhaps the most telling of the many examples that could be cited is that in 2012, David Barton, the most popular and influential writer on America’s Christian origins, published a book celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s faith. The fact of the matter is that Jefferson was openly and sometimes militantly anti-orthodox and anti-evangelical. During the election of 1800, many orthodox Protestants strongly opposed him for his unconventional religious views. Barton’s zeal to claim Jefferson as a Christian believer led to so many distortions that, when these were documented, his publisher, Thomas Nelson, ceased publication.

Francis Schaeffer, who recognized the unorthodoxy of most of the founders, tried to solve the problem by attributing their views regarding rights and freedom to the Reformation. In fact, though, the early Protestant governments of the Reformation period were not concerned about protecting liberties in the same way that the founders later were in the American republic. Those ideals developed in the British enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They did have a discernibly Protestant lineage, such as in concerns about the sanctity of conscience, but the founders’ ideals were also shaped by factors beyond the Protestant principle of “the Bible alone.” These influences included classical political principles, classical and Christian natural-law traditions, modern scientific empiricism, the growing trust in the authority of common rationality, emerging ideals that individuals should be self-determining, and practical self-interested concern regarding political and economic freedoms. It is one thing to say that some versions of the resulting mix were “Christian,” in the sense of being compatible with biblical or church teachings. Yet, historically speaking, the actual mix was far from being simply Christian or Protestant, even if it included significant Christian elements.

The complex heritage of the evangelical religious right, as shaped, among other things, both by biblicist bornagain revivalism and broader principles developed during the eighteenth-century American enlightenment, helps to explain some of its paradoxes, apparent contradictions, and blind spots. The biblicist side is often absolutist and militant, invoking stark choices between serving the Lord of Hosts or the Baal of secular humanism. The enlightenment heritage allows militantly conservative fundamentalists to in fact affiliate with the wide coalition represented in the Republican Party and to participate in the give-and-take of practical politics, despite all the compromises that inevitably requires. In the strict biblicist view, the American nation can be seen as having forfeited any claim to God’s blessings and as being under judgment for its open sins, so that the only hope is to trust in Jesus to return to set things right. But the enlightenment heritage tells the evangelical religious right that the American principles of civil freedom, self-determination, and free enterprise are the best there are, and that evangelicals can therefore unreservedly embrace the American civil religion and condemn anyone who questions that America has a special place in God’s plan. The strictly biblicist heritage fosters a rhetoric that sounds theocratic and culturally imperialist, and in which a Christian consensus would seem to allow little room for secularists or their rights. The enlightenment heritage means that the leading motif in their politics is the necessity of protecting freedoms, especially the personal and economic freedoms of the classically liberal tradition. So when members of the evangelical religious right speaks about returning to a “Christian” America, they may sound as though they would return to days of the early Puritans; yet, practically speaking, the ideal they are invoking is tempered by the American enlightenment and is reminiscent of the days of the informal Protestant establishment, when Christianity was respected, but most of the culture operated on more secular terms.

Even though the populist religious right is marked by paradoxical features, it should also be given credit for drawing attention to important questions about the role of religion in American public life. After the decline of the mainline Protestant establishment, the society was left with no real provision as to how religious viewpoints would be represented in the public sphere, such as in politics or education. At the same time, an immense revolution in mores had been accelerated by the upheavals of the late 1960s. Many prevailing moral standards promoted in popular culture, in commercial culture, by the government, and in public education were at odds with the traditional religious teachings not only of conservative Protestants but also of many of the other traditionalist religious groups across the country. An important question was how such conservative religious viewpoints, which were largely minority viewpoints, might be represented and protected in the public domain. Advocates of the religious right were rightly concerned to guard their own freedoms of religious expression and action. Yet they seldom had a theory of how to do the same unto others as they would have done unto themselves—that is, they rarely spoke of how to provide equal protection for religious and secular viewpoints with which they did not agree.

Excerpted  from “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief,” by George M. Marsden. Copyright © 2014 by George M. Marsden. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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