Published June 1, 2000
[Book excerpt taken from Cromartie, Michael, “The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: A Survey of Recent Evangelical Political Engagement,” in David P. Gushee, ed., Christians and Politics Beyond the Culture Wars (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000).]
In a cover story in the influential literary magazine The Atlantic Monthly, liberal theologian Harvey Cox shares his observations on having been a visiting lecturer at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia. Professor Cox was surprised to find that the conservative Christians at Regent University were not monolithic in their political views. He found that while fundamentalists, evangelicals, and charismatics were often lumped together in the press, they in fact “represent distinct tendencies that are frequently at odds with one another.” (1)
Harvey Cox is not unlike many observers outside of the evangelical movement who are often surprised when they discover just how diverse evangelical intellectual opinions are on political and social issues. The late historian Timothy Smith described evangelicalism as being like a large “kaleidoscope” (2) that includes not only a diversity of denominations but also Christians from the political right, left, and center. Evangelicals are by no means monolithic in their political views. While they have largely maintained an alliance with political conservatism, they do have moderate and liberal contingents that have had an improtant influence.
There are still many political pundits and observers who believe Christian conservatives represent a mass movement of cultural dinosaurs with religious views akin to what the journalist H. L. Mencken called “a childish theology” for “halfwits,” “yokels,” the “anthropoid rabble,” or the “gaping primates of the upland valleys.” (3) The Washington Post, while not as colorful as Mencken, more recently said they were “poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” (4)
Well, to the bewilderment of many, the poor, uneducated, and easy to command gaping primates from the upland valleys are still very much with us, and they have become a very large voting bloc.(5) Mencken said this in 1924: “Heave an egg out a Pullman train window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.”(6) If Mencken were living today, he might put a different spin on it: “Heave an egg out a window anywhere on Capitol Hill today and you will likely hit an evangelical political activist.” And while that activist is most likely to be politically conservative, he or she many be just as mad at the Republican party as at the Democratic party. (7)
There was a time when political involvement by evnagelicals was seen as a worldly, or even sinful, activity. Now, political celibacy, if you will, is considered a dereliction of Christian responsibility. The change has resulted in American evangelicals creating a lively debate among themselves about social justice and the nature and extent of political involvement. My task in this essay will be to give an overview as to how these issues have developed and to highlight the diversity that resides within the conservative Protestant community on political and social questions. I will conclue with a few personal concerns about the public rhetoric of conservative Christians involved in the public arena.
1. Harvey Cox, “The Warring Visions of the Religion Right,” Atlantic, November 1995, 62.
2. Timothy Smith, “The Evangelical Kaleidoscope and the Call to Christian Unity,” Christian Scholars Review 15 (1986): 125-140.
3. Quoted in James D. Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), ix. The very impressive work of, for instance, evangelical historians, philosophers, and political scientists has since demolished the stereotypes Mencken so enjoyed promoting.
4. Michael Weisskopf, “Energized by Pulpit or Passion, the Public is Calling,” Washington Post, February 1, 1993, 1.
5. The most comprehensive recent studies are John C. Green et al., Religion and the Culture Wars: Dispatches from the Front (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); Mark Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, eds., God at the Grass Roots: The Christian Right in the 1994 Elections (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995); and Duane M. Oldfield, The Right and the Righteous: The Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).
6. Quoted in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 188.
7. See U.S. News and World Report (May 4, 1998) cover story on the influential ministry of Dr. James Dobson to see just how disappointed and displeased he and many of his followers are with current Republican party leadership.
Gushee, David P., ed., Christians and Politics Beyond the Culture Wars (Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker Books, 2000).