It was in 1976 — the “year of the evangelical,” according to Newsweek — that conservative Christians burst upon the political landscape. Critics have been warning about the theocratic takeover of America ever since. Thus the plaintive cry of a Cabinet member in the Carter administration: “I am beginning to fear that we could have an Ayatollah Khomeini in this country, but that he will not have a beard . . . he will have a television program.”
This election season produced similar lamentations — Howard Dean’s warning about Christian “extremism,” Kevin Phillips’s catalogue of fears in American Theocracy and brooding documentaries such as Jesus Camp, to name a few. This theme is a gross caricature of the 100 million or more people who could be called evangelicals. But the real problem is that it denies the profoundly democratic ideals of Protestant Christianity, while ignoring evangelicalism’s deepening social conscience.
Evangelicals led the grass-roots campaigns for religious liberty, the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Even the Moral Majority in its most belligerent form amounted to nothing more terrifying than churchgoers flocking peacefully to the polls on Election Day. The only people who want a biblical theocracy in America are completely outside the evangelical mainstream, their influence negligible.
So as Jerry Falwell and other ministers were jumping into politics, leaders such as Charles Colson — former Nixon aide turned born-again Christian — were charting another path. In 1976 Colson launched Prison Fellowship, a ministry to inmates, to address the soaring crime problem. Today it ranks as the largest prison ministry in the world, active in most U.S. prisons and in 112 countries. “Crime and violence frustrate every political answer,” he has said, “because there can be no solution apart from character and creed.” No organization has done more to bring redemption and hope to inmates and their families.
Evangelical megachurches, virtually unheard of 30 years ago, are now vital sources of social welfare in urban America. African American congregations such as the Potter’s House in Dallas, founded by Bishop T.D. Jakes, can engage a volunteer army of 28,000 believers in ministries ranging from literacy to drug rehabilitation. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, has organized a vast network of churches to confront the issue of AIDS. “Because of their longevity and trust in the community,” Warren has said, “churches can actually do a better job long-term than either governments or” nongovernmental organizations in tackling the pandemic.
Whether or not that’s true, these evangelicals — Bible-believing and socially conservative — are redefining social justice. They’re mindful of the material conditions that breed poverty and despair, but they emphasize spiritual rebirth. Though willing to partner with government agencies, they prefer to work at the grass roots, one family at a time.
Meanwhile, churches and faith-based organizations are growing enormously in their international outreach. Groups such as World Vision are often the first responders to natural disasters. The Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations, founded in 1978, now boasts 47 member groups in dozens of countries. As anyone familiar with these organizations knows, they help people regardless of creed, race or sexual orientation — another democratic (and evangelical) ideal.
It is surely no thirst for theocracy but rather a love for their neighbor that sends American evangelicals into harm’s way: into refugee camps in Sudan; into AIDS clinics in Somalia, South Africa and Uganda; into brothels to help women forced into sexual slavery; and into prisons and courts to advocate for the victims of political and religious repression.
Indeed, probably no other religious community in the United States is more connected to the poverty and suffering of people in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that evangelicals offer moral ballast to American foreign policy. “[E]vangelicals who began by opposing Sudanese violence and slave raids against Christians in southern Sudan,” he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, “have gone on to broaden the coalition working to protect Muslims in Darfur.”
Of course it’s true that a handful of Christian figures reinforce the worst stereotypes of the movement. Their loopy and triumphalist claims are seized upon by lazy journalists and the direct-mail operatives of political opponents.
Yet it is dishonest to disparage the massive civic and democratic contribution of evangelicals by invoking the excesses of a tiny few. As we recall from the Gospels, even Jesus had a few disciples who, after encountering some critics, wanted to call down fire from heaven to dispose of them. Jesus disabused them of that impulse. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals have dispensed with it as well. Maybe it’s time more of their critics did the same.
— Joseph Loconte is a distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Michael Cromartie is vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. They co-direct the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.