Monday, September 19, 2016

By Carey Roberts

The history of political and cultural engagement of American Christians is a long and widely varying story following no clear path over the four centuries of living in North America; and, while we have successfully transformed local communities in profound ways, we often find that success has come at a steep price. The way that conservative Christians (Reformed, Catholic, and evangelical alike) shaped their political communities usually oscillated between two positions. They either built political institutions to impose a vision of order upon their society or they worked from within existing, local cultures to enhance what they deemed good and shun what they found malicious.

Consider the development of the British North American colonies. Americans are familiar with stories of colonialists fleeing persecution in the Old World to carve out new settlements in which their visions and dreams could be realized. Usually in these stories, what the colonists hoped to achieve was emphasized at the expense of actual results.

In each English colony, settlers laid out a vision of cultural, religious, and political order. They intended, in the words of Donald Davidson, that culture be “poured in from the top,” and anyone who followed must conform to their vision of order.[i]

The founders of Jamestown dreamed of creating lucrative ventures along the James River, Puritans insisted that Massachusetts Bay become a model of Christian charity, Quakers found a refuge from constant persecution in Pennsylvania, and James Oglethorpe expected Georgia to be a place where believers and criminals alike could be less tempted to sin. In each new colony, its founders hoped to impose new ways of life animated more by new ideas and religious doctrines than any customs the colonists might have brought with them. And in each case, most elements of the colonial vision failed. Jamestown met disaster, the Puritan vision collapsed by the second generation, and political intrigue and corruption quickly set in for places like Pennsylvania, the Jerseys, and Georgia. When failure came, colonists resorted to whatever human moorings they could find, which most often meant relying upon the Old World folkways they unintentionally brought with them. So the grand visions of creating new societies quickly gave way to a tenacious clinging to local custom and tradition unique to each colony. Over the course of the 17th century, British North Americans became the most culturally conservative people among early modern Europeans.

“Culture, tradition, ancient duties and obligations – not ideas deliberately concocted to plan better societies – ruled the day and did so in a decentralized manner across each colony.”

In terms of Christian engagement with politics, two lessons emerged from the dozens of examples of North American settlement and changed the approach of colonial Christians by the early 18th century. First, imposing a preconceived ideal of social order, as the dozens of examples of colonial North America showed, rarely works. And second, the Christian laity and clergy accepted common life and its myriad traditions as the cornerstone of social order. Nearly all initial efforts to achieve idealized social goals through politics ended at the same place – institutional failure—even to the point that eight of the original thirteen had become taken over as “royal” colonies. The necessity to then order their lives through social institutions (as opposed to political ones) forced the colonists to develop levels of spiritual and economic liberty unique among Europeans. Culture, tradition, ancient duties and obligations – not ideas deliberately concocted to plan better societies – ruled the day and did so in a decentralized manner across each colony. The result was nothing short of spectacular as British North Americans came to enjoy the highest and most widely held standards of living of any known population at the time. It also meant no single person or institution, including churches and denominations, could dominate the whole of society. Colonial Christians did not endorse traditional culture at every instance, or even justified tradition for its own sake. However, early American Christians encouraged the defense of a traditional social order that in many ways existed outside the established political system of the British regime. It is precisely for this reason that Congregational and Presbyterian clergy sounded the earliest alarms against British imperialism. The Crown’s efforts to reform the political system naturally meant diminishing the authority of the non-political, social institutions that often governed colonial life.

“Could it be that evangelical leaders, anxious to forge political victory, dismissed genuine cultural conservatism for the promises of ideology? Have they endorsed a view of culture that emanates exclusively from centers of politics and media conglomerates?”

These two lessons shaped the way in which conservative Christians sought to encourage their communities to further their godly calling, thus setting the stage for cultural engagement that sparked both the First and Second Great Awakenings. The First Great Awakening found Christians working to reinvigorate old, existing churches (i.e. Jonathan Edwards and Congregationalism) or operating outside established churches and through dissenter groups (i.e. Anglican George Whitefield’s work with virtually all protestants that gave him a hearing). A few, like John Wesley, did both given his early work with Moravians in Georgia and continued commitment to the Anglican Church. The early stages of the Second Great Awakening in upstate New York, the western frontier, and even in the eastern cities like New York and Charleston witnessed similar commitments.  In each case, Christian leaders worked in tandem with entrepreneurs, statesmen, and other social leaders, but they also worked with familiarity and respect for common culture. Even their early educational institutions and benevolence organizations functioned to serve the needs of local communities rather than cast some grand vision of a Christian empire.

Taking a long view, there is little question that Christianity improved American culture in profound ways. For example, colonial Americans were the most literate people in the world at that time. Likewise, the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century coincided with the steepest decline in alcohol consumption in the western world, so much so that it swept away what some historians call the “alcoholic republic.”[ii] Evangelicals, though willing participants in the institution of slavery, also played a key role in ending it.[iii]

But antebellum reform efforts—in which evangelical Christians exercised the most political influence—came with uneven results. By the late 1840s, the United States found itself in an unpopular war, confronting the likelihood of assimilating large numbers of people, and dealing with major issues of moral corruption ranging from slavery to sexual promiscuity. In the wake of seemingly insurmountable odds, some Christians sought an easy path to societal change – master and control the overarching political and cultural institutions of America then use them to purge the country of sin. In order to do this, Christians followed the lead of Unitarians, who dismissed anything resembling everyday culture and focused their attention on constructing a new ideal of American life. They replaced biblical doctrines with the commandments of men.[iv] In their minds, America ceased to be a collection of local cultures stretching back centuries and became a nation based on their own contrived ideas and principles. As Abraham Lincoln succinctly explained in the Gettysburg Address, American was a nation “conceived” and “dedicated” to a “proposition.” Culture became ideology, ideology became a means to power, and power became a will for uncompromised perfection. The resulting civil war demonstrated the inevitable fate of such a strategy.

Over the next 150 years, evangelicals oscillated between the older commitment to a culture rooted in everyday, common life and treating culture as something to be artificially – even academically – created by a learned elite. While space does not allow for an overview of this fluctuation, what is important is that in our lifetime, we have witnessed a pattern eerily similar to the eve of the Civil War. In the 1970s, conservative Christians sporadically but also spontaneously banded together to decry open attacks upon their local communities comprised as they still were on a hodgepodge of institutions of varying degrees of influence. Rank and file members of the Moral Majority, founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., sought to conserve wholesome habits of common American life from the centralizing efforts of a political elite. If asked, “what is it you wish to conserve,” most would likely respond with answers directly related to their daily lives, not abstract principles divorced from reality. Culture – real culture like the kind that motivates people to unthinkingly interact with others – mattered to those people. They subsequently played a critical role in the Reagan Revolution and his voter coalition in 1980.

The success of the Christianity in North America – unrivaled by any country in the industrialized world – depended upon its commitment and embrace of cultural intuitions welling up from the bottom of society.  In short, much of American Christianity remained synonymous with local cultures.  Defending one naturally meant defending the other. But something happened on the way to political victory in the 1990s. Cultural conservatives became increasingly marginalized by the Republican leadership over the course of the next decade.[v] Blue collar families, farmers, rural communities, conservative evangelicals, single-earner households – the very folks who formed the foundation for the Reagan Coalition experienced few, if any, examples of genuine conservation of their local cultures. Yet by the 1990s, conservative movement leaders seemingly welcomed evangelicals with open arms, and many evangelicals responded in like mind despite no apparent, cultural benefit. Why? Could it be that evangelical leaders, anxious to forge political victory, dismissed genuine cultural conservatism for the promises of ideology? Have they endorsed a view of culture that emanates exclusively from centers of politics and media conglomerates? If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, then we must pay special heed to the hidden costs of making culture a product of power.

[i] Donald Davidson, “Statement of Principles,” in Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition with a new introduction by Susan V. Donaldson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), xlviii.

[ii] W.J. Rorarbaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).

[iii] The most comprehensive treatment of the intellectual life of slaveholders and their opponents remains Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Mind of the Masterclass: History and Faith in the Slaveholders’ Worldview (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[iv] See M. E. Bradford, “Lincoln, the Declaration, and Secular Puritansim: A Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” in A Better Guide than Reason: Federalists and Anti-Federalists (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994): 185-206. See also: Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson, eds, Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Daniel Walker Howe, What Had God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[v] The earliest and most telling example came in 1981 with the controversy surrounding the scuttled appointment of M.E. Bradford in favor of William Bennet as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. See David Gordon, “Southern Cross,” The American Conservative (April 1, 2010) and Carla Hall, “The Amazing Endowment Scramble,” Washington Post (December 13, 1981). A survey of the rising division within the postwar conservative movement can be found in Joseph Scotchie, ed, The Paleoconservatives: New Voices of the Old Right (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999).


Carey Roberts is the Associate Dean for the College of Arts and Science and the Department Chair and Professor of History at Liberty University.