Evangelicalism didn't "go political" with Trumpism. It’s always been this way.
Over the weekend, David Brooks wrote a long piece for NYT Opinion on evangelicalism. Here is how he framed it on Twitter: “As evangelicalism went political, millions of Christians dissented. They are now trying to save their movement.”
What follows is my adaptation of a twitter thread I did in response.
It's telling that Beth & Russell Moore resigned from the SBC and are now lobbying criticisms from the outside of their prior denomination, for example. The nexus of power & influence shifted from them, even though they still retain considerable amounts. I wrote about this last year in the context of the Southern Baptist Convention:
Russell Moore was getting plaudits from mainstream press in 2013 for trying to be a moderating influence among evangelicals. This is an uphill battle he's been fighting for a long time, and evangelicalism no longer tolerates moderate positions.
How many times can we afford for evangelicalism to continue its soul-searching at the expense of democracy and its congregants' peace? How many prophets must it ignore, how many people must it endanger, how many chances should it be given to swear it will do better this time?
Confoundingly, David Brooks went to Tim Keller to represent a “dissenting voice” within evangelicalism.
I ultimately question the NYT's goal in so quickly rehabilitating the image of evangelicalism - and white/white-led evangelicalism in particular. I am all for being tender toward the broken-hearted, who felt their faith betrayed. I am skeptical of those who were powerful before/during the Trump administration who are seemingly fighting for reform from within, because their scope will remain too narrow.
Evangelicals Gone Political: A Historical Sampling
I also question Brooks’ framing that evangelicalism ‘went political’ in 2015 or 2016.
This is tantamount to theological gerrymandering.
By editing around the less admirable aspects of evangelical history (in particular, primarily white or white-led evangelicalism) mired in racism, white supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia, Brooks can present evangelicalism as something that just “got a little too carried away” during the Trump era.
Were evangelicals not political when in 1844, they founded the Southern Baptist Convention in order to justify slavery and the political act of seceding from the Union in order to maintain slavery? As Robert Jones writes in the introduction to White Too Long:
“The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that chattel slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its founders believed this arrangement was not just possible but also divinely mandated.
There is no shortage of examples.
Were evangelicals not political DL Moody sided with Chicago businessmen prior to the Haymarket Riot? As Timothy Gloege writes in Guaranteed Pure:
Whether concerned by denominational opposition or simply averse to the large price tag, Moody’s business allies were slow to organize Moody’s proposed training institute. Instead, as a consolation, they proposed that Moody hold a May revival campaign on the city’s roiling Southside, cynically timed to coincide with the threatened general strike for an eight-hour workday. Moody reluctantly agreed, but as in New York, his hesitation was well-founded. The first evening, Moody addressed swathes of empty seats, exhorting the sprinkling of “wives [and] mothers” present “to bring to the meetings the men who [were] on strike.”61 The following day, May 3, a massive crowd of 40,000 protesters gathered at the gates of the McCormick factory. Police killed four strikers and injured hundreds more. German anarchists called for a protest at Haymarket Square the next evening and distributed pamphlets with a call to arms.62 Moody’s frustration was evident, warning listeners that “God is not mocked” and that “whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.”63
Were evangelicals not political when Fifield & Graham and others pushed for Americanism & other pro-business causes in the 1940s & 1950s?
Were evangelicals not political when they, decades later, opposed Civil Rights?
Were they not political when they organized the National Prayer Breakfast?
Were evangelicals not political when Paul Weyrich and others began the process of forming the Religious Right in the 1970s, choosing abortion—a topic evangelicals had previously been ambivalent about—as a central rallying point?
Were evangelicals not political when they invoked “family values” during the Clinton Era?
Were evangelicals not political when they provided support for the invasion of Iraq despite a lack of credible evidence?
If evangelicals are only political when they can be invoked as abolitionists, paragons of virtue separated from us by over a century, then it becomes easier to dismiss the dissenters with whom evangelicalism did not deal with as kindly.
If evangelicalism has any chance of reform, it will not look away from all that it has wrought.
Select Twitter Discourse
Here’s a couple of solid responses to the Brooks piece I came across on Twitter:
From Anthea Butler (click through for thread):
From Laura Robinson:
Aside from Butler’s primary thread, she also voiced what many of us feel while looking at how the NYT covers religion:
Which evoked this bewildering response from Michael Wear:
The implication that only conservatives take their faith seriously enough to be given an outlet at the Times is galling, especially in a post-Trump, post-Jan 6 United States. There are dozens of “progressive” writers who could illustrate how faith informs their social beliefs. For David Brooks and his readers to return to a well that has run dry—or worse, been poisoned—is a disservice.