EVANGELICALS AND THE REPUBLICANS: A MARRIAGE
Two weeks ago a huge proportion of the evangelistic “born again” vote in the Alabama senatorial election went to Republican candidate, Roy Moore. Donald Trump, famous for worshiping himself, and hardly a beacon for the religiously motivated, in 2016 won a reported 83% of the evangelical vote. Moore appears to have had the support of a similar high percentage of self-identified evangelicals in Alabama. Why? Why would people who so routinely repudiate unchristian behavior, be so supportive of two people who have violated even normal secular standards of conduct?
To understand why let us think about what it means to be evangelical and “born again”. In becoming evangelical a person adopts a world view very different from that of ordinary “worldly” people. That world view assumes that for the “converted”, life on earth here is really only a preparatory period for eternity, for the endless life after death. To attain that heavenly future and to avoid the hellish alternative, one must be born again (That assumption is often camouflaged in the huge modern megachurches with their charismatic leaders and modern sounding music.).
One begins the path to glory by being “born again”. Usually, but not always, experienced in some kind of emotion packed revival setting, the supplicant “prays through” usually surrounded others loudly urging him on. He seeks God’s forgiveness for past sins and promises to sin no more. It often is not as clearly articulated that the seeker is also forgiving himself. When the final commitment is made the new convert may experience a feeling of euphoric purity. He has been born again. He has returned to the purity he had as a child.
There is a problem with being born again. It is hard to make the feeling last. It is absolutely essential to maintain that sense of childlike purity. The newcomer may join a church made up of fellow travelers all seeking to maintain a semblance of that purity. Evangelical churches attempt to create the protective framework that their converts need. One part of that is to concentrate social life in the church. Members are warned of the danger of “backsliding” if they mix too freely with the worldly (Many parents will home school or send their offspring to a “Christian academy” in order to help avoid the worldliness of the ordinary high school.). Everywhere outside the church danger lurks. One must dress modestly, and carefully avoid the “sins of the flesh”. The “sins of the flesh” for young people involve the delaying of sex till after marriage. The result is that marriage often comes early in order to avoid sin and that loss of purity.
To maintain that purity, evangelicals often feel that they need to avoid too secular an education. They sense that the escape into the larger world that a secular education requires, necessarily endangers that purity they fear losing. For current evangelicals, strangely, a great deal of their fear of secular education revolves around their rejection of evolution (It is not a problem for Catholics). For reasons that are not clear, evangelicals usually make rejection of evolution a requirement for Christian acceptability. Part of parental fear of public secondary schools centers around their fear that their offspring will be “brainwashed” into accepting evolution which they insist is “only a theory”. The effect can be to divert really capable students from the larger world of education and, most particularly of the sciences.
Over the last thirty years, evangelicals have come more and more to identify with the Republican Party. The level of support for Donald Trump and for Roy Moore is really a demonstration of how complete that identity has become. Evangelicals and the Republicans do have something in common: Both tend to think of themselves as minorities surrounded by hostile forces. The national Republican Party really represents business wealth in this country. They have very little economic help to offer ordinary lower and middle class Americans. There is simply nothing that they want to do to help those people (Their current “tax reform” illustrates that perfectly. For the very well off, there is, in the future, a great deal of tax savings; for the huge mass of ordinary Americans, almost nothing.). So, the national Republicans have reason to worry about what happens when their voters come to realize that they are being used. Reliant on an aging white vote rapidly becoming outnumbered, national Republicans are concerned about a future when ever larger numbers of minorities, joined by today’s young people come to fuel the Democratic opposition.
For their part, evangelicals, often from small congregations feel surrounded by unbelievers who they feel despise their faith. For many evangelicals there is a kind of paranoia about Christians being persecuted (And, in some places they certainly are persecuted.). Living in small islands of believers surrounded by people whose motives and interests they can’t fully join, it is hardly surprising that evangelicals would feel their way of life threatened. It is also understandable that they would be supportive of people “out there” who seem to be protective of their values. Enter the Republicans.
So, why are the national Republicans so supportive of those values? The Republican Party needs the evangelicals. Republican candidates use social issues to win them over. Those social issues are designed to play to a “Republican base” made up of a very large percentage of evangelicals. Unlike the vote of many of the Republican Party’s wealthy patrons, the evangelical vote is not apt to stand or fall on economics (Their reward will come in the afterlife). They will get by. Actually, evangelicals often do quite well (sin costs money). So, their vote will not stand or fall on the tax reforms. What does move them is the constant support for fundamental religious positions voiced by Republican leaders. They know that on the issue of abortion, the acceptance of homosexuality, the teaching of religion in the schools, the battle with evolutionary science, the Republicans are on their side. Donald Trump even manages to drum up their support with his attacks on a non-existent War on Christmas. The Democrats don’t have a chance.
The truth is that on many issues evangelicals and Republicans have formed a kind of united church. The Republicans publicly support many of the religiously motivated positions that evangelicals take (Some argue, for instance, that intelligent design should be taught along side evolution in school biology classes.). And, the evangelicals have adopted many of the factually unsupportable positions adopted by Republicans. They seem willing to accept the thoroughly disproved “trickle down theory” upon which the Republican tax cuts are based. They have become supporters of the Republican war on gun control. They disbelieve in climate change. They support immense military spending. And, in the case of Moore and the President himself, they seem willing, even eager, to forgive transgressions they would not forgive in Democrats (Hillary Clinton gets very little forgiveness).
This should not be taken to mean that the evangelicals are not genuine believers or that their believing is without benefit. They may live healthier, more loving lives because of their faith. It does mean that there are dangers to that faith in attaching themselves to a political party whose candidates manipulate their fears to gain votes. By buying into a politically motivated battle for guns and for expensive weapons designed to kill their fellow men, they run the danger of betraying a faith that was revolutionary because it was based on love. And, politically, they may attach themselves to positions that, in the real world, will ultimately do them great harm.
Far away there is a mile high mountain
Once every thousand years a bird appears
and in its beak takes one grain of sand.
When the mountain is completely gone
the first day of eternity will be over.