• Mark Ledbetter

Evangelicals Need a “Make Over”!

Part One: The Rebranding of Evangelicals!

The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” The heart and soul of Evangelicals has been their fundamental belief in the infallibility of the Scriptures, the sinless life of Jesus Christ, the atoning redemption secured by His death and only means of salvation, the hope of the resurrection of the faithful at Jesus’ return, and the compelling mission to share the Gospel with every creature.

Where these basic tenets of faith affected the Evangelical’s worldview determining the values, attitudes and decisions, public perception of Evangelicals as conservative Christianity has shifted dramatically by the emerging Evangelical entanglement with conservative, partisan politics, a development that emerged decades ago in the 70s and 80s, and revived again in the last decade or so.

The dramatic shift in Evangelical emphasis from fundamental beliefs to partisan politics has resulted in an internal and external rebranding of the Evangelical, especially in the eyes of public perception. Evangelicals are no longer known as “Bible-thumpers[1] and more so for their conservative brand of politics.

Rebranding the Evangelical

Evangelical political fervency has been especially highlighted during both Trump election campaigns, and became especially acute in the turmoil of the 2020 election process. With an estimated 81% of “white evangelicals” supporting his presidential aspirations in 2016, this number appears consistent with the 2020 election.

With the tragic events January 6th,[2] the startling reality of the hard lessons taught by the failed efforts of Christian Right advocates, Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, decades ago are unfortunately just now taking hold in some Evangelical minds, thus supporting the adage, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana-1905).

The seed of political moral reform within Evangelical ranks were planted in 1976 with the election of a South Georgia peanut farmer and Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, Jimmy Carter, as president. The self-proclaimed “born-again” President was believed not only to represent the fundamental beliefs of Evangelicals, but promoter and defender of conservative concerns. 1976 was deemed the “Year of the Evangelical.”[3]

Carter’s less than stellar performance as President[4] and waffling support of conservative moral issues,[5] Carter’s Evangelical luster faded and the rising Republican’s conservative, Ronald Reagan, quickly became the political favorite among major Evangelical leadership.

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson saw a vision of conservative moral values riding the coattails of a Reagan presidency and mobilized the constituency of Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. They envisioned a Christian-Political Pac that would usher in a change in the moral values and actions of Americans.

Although Reagan’s first term seemed to offer promise, it did not produce the imagined hopes of conservative policy Evangelicals had envisioned. Conservative ideals were proposed but some of Reagan’s appointments forced Moral Majority to compromise in order to remain connected with the President.

Enormously impacting the future of Evangelical politics two important developments emerged.

One, as much as Reagan was lauded as the “best thing to happen” for Evangelical/Conservative politics, in reality, Evangelicals became an important contingency whose support became vital; while an important cog in the conservative political machine, the were only one of other groups influencing presidential politics.

Two, with the impact of the Evangelical upon politics, Politicians developed a “God Speak”; or as the emergence of “civil religion.” “Civil religion is expressed as ‘a throwback declamation of traditional God-talk so common in American presidential rhetoric.’”[6]

“Since Reagan’s two terms, ‘U.S. presidential candidates who want to be taken seriously by religious voters, particularly conservatives, now face a come-to-Jesus moment in which they must display pubic religiosity in a manner that is inevitably calculated and yet cannot appear overly so.’”[7]

Although reaching diverse religious interests, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barak Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, all couched their campaigns utilizing religious platitudes; yet it was Donald Trump who proved most effective in winning the Evangelical vote.

Trump’s campaign touted conservative moral and Biblical issues, in particular taking a Pro-life stand and support for the Nation of Israel. During his campaign, it was announced that he had become “born again.”

Equally appealing was his vocal support of the 1st- and 2nd- Amendments, two amendments dear to Evangelical hearts – Religious Free Speech and freedom from Government intrusion, and the right to bear arms. His economic and foreign policies lined with Conservatives and Evangelicals. At least a third of Trump’s 2016 votes came from 81% of white evangelicals who cast their votes in enough states to help secure the Electoral College vote.

Although it is inconceivable that true Evangelicals would be included in those who stormed the Nation’s Capital Building, casting their lot, wittingly or unwittingly, with far-right extremist has left an ugly stain on Evangelicals. Allowing Christian Nationalism to usurp the true Evangelical cause of proclaiming the Gospel and advancing the Kingdom of God, has tarnished Evangelicals and detracted from the true Evangelical message and agenda.

Lessons Evangelicals Failed to Learn

Two important cogs in the early development of the Moral Majority were noted journalist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson (who became known as a voice for the Moral Majority). They collaborated to provide a detailed account of the rise and fall of the Moral Majority.[8] Heeding their insights would have prevented the Evangelical participation in what is now styled as Christian Nationalism – the politicization of Christian values and ideals, and retaining/regaining Christian influence on politics.

Through their active participation and contribution to the advancement of the New Religious Right, Thomas and Dobson gained many valuable insights, too many to offer here. Perhaps the most important lessons include:

  • Politics is about power and Christian Faith is about Truth, and with the mix power usually usurps truth, usually compromising truth to remain in power or influence.

  • The placement of leaders espousing conservative values and navigating institution of legislative policy and influence cannot change hearts and only changed hearts can lead to moral and ethical reforms.

  • “The tragedy was not the failure to succeed, but the waste of spiritual energy that would have been better spend on strategies and methods more likely to succeed than the quest for political power.” (Blinded by Might, p 26-27).

Thomas writes in 1999, “Two decades after conservative Christians charged into the political arena, bringing new voters and millions of dollars with them in hopes of transforming the culture through political power, it must now be acknowledged that we have failed.”[9]

In his final analysis of the collapse of the Moral Majority and other conservative religious efforts, including the Christian Coalition, Thomas’ assessment was that in spite of a concerted dedication to bring an atmosphere of moral change, things only became worse – and how much more does this apply today?

Indeed, the religious right’s inability to “save” America is because it was, and is, blinded by might and substituted Christian Nationalism for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Failure to heed the lessons from the past, Evangelicals face a dismal future.

As bad as it seems, however, Christian Nationalism is the least of the Evangelical problems, and even more of a symptom of the issues they face.

Next - Part Two: The Subtle Demise of Evangelicals

“I am a voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord.’”

(Isaiah 40:3f; John 1:19-23)

The Prophetic Voice

© 2021 by Mark Ledbetter. Published by The School of the Prophets 401 S. Broadway Ave., Sylacauga, AL 35150 USA.

Email: reclaimthemantle@gmail.com.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

End Notes

[1] (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Bible-thumper

[2] Capitol siege, 1/6/2020

[3] Evangelicals suddenly find themselves number one on the North American religious scene. Thanks to media visibility, they are seizing the public imagination. There is unprecedented interest in many aspects of the evangelical outlook…Some pundits talk as if evangelicals were about to take over. Garry Wills, in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, cited “the blossoming evangelical movement, now the major religious force in America, both in numbers and impact.” Michael Novak asserted earlier this year that “the most understated demographic reality in the United States is the huge number of evangelical Protestants.…” (“The Year of the Evangelical ’76”, David Kucharsky, Christianity Today, October 22, 1976; https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1976/october-22/year-of-evangelical-76.html.

[4] Inflation fueled by skyrocketing fuel prices and the Iranian Crisis.

[5] “His [Carter’s] hiring of Sarah Weddington, the attorney who argued in favor of abortion in the infamouos case of Roe v. Wade, greatly offended most pro-lifers…” (Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?, ZondervanPublishingHouse: Grand Rapids, Michigan (1999), 12.

[6] Jack Jenkins, “Biden is Ushering in a Second Coming of Religious Liberals,” The Daily Beast, January 3, 2021, thedailybeast.com

[7] David Domke and Kevin Coe, cited by Steven P. Miller, “The evangelical presidency: Reagan’s dangerous love affair with the Christian right,” excepted from “The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years,” Oxford University Press (2014).

[8] Blinded by Might

[9] Ibid., 23.

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