Evangelicals & Politics

Charles Marsh’s book joins the lengthening list of volumes rushed into print by what might be called an elite-media panic over the power of the Christian Right. The overwhelming support of Evangelicals for George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, compounded by the misadventures of the Iraq war, has generated a spate of bold and scary titles: American Theocracy, Religion Gone Bad, The Rise of Christian Nationalism. At times in Wayward Christian Soldiers, Marsh (a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia) seems intent on being ominous himself, as when he tells us that “the Evangelical empire has produced...a world bereft of moral accountability, intellectual curiosity, trustworthiness, and honesty,” or that “the postmodern White House is an incubator of epistemological terror,” where “truth is...slain with a shrug and a grin.” The lack of nuance in such passages makes them less than persuasive.

Thankfully, however, much of Wayward Christian Soldiers focuses on the explicitly theological reasons why Marsh, who calls himself an Evangelical, takes such offense at the mobilization and continuing support of other Evangelicals on behalf of George W. Bush and the Republican Party generally. The book links its strong attacks on the president and his policies to equally strong attacks on conservative Evangelical spokespersons (Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, Chuck Colson, the late Jerry Falwell) and the supposed dispositions of the 60 to 70 million Evangelicals in the United States.

The theology justifying these attacks is bracing in its fidelity to classical Christian norms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and other impeccable authorities provide Marsh with the clear interpretation of Scripture that he wields like a cudgel against the Christian Right. In Marsh’s view, Scripture calls for self-awareness before God and awed reverence in response to the mystery of divine action in Christ. The universal offer of reconciliation with God in Jesus requires attentive respect to all members of Christ’s body throughout the whole world. And God’s offer of human salvation, accomplished through Christ’s self-sacrifice, demands a special wariness toward the temptations of temporal power.

So armed, Marsh proceeds to indict President Bush, Bush’s most prominent Evangelical supporters, and (implicitly) the mass of American Evangelicals. In his own phrase, “we Evangelicals” are guilty of idolatry for exalting a messianic view of our nation over God himself. We have committed sins of omission and commission against the universal church for failing to heed the warnings against a preemptive war in Iraq—warnings that came from countless Christian denominations, leaders, and organizations outside the United States. We have blundered horribly in misidentifying our chief foes as political liberals, instead of the forces of sin, deadly warfare, and environmental destruction.

In a surprising turn of argument, Marsh charges leaders of the Evangelical right-wing alliance with theological liberalism. For a long time, the raison d’être of Evangelical Protestantism has been its opposition to theological modernism, which Marsh defines as a process of releasing “the truth claims of Christianity” into “the secularizing drift of the modern world.” He goes on to assert that “when the conservative religious elites speak of the Christian nation, Christian principles, Christian values, or Christian prosperity in quasi-theological language, they are standing firmly in the tradition of Protestant liberals.” For these Evangelicals, in Marsh’s view, Christ has become “the projection and guarantor of our values, ambitions, and power.” It is a point for all self-declared Evangelicals to ponder very seriously indeed.

When Marsh sticks to such expressly theological judgments, he is both critically acute and authentically Evangelical. Elsewhere, the force of his critique is undercut by a persistent, blinkered naiveté, one reflecting indifference to what actually constitutes Evangelical life in the United States today. To be sure, this is a strange charge to level against Marsh, the author of two earlier books that excelled at probing the complexities of religious-political interaction. God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997) told the history of the dramatic civil-rights confrontations of 1964 in Mississippi. And The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Era to Today (2005) examined how Christian teaching has stimulated community building in the face of great odds—whether racial prejudice in Mississippi and Oakland, California, immigrant dislocation among Africans in New York City, or poverty in Virginia.

In God’s Long Summer, Marsh’s own sympathies clearly lay with the civil-rights reformers, including Fannie Lou Hamer, who was sustained by thoughts of Jesus as she was being beaten in the Winona, Mississippi, city jail. But the book was also notable for its empathetic treatment of Sam Bowers, imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who believed that he was defending the sovereignty of God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Beloved Community criticized the Christian Right for emphasizing the problem of abortion-on-demand over other evils urgently in need of a positive Christian response. Like God’s Long Summer, however, it paid careful attention to local circumstances, showing an unusually generous spirit toward a wide range of actors, and great ethical sophistication in charting the moral ambiguities present in even the most apparently straightforward clashes between good and evil.

In Wayward Christian Soldiers, Marsh gives up this kind of careful analysis for jeremiad. The book, like most of the current crop from the Left, reflects a world bounded by National Public Radio, the New York Times, and national periodicals fixated on the political Big Picture. Within this narrow frame, authors tend to miss almost completely the ebb-and-flow of actual religious life and the complicated realities with which believers live—including white Evangelical Protestants who voted for Bush.

In many suburban megachurches and some of the Evangelical congregations that are reappearing in the nation’s cities, 80 percent of the congregants may have voted for Bush; but, contrary to the suspicions expressed in liberal media, politics is rarely, if ever, stressed from the pulpit, and is barely present in the dozens of church-sponsored meetings during the week. In such churches, donations for evangelization projects at home and abroad—as well as for the likes of Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World, and World Vision—dwarf giving to the Republican Party. And many of these churches routinely cooperate with other Protestant and Catholic congregations, and sometimes Jewish and Muslim groups, to run local food banks and homeless shelters.

Marsh is certainly on target in arguing that within such churches, an enervating infection has spread from what he describes as “the absence of resistance, dissent, and critical judgment in the moral repertoire of contemporary Evangelicals.” But the confusion of political ends and means with the proper goals of authentic Christian existence is not, and has not been, the dominant problem for most Evangelicals. There are indeed some preachers, flamboyant writers, and radio personalities who deserve the severe criticism Charles Marsh dishes out in Wayward Christian Soldiers. Yet Marsh also has at his disposal a far more delicate instrument, a theology shaped by grace; and—to use his vocabulary—most of “us Evangelicals” have more need of the scalpel than the sledgehammer.

Published in the 2008-01-18 issue: 
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Mark Noll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, is an Evangelical Presbyterian who teaches history at the University of Notre Dame.

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