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If Only Right-Wing Christians Knew Where Their Ideas Came From

Progressive evangelical Christianity is not merely a relic of the 19th century; it’s making a comeback.

Photo Credit: Hayes


The media spotlight has focused on the growing split in the Republican Party between its corporate-business wing and the libertarian-leaning Tea Partiers. But what about the third leg of the GOP tripod, the one that used to get all the attention: the evangelical Christian religious right? That’s where the spotlight ought to be.

We know the corporate-business types want an active federal government, because it can be counted on to serve their interests, especially if Republicans regain control of it. We know that the libertarians, who are the driving force in the Tea Party, want to shrink government; that’s their whole reason for being.

What we don’t know yet, and what will determine the fate of the GOP, is which way the religious right will break in this intramural fight over the role of government. Even the conservative evangelicals themselves don’t know, because the split in the GOP runs smack down the middle of the religious right.

Many politically active evangelicals are happy to be Tea Partiers and align with the libertarian call for smaller government. They see government as a force imposing its secular ways upon them. And Tea Party politicians have been equally happy to talk the religious right talk because it wins them votes.

Many other evangelicals will join the corporate-business Republicans in rejecting the Tea Party’s extremist anti-government agenda. They’ll see why Tea Partying is a trap for them. Only a powerufl government can do the things evangelicals want most, like banning abortion and gay marriage, and more generally, imposing strict rules of personal behavior on every American. The more the Tea Party weakens the government, the more it deprives the religious right of its most potent tool. That should be easy enough for most conservative evangelicals to see.

What most won’t see, though, is the hidden place where evangelicals and libertarians do meet: way back in U.S. history, where both movements were inspired by a radical worldview. Just as the libertarian call for less government has its roots in radical, not conservative, assumptions about human nature, so the religious right’s call for government intervention has deep roots in evangelical demands for policies that were radically progressive at the time. Some of them are still radical, even by today's standards.  

As early as the 1820s, the evangelical style of Christianity was beginning to dominate American political life. It didn’t stop dominating until the 19th century was over.

Looking back across the history of that century you’ll find evangelicals, demanding strong government intervention in everyone's life, popping up in all sorts of places. And most of those places are well to the left of where you might expect them, if your view of evangelical politics is shaped only by the era of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell.

Most famously, evangelical Christians led and filled the ranks of the movement to abolish slavery. Some (though far too few) even took the lead in treating African Americans as genuine equals. The best recent writing on the causes of the Civil War shows that evangelicalism was a crucial factor creating widespread popular resistance to the “peculiar institution.”

Without the spur of evangelical fervor there probably would have been no Republican Party, no President Lincoln, and no secession of the South. Slavery would not only have continued in the United States; it probably would have spread throughout the territories that became the new states of the Southwest, making it that much harder ever to abolish.

Antebellum evangelical reformers also took the lead in demanding that government provide free public education for all, more humane treatment of prisoners and the disabled, and more equality for women. Of course, most of their specific policy prescriptions seem too conservative by today’s progressive standards. But in their own day they were out on the cutting left edge of political life. And one of their demands—that government renounce war as an instrument of national policy—still sounds as radical as ever.