A new evangelical politics

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank sees the emergence of a new kind of evangelical politics in the recent US election. She argues that while organisations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition may have previously mobilised voters for Reagan, this time it was grass roots Christian activism that got the turnout for Bush. She writes:

In the past, evangelicals participated in politics reluctantly, at the urging of such figures as Jerry Falwell and, later, Pat Robertson. This time, more than 26 million of them turned out — 23 percent of the electorate — in local church-based networks coordinated closely with the Bush campaign.

"You see the maturation of a movement that began in the late ’70s with the Moral Majority," said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Now these people don’t need to be told. They have their own opinions about the state of the culture, and they’ve gotten organized. It has more power because it’s decentralized and organized."

 

Milbank quotes Barry W. Lynn, from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State speculating that the Left Behind novel’s have played a part in this:

Lynn said that a number of evangelicals, inspired in part by minister Tim LaHaye’s "Left Behind" novels, have come to view politics as part of their religion. "There is a strain of evangelical Christians who believe it is political figures who usher in the Second Coming," he said. As such, Bush "is the spiritual and political leader of a moral revolution."

This certainly fits with my reading of Rapture Culture, Amy Johnson Frykholm’s fascinating reader reception study of Left Behind culture. One of the striking things is the way readers move between engagement with the Left Behind series and other elements of popular culture. This has the effect of creating a kind of seamless imaginary world in which the imaginative possibilities of the Left Behind series become a very real part of daily life and thus daily political choices. I think the Left Behind series is performing an important bridging function that hasn’t been fully explored yet.

In a not very good review of Rapture Culture (when will mainstream reviewers get over the quick easy jabs at post modernism) Stephen Prothero (chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University who should know better) does make a perceptive point. He argues that the Left Behind series and other evangelical mass cultural products are about maintainance not conversion:

Decades ago the sociologist Peter Berger contended that worldviews
perpetuated themselves (and the societies in which they were embedded)
through "plausibility structures" that sustained in the minds of
believers the reality of those perspectives. Churches and religious
institutions do much of this work, but so does the Left Behind
publishing firm, Tyndale House, the evangelical girls’ magazine Brio
and Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures. Although evangelicals often
raise funds for their forays into mass media by promising to make
converts, the real purpose of those raids may simply be to hold on to
believers already made through procreation or proselytizing. Even
religious traditions that prize sudden transformations in tent meetings
must labor to keep the hearts and minds of the Christians they have
birthed and baptized. And evangelical media, whatever we may think of
their politics, or the virtues of alchemizing atheists into Christians,
play an important part in doing just that.

It seems that these books and other forms of evangelical culture, not just firey Sunday sermons, are in fact "alchemizing" christians into activists. Milbank quotes some striking rhetorical examples:

Though such views are a minority, there were glimpses of that passion on the campaign trail. Last month, at an invitation-only meeting with Vice President Cheney, a questioner rose and said: "I personally think, next to Jesus Christ, [Bush] probably took the greatest load upon his shoulders of any individual, so it had to be with strong backing that he has been able to stand for his testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ."

At another invitation-only event, a questioner asking about Bush’s "faith-based initiatives" told the president: "I believe that the enemy that we need the greatest freedom from right now happens to be Satan, and it’s the enemy that we also don’t necessarily always see. There’s so many people who are being attacked on every level."

Leaders of Christian political organizations have spoken of Tuesday’s results as providential. "Only the Lord could have orchestrated an election in which the president got a wonderful majority vote and at the same time we had a basic Christian institution of marriage on the ballot," Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice president of public policy, said on the group’s radio show this week.

The organization’s head, James Dobson, said, "I think God has honored" Bush because "the president did acknowledge Jesus Christ." The same program broadcast a statement by Dennis Prager, a Christian commentator, saying "civilization as we understand it was in the balance" in the election, and "a beautiful man has been vindicated."

 

One of the interesting things about these examples is the confluence between the leadership and the grass roots. It looks like they have fully bought into the divinely mandated version of the Bush mission.

This is a fascinating example of the real-time effect of the apocalyptic myth not just transforming the daily lives of believers but also effectively reshaping the national political agenda.

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