Asheville Daily Planet, March 2018
Movements don’t stand still. Maybe that’s why they’re called movements. The players change, positions shift.
Evangelicalism is a case in point. So is Republicanism. So is conservatism. So, too, is Christianity.
This is a story about moving movements and the wiggly words that ae used to define them – words out of today’s newspapers.
When I graduated from conservative Christian Wheaton College (60 years ago in May), I considered myself a conservative Evangelical Christian Republican.
Wheaton saw itself as descended from the Evangelical “Great Awakenings” of the mid-1700s. That means a conversion experience, an ongoing relationship with Christ and spreading the Gospel. Indeed, fellow alumnus Billy Graham (’43) was nearing his peak.
There was an intellectual air about the place – but over and under everything was the strict authority of the Bible. There was palpable fear that Wheaton would go the way of other great Christian colleges, like Princeton and Oberlin, into “modernism.” The word “conservative” means “wanting the established order,” and we did.
There was no political component. A guy named Clyde Taylor, with the National Association of Evangelicals, came to campus urging us to enter politics to influence the world. I don’t remember a stir.
We were Republican, I think, because they were a northern conservative party – where Evangelicals were at the time. But we weren’t involved with them.
On the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Republicans voted in favor: 136-35 in the House and 27-6 in the Senate. But Wheaton had no social action component at the time. Brown v. Board of Education had just come down, but I don’t recall one word, pro or con, about civil rights.
Ah, movements do move. When Wheaton was founded in 1860 by abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard, “conservatives” of his day were pro-slavery. He modeled his new college after far-out radical Oberlin College. Wheaton was a stop on the Underground Railway, and Blanchard housed African-American students in his home. Blanchard’s Wheaton was equal parts radical social reform and strict Evangelical Christian faith.
But in the 20th century, Protestant Christianity fragmented – between those who embraced the critical study of the Bible and “Fundamentalists,” like Bob Jones, who took up the fight (their term) against them.
It is important to note for our story that Fundamentalists were only concerned with theology. They weren’t sputtering over FDR’s “Socialism” like Republicans were.
The National Association of Evangelicals formed in 1942 to serve denominations that were neither Fundamentalist nor modernist. But Wheaton was toying with the term, “Neo-Evangelical,” so straight “Evangelical” must have had drawbacks.
I was studying in a conservative Presbyterian seminary in the mid-1960s as Protestant Christianity in America wrangled over “doctrinal purity.” I watched a more conservative Presbyterian group split off from us, mainly over our not being “separate” enough.
The stage was set for the huge upheavals of the 1970s that so powerfully influence American politics today.
The first seismic event came in January, 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade by a 7-2 vote. Abortion had been an issue. Now it was Number One.
Then in 1976, the IRS withdrew tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University for institutional racism. The government was persecuting Fundamentalists.
Then came the famous meeting in 1979 between Fundamentalist leader Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich, founded of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Falwell was challenged to become active with Republicans. Weyrich even gave Falwell the name, Moral Majority. Ronald Reagan’s candidacy made it official: Fundamentalist Evangelicals thereafter have been all-out Republicans.
I was at a Texas state Republican convention in the 1980s (selling political merchandise) when conservative Christians took over the state Party. They had worked their way up from precinct meetings to become delegates. (They didn’t buy Republican merchandise!)
Now we see clumps of men at Roy Moore headquaters on election night, their heads bowed, praying for a miracle that will stop a Democrat from winning. And we hear Franklin Graham praising Donald Trump.
But then we read a poll in the Wheaton student newspaper that 43 percent of Wheaton students voted for Hillary Clinton while 26 percent voted for Trump. One has to wonder how the vote went at Bob Jones University.
The Trump era makes us wonder about a lot of things, doesn’t it?