Academic

The Rise and Fall of Liberal Evangelicalism in the United States

Written by Jess Womack. The evangelical Christian right in US politics holds immense influence today, but there was a time when liberal evangelicalism was similarly influential. Why did evangelical Christians align with the left? And how did this position change so drastically?

It is impossible to deny the impact of political evangelicalism on the contemporary US landscape. Equally, it is difficult to imagine that impact as anything other than conservative. The political mobilisation of evangelism as an identity has been intertwined with the Republican Party since the 1980s, and significantly impacts debates over issues such as abortion, queer rights, and religion in schools. While denominationally, ‘evangelical’ describes a broad range of people across the political spectrum in America, as a political identity and pressure group the ‘evangelical bloc’ is undeniably conservative.  

However, this was anything but inevitable. While the importance of Biblical inerrancy to evangelical thought coincides with some conservative stances, such as opposition to same-sex marriage, political evangelicalism could in theory just as easily have coincided around doctrines of tolerance. Furthermore, the argument put forward by many evangelical leaders themselves, that conservative evangelical mobilisation was a natural reaction to the social liberalism of the 1960s, fails to hold water. Accounts of inevitability fail to explain why evangelism did not coalesce around conservative values for over a decade. They also do not account for the short-lived burst of liberal political evangelicalism in the 1970s. The rise and fall of this liberal movement, shattered by internal fractures and perceived broken promises, plays a significant role in the rise of its conservative counterpart. 

The relationship and disconnect between evangelicalism and liberal politics can be seen as a long-term historical process with roots in the 1930s and the New Deal. Expanded federal intervention into welfare redefined both liberal politics and the role of the church. Before 1933, Christian voluntarism played a huge role in charity and poverty relief at the local level, with evangelical churches at the heart of community welfare institutions. Many churches preached the concept of the ‘social gospel’ in which Christianity involved a moral duty to address social problems. However, New Deal state expansions into welfare saw a split between Christian voluntarism and federal relief work. In Memphis, for example, private religious charities went from contributing 76 per cent to just 2 per cent of the city’s poverty relief by 1935. Given the longstanding impacts of the New Deal in redefining the institutions of American government, this split had long-lasting consequences. As such, moves to create a liberal evangelicalism for social justice in the 1970s lacked institutional and political foundations.  

More significant, however, were the short-term divisions that undermined liberal evangelicalism in the 1970s themselves. The grassroots movement fragmented along gender, race, and ideological lines from the outset, which undermined momentum and resources. Given the context of divisions within secular Black freedom movements and the contentious emergence of second-wave feminism in this period, these divisions are unsurprising. Liberal evangelicals failed to form a shared set of political values and aims. Conflicts also developed over questions of representation; the planning committee for the 1972 Thanksgiving Workshop in Chicago, intended as an event of cooperation, planning, and strength, did not include any women or African Americans.  

By 1975, such division had grown into fractures that threatened to swallow the liberal movement whole. The Annual Workshop saw a culmination of tensions and growing disillusionment, primarily from African American and feminist groups who felt that the fragile coalition was not taking their interests seriously. After a panel on Civil Rights disintegrated into disagreement, African American delegate William Bentley shouted, ‘I question whether you people can even see us blacks!’  

If the failure of liberal evangelical workshops demonstrated competing tensions and expectations of the movement, their collapse only affected a small group of political activists. Wider disillusionment about the relationship between liberal politics and evangelicalism can be traced to the Carter presidency. Jim Carter saw a rapid rise and fall in evangelical support. He was perceived by many evangelicals as having been elected on a Christian mandate. Despite his many vocal promises to keep his strong individual religiosity separate from his politics, Carter was elected with almost half the national evangelical vote, and Christian optimism was palpable. Newsweek magazine declared 1976 ‘The Year of the Evangelical’ due to hopes for reforms under Carter. 

As such, when Carter kept his promises not to govern through religiosity, he fell short of significant church expectations. For example, when he appointed Sarah Weddington, a prominent feminist lawyer who had worked on Roe v. Wade, to be the assistant of Women’s Affairs in 1978, many felt betrayed. Furthermore, a failure to enact Christian social reform led many to believe that Carter was not a true Christian and had somehow deceived America. A representative from the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, told Carter ‘We are praying, Mr President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.’ Rick Scarborough, who would go on to form the conservative organisation Vision America in 1994, stated ‘The first time I voted was for Carter. The second time was for anyone but Carter, because he had betrayed everything I hold dear.’ Similarly, Jerry Falwell founded the electoral organisation Moral Majority specifically to oust Carter from office, and he was responsible for raising significant funds for Reagan’s campaign. The sense of disillusionment and misidentification was tangible. As such, many Evangelicals felt alienated from the Democratic Party and were instead pushed towards conservatism.  

The rise of conservative evangelicalism as a significant impact on American politics cannot be explained solely through the failure of the liberal movement. Factors such as the structure of the US’ two-party system, theological shifts within Evangelicalism but also Catholicism which enabled cooperation, and the role of identity politics and issue linkage also played a significant role and deserve exploration. However, historians must not consider the conservatism of political evangelicalism as inevitable. Had activists been able to overcome divisions, or Carter made more concessions to religious policy, evangelicalism might well be a liberal power bloc in contemporary politics. However, as it stands, the failure and disillusionment with liberal evangelical politics created a belief that Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party would ‘restore religious conservatives to the nation’s guardians and moral authorities.’ This enabled a sense of identification between political conservatives and evangelicals and paved the way for the significant influence that conservative political Christianity now holds.  

Written By Jess Womack 

Bibliography  

Butler, Jon, Wacker, Grant, and Balmer, Randall. Religion in American Life: A Short HistoryOxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 

Moore, Laurence R. Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. 

Swartz, David R. Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 

Williams, Daniel. God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 

Young, Neil. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 

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