Paul Prather: My prediction about white evangelicals and politics

Paul Prather, Faith and Values columnist.
Paul Prather, Faith and Values columnist.

I don't mean to brag, but as a seer of our culture's future, I proudly have logged a perfect record. You might keep that in mind as you read this piece.

As far as I can recollect, in my 20-odd years of writing newspaper columns my prognostications have been wrong 100 percent of the time.

A prophet I am not.

But I keep predicting the future anyway, on that well-worn principle which says even a stopped clock is right twice a day. I'm expectantly awaiting the moment when my fortuitous hour rolls around.

Here's my current prediction.

In the not-very-distant future, white evangelical Christians — now one of the Republican Party's core constituencies — will withdraw from politics altogether.

I started thinking about this in the aftermath of Mitt Romney's defeat. The reaction of his evangelical supporters really struck me.

Several articles I read documented these Christians' utter shock and dread, not to mention their sense that an errant nation had rejected them personally.

To cite just one example, a Nov. 11 Washington Post article followed Beth Cox, a Tennessee pastor's wife and Republican activist, as she dejectedly helped dismantle Romney's campaign headquarters in Hendersonville.

In the words of reporter Eli Saslow, "Cox and many others spent last week grieving not only for themselves and their candidate but also for a country they now believe has gone wildly off track. The days after Barack Obama's reelection gave birth to a saying in Central Tennessee: Once was a slip, but twice is a sign."

A sign to evangelicals that the United States is damned beyond redemption.

As Saslow's article explained, Cox felt that "in a single election night, parts of her country had legalized marijuana, approved gay marriage and resoundingly re-elected a president who she worried would 'accelerate our decline.'"

Other news articles recorded similar sentiments elsewhere.

Maybe this was just post-election blues. Maybe some of these same evangelicals are already feeling refreshed and gearing up for the next partisan fight.

But at least in the immediate aftermath of the election, their rhetoric reminded me of a previous period in evangelical history: the 1920s.

For much of the 1800s and early 1900s, white evangelicals ranked among the more potent of political forces. But generally not of conservative forces.

Yes, my friends, believe me or not, evangelicals started their American (and British) political careers as bleeding-heart do-gooders on the avant-garde of the left.

For well over a century, they mightily and successfully championed every liberal cause imaginable: abolition of slavery, women's rights, prison reform, government-funded public education, child labor laws, a federal income tax.

They produced fascinating leaders along the way.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, their shining light was William Jennings Bryan, a brilliant orator, three-time Democratic presidential nominee and Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state.

According to historian and journalist Garry Wills in Under God: Religion and American Politics, Bryan's presidential campaigns still rank as "the most leftist mounted by a major party's candidate in our entire history."

However, the same theological system — a strict reading of the Bible — that led Bryan and others to struggle on behalf of the poor and dispossessed also motivated them to a nearly obsessive opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution, which they believed devalued individual human lives and would lead to the oppression of society's weakest members.

This wasn't as cockeyed as you might assume. In Bryan's day, biological Darwinism had given rise to social Darwinism, a movement that claimed natural selection meant some people were more fit than others to rule or even to live. Social Darwinism was, even then, birthing such philosophies as Nazism.

For evangelicals, evolution gradually became the chief evil. They grew hysterical about it almost to the exclusion of all else.

Caught up in their own rhetoric and fervor, they misjudged the shifting direction of the larger culture.

This culminated with the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Anti-evolution forces, led by Bryan, won a technical victory against the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's schools — but suffered a degrading rout in the court of public opinion, where they were ridiculed mercilessly by defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, journalist H. L. Mencken and the national media.

It was a watershed moment.

Blind-sided, humiliated and crushed by this derision, evangelicals fled the arena en masse. They gave up on politics and on the rest of the country.

Individuals still voted, of course, or occasionally ran for local office, but as a major political force, white evangelicals disappeared.

They weren't heard from again for a half-century.

(In the meantime, black evangelicals had successfully led the civil rights movement. But that's another story.)

Then, in 1979, the Rev. Jerry Falwell reactivated white evangelicals with his Moral Majority, reinventing them as — get this — the bedrock of the Religious Right.

Talk about your historic ironies.

In any case, current evangelicals have, over a few decades, managed to do almost exactly what evangelicals a century ago did: in a world abundant with causes to champion, they've hitched their wagons to just two, opposing abortion and gay marriage. These are practically their only issues.

Societal trends being what they appear to be, evangelicals are certain to lose on both. Whether you find this outcome good or bad is largely irrelevant; it simply is. Evangelicals will lose. Both those trains have left the station.

And as white evangelicals become gradually more aware they've lost, my guess is that, like their forebears, they'll throw up their hands and walk away, praying for God's wrath to consume those whose opinions differ from theirs.