Paul Prather

Yes, it’s true: Evangelicals used to be Christianity’s liberals

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Among the great paradoxes in modern religion is the transformation of evangelical Christianity from a progressive, left-leaning movement to its present incarnation as the conservative base of the Republican Party.

Whenever I mention this shift, as I do from time to time, I’m met with skepticism from secularists and evangelicals alike. Neither group approves this narrative.

Nonetheless, it’s true.

This shift in evangelicalism is similar to the transformations of our two main political parties. A century and a half ago, Democrats were the right-wingers and Republicans the radical liberals. They have since switched places.

Something like that happened to evangelicals, who went from being the most forward-thinking of Christians to among the most backward-looking.

Granted, some evangelicals, especially in the South, were conservative all along. Some used the Bible to justify slavery, for example. But if you look at the larger record, both in Britain and in the United States, those folks were exceptions. More commonly, evangelicals led the social-reform avant-garde.

Recently I happened across my aging, marked-up copy of Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills’ 1990 book, “Under God: Religion and American Politics.”

Its chapter on the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” illustrates my point, and it upends our received wisdom about that particular political drama.

I wrote about “Under God” when I initially read it more than 25 years ago. I’ve mentioned it occasionally since.

In the popular rendition of the Scopes trial, an unfortunate Dayton, Tenn., schoolteacher, John Scopes, was arrested for teaching evolution, violating a new state law.

The country’s most fearsome courtroom lawyer, Clarence Darrow, sprang to his defense.

The press hordes descended on Dayton to cover the spectacle. Most notably, Scopes and Darrow had in their corner legendary newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken, who endlessly mocked Tennessee churchgoers as illiterate boobs.

Appearing for the prosecution: William Jennings Bryan, a famous Christian who’d been secretary of state and had been the three-time Democratic nominee for U.S. president.

In the public consciousness, the monkey trial became a classic battle between intellectual enlightenment and ignorant superstition.

Except that nothing about the trial was what it seemed, according to Wills’ meticulous account.

The anti-evolution law had been passed as a political sop by legislators and was signed by the governor because he didn’t expect it to ever be enforced. The state’s approved science textbooks already included evolution.

It’s not clear whether Scopes had even taught evolution; he reluctantly agreed to be charged as part of a plan to test the law. Dayton’s city fathers played along, thinking a high-profile trial might garner the town publicity.

“It was,” Wills writes, “in many respects, a nontrial over a nonlaw, with a nondefendant backed by nonsupporters.”

Bryan, the evangelical who helped the prosecution, was a peerless liberal.

Quoting Wills again:

“His wife listed with justifiable pride the many reforms, later adopted, that he had championed in their embattled earlier stages — women’s suffrage, the federal income tax, railroad regulation, currency reform, state initiative and referendum, a Department of Labor, campaign fund disclosure, and opposition to capital punishment. His (presidential) campaigns were the most leftist mounted by a major party’s candidate in our entire history.”

Also, Bryan was neither a biblical literalist nor, strictly speaking, an opponent of evolution. He thought the seven “days” of creation in Genesis might have been epochs.

He didn’t especially oppose evolution, but he did oppose what evolution was then morphing into: a movement that came to be called “social Darwinism.”

Based on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, social Darwinism took Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest to a troubling extreme.

Its adherents believed, Wills says, that “human society is an arena of struggle in which the strongest prevail, the fittest survive, and poor ‘misfits’ must be neglected in the name of progress through ‘betterment of the race.’”

They bought into Nietzsche’s idea of the “superman.”

Sound familiar? Social Darwinists could have been today’s Republican Congress.

By the 1920s, social Darwinism had gained substantial currency among U.S. — and German — elites. It had buttressed the eugenics movement and would soon be used to justify Nazism.

This gets more interesting.

Darrow the defense attorney and Mencken the columnist were — you’ve probably guessed by now — social Darwinists.

Mencken, for instance, had in 1907 published “The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.” He explicitly believed that men were superior to women, whites to blacks, gentiles to Jews and the elites to, as Wills says, “the mob.” The stronger were dutybound to rule the weaker.

All this was anathema to Bryan, the evangelical. This is the battle he thought he was fighting in Dayton.

He wasn’t the reactionary; he was the uber-liberal, the Bernie Sanders of his day, standing for the vulnerable.

Bryan won the case but lost the war. Old, weakened by advanced diabetes, he was outmaneuvered in court by Darrow and defamed by Mencken as a crackpot. He died just days after the verdict.

Darrow and Mencken lost the case but won an enduring public relations victory. They survived to portray themselves as the voices of intellectual enlightenment, battling medieval superstition.

Wounded evangelicals felt not just misunderstood but viciously libeled. They retreated from the public arena to seek refuge in what has been called an evangelical ghetto, where for years they talked mainly to and among themselves.

When they re-emerged decades later, they came back not as Bryan-style do-gooders, but as the Religious Right.

I’ll say more in a future column about how that bizarre transformation happened.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at