Paul Prather

How the evangelical left became the religious right

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Recently I pointed out in a column that, for generations, white evangelicals made up Protestant Christianity’s radical left wing.

Evangelicals led the fights against slavery, against child labor, for public education, for prison reform — you name it.

I ended that column, which focused mainly on the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, by promising to explain how Christianity’s longtime progressives managed to evolve (pardon the expression) into the religious right.

Well, here goes. It’s a transformation far too complicated to cover thoroughly in a newspaper column. But I’ll hit some highlights.

After the Scopes trial debacle, evangelicals, stung by grossly unfair coverage in the national media, retreated from the public arena.

A decade later, in the 1930s, James W. Fifield Jr., a conservative Congregationalist megachurch pastor from Los Angeles, founded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization, which he hoped would touch off a national revival.

Among other things, Fifield quickly linked up with America’s most powerful corporate magnates, what we’d call today the one percenters.

Together they created a well-financed, conservative public relations campaign opposing, on religious terms, President Franklin Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal.

Initially, millions of rank-and-file Christians, including countless evangelicals, had sided with Roosevelt. They viewed the New Deal as a godsend.

FDR not only pushed government programs that aided the poor and regulated big business, but he couched those programs in biblical language, declaring that he would whip the money changers out of the temple, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse says in his 2015 book, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.”

Part of Fifield’s inspiration was to turn this on its head — to portray corporate titans as God’s devout servants, capitalism as the Lord’s economic instrument for prosperity and the New Deal’s intrusions as rapine by a godless, collectivist state.

Eventually, Fifield and his cohorts succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the Cold War probably helped them most.

Our existential enemies, the Soviets and Chinese, were communists — as well as militant atheists — supposedly bent on our annihilation.

Under such circumstances, it became easy for conservatives to conflate left-leaning liberals at home with dangerous communists abroad and with godlessness itself, while equating unfettered capitalism with patriotism and both of those with Christianity.

A lot of evangelicals bought into these over-simplified ideas.

But then, so did much of the country, including Congress, which in 1954 righteously added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and in 1956 made “In God We Trust” the nation’s official motto, soon emblazoning it on paper money.

The gospel ship was listing starboard.

Even so, as late as the 1970s, a lot of white evangelicals remained politically up for grabs.

In 1976, the Democrats nominated for president Jimmy Carter — an outspoken, fervent evangelical who was moderate-to-liberal on many issues.

And hard as it might be to believe today, both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson initially backed Carter, writes David R. Swartz, an associate professor of history at Asbury University, in his 2012 book, “Moral Minority.”

The irony is that it might have been Carter’s presidency, coupled with the growing rancor over abortion, that finally pushed evangelicals irrevocably to the right. For many people, Carter turned out to be an ineffectual, embarrassing chief executive.

Also, by the late 1970s, the Democrats’ most secular party activists had made support for Roe v. Wade — and to a lesser extent, I think, support for gay rights and the embattled Equal Rights Amendment — a litmus test for power within the party.

As his troubled administration faltered, Carter didn’t come to his fellow evangelicals’ aid on abortion, possibly because to do so would have endangered his broader party support.

Even though evangelicals historically had been leftists on all manner of hot-button issues, they’d generally held traditional views about sexual matters.

They particularly opposed abortion. Like Roman Catholics, many believed that life began at conception.

To them, protecting defenseless fetuses — evangelicals regarded them as babies — was part of the same moral continuum that had prompted their forebears to rescue slaves or liberate children from sweatshops.

For them, the rights of defenseless babies outweighed the rights of women carrying those babies, exactly as the rights of overworked children had outweighed the economic rights of factory owners who employed them.

But the Democratic power structure alternately ignored and mocked their views. As in the years that had followed the Scopes trial a half-century earlier, evangelicals felt mischaracterized, unappreciated and ill-used.

Their disillusionment was even more galling because one of their own sat in the White House.

By 1979, Falwell had not only withdrawn his support for Carter, but had co-founded the right wing Moral Majority.

White evangelicals defected to the Republican Party. There they found a much shrewder welcome.

Unlike the Democrats, Republican leaders not only accepted them, but showed them deference and offered lip service, at least, to evangelicals’ beliefs in God, traditional families and sexual propriety.

I’d suggest that, ultimately, evangelicals and Republicans co-opted each other.

Evangelicals began to covet riches just as Republican moguls did, and campaigning Republicans began to sound like evangelists ablaze on the sawdust trail.

And thus the old Christian left became the Religious Right.

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

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