Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The rise of the secular evangelicalism started a long time ago

The following excerpts from a NYT piece on Alabama by Alan Blinder have gotten quite a bit of coverage:
But others said it had become clear that for conservative Christians, the cultural and political issues that define modern conservative politics mattered at least as much as moral piety. That was why, they suggested, Mr. Bentley was able to cling to his job for nearly 13 months after his reputation as a paragon of probity came under fire.

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

Even before Mr. Bentley’s resignation, there was a budding movement among religious conservatives here to combat malfeasance in state government that has extended well beyond the governor’s office. Mr. Bentley’s departure could strengthen that effort, Mr. Flynt said, even as he noted that he was startled by the long-muted response of evangelicals to the governor’s troubles.

“Secular culture is eroding evangelicalism to the point where it takes us one full year to get rid of the governor because of all of these conflicting pressures,” he said. “He would have been out the door in an hour in the 1940s.”

As far as I have seen, though, none of the people posting and commenting on the story have bothered to dig into Flynt's writings, which is a shame, because the context here is important, particularly with respect to his ideas about the corrupting influence of social reactionaries on the evangelical movement.

The segregationists' argument was almost wholly cultural, and not religious at all. Tallahassee's First Baptist Church made a political case, since it was the major church for the political establishment in the state's capital. A lot of really overt racism in that church was political. Older church members who were inactive showed up to cast ballots in the 1964 church vote on integration. They showed up that night and voted, and we didn't recognize many of them.

At that same time I was working a lot on labor history. I wrote a paper on the 1908 transit strike in Pensacola. And I actually did research for a full-scale book on labor in Florida. One of the things I ran across was the fact that so many of these labor leaders were coming from Nazarene churches. They were also members of working-class Baptist churches. Labor in the South absorbed this extraordinarily powerful reform ethos of evangelical religion. Labor leaders in the West Virginia Coal Mine Strike of 1920, or the Birmingham Strike of 1919-1921 quoted the 25th chapter of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, and referred to the life of Christ. All those strikes were informed by the ethos of the Gospel. This was not Marxism. If they were socialists, they were Christian socialists, but their radicalism was a radicalism born of the church and the very literal teachings of Jesus. You could argue that they were fundamentalists�in terms of their believing that every word of the Bible was literally true�but when they quoted Jesus they picked passages that didn't make polite society feel good.

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