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Evangelical Political Activism: Faith and Prudence

The political resurgence of America’s evangelical community raises anew ever-important questions about religion and politics. In The Politics of Reason and Revelation, John West revisits some of those questions: “Does religion have a political role, and if so, what should it be? What are the advantages of religion in politics? What are the dangers? And how can people of faith bring their religious beliefs to bear on public issues without dividing citizens along religious lines and infringing on the liberty of conscience of those who do not share their religious views?” West addresses these questions by examining the American founding and nineteenth-century evangelical activism in a manner that sheds light on contemporary developments.

Recent evangelical political initiatives have been met with hostility, criticism, and such obloquy as the infamous Washington Post article characterizing evangelicals as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” Such caricatures, however, are not wholly the fault of an unsympathetic press. In their political naiveté, evangelicals have often spoken or acted so as to reinforce preexisting prejudices. More importantly, many evangelical missteps show the lack of a carefully formulated social ethic born of reflection and long experience in public life.

Evangelicals, however, are not political neophytes. They may lack the centuries-old natural law tradition of Roman Catholicism, but contemporary evangelicals did not emerge ex nihilo; they were preceded by Protestant reformers who drew on the teachings of the Church fathers and by Christian activists who have been a potent moral force for centuries. Unfortunately, several decades of political quiescence have caused many of today’s evangelicals to lose sight of this rich legacy. We can remedy this deficiency by studying history, especially the nineteenth century when evangelicals were a powerful political force in American public life.

The character of evangelical political activism in the early nineteenth century, according to West, was influenced by how the founding generation defined the political role of religion. Clear understanding of the Founders, therefore, is West’s starting point.

The View From the Founding

West provides a thoroughly documented, succinct, yet nuanced, explanation of the Founders’ views about the role of religion in republican government. Clearly, their personal religious faiths differed dramatically–Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were free-thinking Unitarians; John Wither-spoon and John Jay were orthodox Christians; John Adams was a deistic moralist; while the faiths of George Washington, James Madison, James Wilson, and Alexander Hamilton were either inconsistent, nonexistent, or intensely private. This disparate band of Founders, nevertheless, agreed on several propositions: Religious liberty is vital, morality is essential, and religion is an efficacious source of morality. Religious liberty, the foundational principle, requires a separation of church and state to protect churches and individuals from government intervention and was eventually guaranteed by the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

The Founders acknowledged, nonetheless, that the institutional separation of church and state does not divorce religion from politics. The separation is not absolute because religious belief often entails action that is susceptible to government regulation and because many political issues raise moral questions, require moral choices, and have moral consequences. When matters of morality are implicated in political debate, religious people will speak out. This involvement of religious people in political affairs is not generally disruptive, however, when the state, abiding by the dictates of reason, and the church, adhering to divine revelation, agree on matters of morality. The idea that the morality of revelation was largely “coincident with the morality of reason” was widely accepted at the time of the founding.

The early nineteenth century provides a test case for the Founders’ theory and is carefully examined by West. After the second Great Awakening, evangelical crusades against lotteries, dueling, poverty, slavery, prostitution, and alcohol, as well as campaigns against removing the Cherokee nation from Georgia and reversing congressionally mandated Sunday mail deliveries, were spearheaded by prominent evangelical leaders. Lyman Beecher, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Jeremiah Evarts understood and endorsed the Founders’ solution to theological-political tension and exemplified prudent and principled Christian activism.

These evangelicals prized religious liberty as well as the political freedom to influence their country. They also rejoiced in a simple syllogism that West says was accepted by the founding fathers: “Morality is necessary for republican government; religion is necessary for morality; therefore, religion is necessary for republican government.” This apparent agreement disguises some important differences. “If evangelicals and the Founders concurred on why morality is necessary for republicanism,” West astutely points out, “they did not wholly agree on why religion is necessary for morality. Two points were at issue: the role of revelation in the acquisition of moral knowledge and the role of Christianity in the creation of a moral citizenry.” These differences, generally, were resolved amicably in the nineteenth century but remain contentious in the twentieth.

Evangelicals, then and now, are tempted by the idea of a “Biblical politics.” “Biblical politics” claims that moral knowledge is wholly dependent on the Bible and that moral rectitude requires spiritual regeneration. These notions antagonize friends and foes because they divide citizens along theological lines as well as keep evangelicals on the political periphery because they preempt philosophical and rhetorical links between the evangelical community and American society-at-large. West provides keen advice for today’s evangelicals–learn from your forebears who resisted the temptation of a wholly “Biblical politics.”

This does not mean Beecher and the others abandoned Scripture. They believed moral precepts could be known apart from the Bible, though humanity’s fallen nature inhibited such rational understanding. Reason’s failures, they concluded, could be overcome by Scripture, which “lays down the fundamental maxims of right and wrong with a clarity and finality that cannot be evaded.” But because evangelicals believed Biblical teachings were rational, they were content “arguing public issues with rational appeals.” By accepting “the most fundamental premise of the Founders’ system… that the morality on which public discourse rests must be sanctioned by reason as well as revelation,” evangelicals established working majorities via alliances with nonbelievers based upon common moral ground.

Prudent Political Activism

Many other valuable lessons come from this era. For example, Beecher urged evangelicals to use voluntary reform associations rather than political parties as vehicles for change. The objectives of the reform associations were to encourage good behavior–hypocrisy and lawlessness devastate crusades–and to capture the hearts and minds of voters with nonpartisan, respectful, and restrained moral appeals. Beecher recognized the power of public opinion to shape legislation and the importance of moral sentiment to control private behavior. Clearly, “persuasion must precede coercion” because laws succeed best when people “are convinced of their propriety.”

Four additional lessons for politically active believers: Focus on “great questions of national morality” rather than asserting a “Christian” position on every issue. “Moral right does not always equal political might.” Prudence requires reconciling “idealism with the exigencies of the time.” And, crusades by people of faith will inevitably elicit scurrilous attacks accusing believers of violating the separation of church and state.

This book brims with historical insight and good advice for all believers who are politically active in a hostile milieu. Make time to read it.