The shape-shifting political gospel of conservative Christianity

Here is the curious thing: When it comes to the embrace of modern medical care. including, or especially vaccinations, there has historically been little difference between how members of conservative Christian denominations and their “mainstream” Christian or their secular neighbors choose treatment modalities — until Covid-19.

Some conservative religious types have long championed “natural health” methods rather than conventional medicine. My Aunt Dorothy got my mother convinced for a time in the 1950s that honey, chewed while still in the comb, was the cure to all ills. But this movement grew more widespread with the 1960s West Coast “back to nature” Hippie era and with “natural food” advocates like Euell Gibbons. In recent years, it has been the liberal fringe Hollywood types like Jenny McCarthy or the East Coast elite like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who have pushed an anti-science, anti-vaccination stance. Conservatives of all stripes have dutifully vaccinated their children against a variety of diseases for decades.

What has happened in the past few years to turn selective anti-medicine, especially when it comes to Covid vaccines, into a conservative Christian mass movement? My take, in short, is that this is where theology meets politics, and it gets a bit ugly.

Karen Armstrong and fundamentalist inconsistency

Karen Armstrong is a former nun who left a cloistered life in a Catholic convent to become one of the best living researchers and writers on the topic of comparative religion. In 2000 she wrote a great book, both highly detailed and solidly sourced, called The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This book has two main themes in my reading. The first is that fundamentalist movements in all three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — have surprising facets in common, from the timing of their modern incarnations to their approaches to determining ruling dogma. The second Armstrong theme is that all three of these movements are very selective in terms of what aspects of modern thought and technology will be unquestionably embraced versus which “last stands” they are willing to bet the house on, including with violent resistance when necessary.

Osama bin Laden, for instance, was highly educated, studying economics and, by some reports, civil engineering with the aim of entering his family’s highly profitable construction business. His fundamentalist Islamic cult emphasized very conservative religious and social practices in many ways, and yet had no problems using modern computer and aviation technology to achieve their destructive aims. His final residence reportedly contained several satellite dishes for television and internet. Modern social media was a primary recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda.

American Christian Fundamentalism has long been an eclectic mix of the old and new. For starters, its theological foundations, those “Fundamentals” themselves, are relatively recent for American religious denominations, newer than most people think, going back just to the turn of the 20th century [see Note 1]. During the 1950s and 1960s, many Pentecostal churches embraced electric guitars and drums in worship at a time when they were commonly banned in staid mainstream churches.

It was primarily ministers with conservative Pentecostal and Evangelical credentials who started California’s Calvary Chapel and its replicas during the mid-1960s, the forerunners of today’s megachurches. Adapted popular and even “hard rock” music became central to Sunday worship, led by musicians like Richie Furay of the bands Buffalo Springfield and Poco, who later became a Calvary Chapel minister himself. Trendy 60’s/70’s dress and its modern cultural informality became hallmarks of the new Evangelical movement while the more theologically progressive mainstream still mostly “dressed for church” and stuck to their formal liturgies.

The television ministries of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and Jim Baker’s PTL (“Praise the Lord”) Club, which boomed in the 1970s, embraced all modern media forms for connecting with people and raising money. The overt trappings of wealth by these preachers generated a whole new conservative “Prosperity Gospel” movement which remains strong today.

But these “liberal” media and worship features were contrasted by very selective bites of conservatism, often closely tied to current (and not always traditional) Republican political stances. There were public pronouncements pushing chastity for teens (e.g., “True Love Waits”) and a “macho football coach” moral probity for men (e.g., “Promise Keepers”), even though the leaders were often more statistically “normal” in their straying from these ideals.

During the 1980’s HIV health crisis, the Torah’s book of Leviticus was frequently cited by conservative Christians as a scriptural foundation for opposition to homosexuality, while conveniently ignoring over 100 more Old Testament uses of the word “abomination” and an entirely different New Testament perspective on who is and who is not a “sinner.” Trying to get Exodus 20‘s Ten Commandments (but only the accepted Protestant version) posted in U.S. courtrooms became a “thing,” while the more compassionate re-take of the Mosaic Law by Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount was more often ignored.

Even before abortion was legalized nationwide in 1973, Lenore Romney, the observant L.D.S. wife of Michigan governor George Romney, mother of Utah Senator Mitt Romney, and grandmother of current Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, ran for Senator in 1970 on a Republican pro-Equal Rights Amendment and pro-choice platform. Organized opposition to abortion in Evangelical churches did not begin in earnest until the late 1970s, when Republican leaders began to openly court Evangelical Democrats, especially those upset over racial desegregation in the South, to switch their support to Ronald Reagan.

Conservative Christians largely had no bones to pick with rising environmentalism through the 1980s. As I wrote in a review of a 1980s science text out of Michigan’s very conservative Calvin College (now Calvin University) called Earthkeeping,  the “stewardship over God’s creation” was a common theme. By this century, however, business and libertarian opposition to environmental controls was increasingly woven into conservative Christian theology.

The 2017 elevation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a longstanding opponent of the legal precedent of Chevron Deference, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA much of their administrative power, completed the merger of conservative Christianity with opposition to environmental cleanup and worker safety. As I expected, Chevron Deference was the focus of Gorsuch’s opposition to OSHA’s new Covid masking regulation as this case was recently argued in front of the Supreme Court.

In short, in modern American Christian Fundamentalism, only certain politically expedient aspects of modernity are typically opposed, while most are heartily embraced. These folks are not Amish by any comparison. [2] The “franchise” organizational format of the American Evangelical movement (rather than top-down denominational control) allows for a great deal of local pastor-directed doctrinal selection. One of the primary rules in most Evangelical churches is fealty to the pastor, and thus the political views of the pastors typically guide the flock. Members who “stray” may find themselves expelled.

Evangelicals and Covid vaccine opposition

Christians of a fundamentalist stripe are thus historically prone to follow the bidding of strong leaders. Their pastors tell the people in the pew which scriptures are “fundamental” and which to ignore. Some of the major Evangelical “franchises” have their own internal ministerial training programs, which means that few pastors have been educated in traditional seminaries, where modern Biblical scholarship would inevitably complicate the simple Sunday School stories and centrally-scripted PowerPoint lessons often communicated from their pulpits.

Recently Christianity Today, a religious-themed magazine founded by the late Evangelical Billy Graham, produced a fascinating podcast series called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Mars Hill was a collective of Evangelical congregations founded by Mark Driscoll that grew to over 10,000 church attenders weekly.

Driscoll typified the strong, macho “celebrity” pastor. He held a lot of sway over Mars Hills members, down to telling them how vote and which political positions to take, before his personal foibles led to the collapse of the entire church in 2015 (when the pastor falls, the church often dies). The podcast notes that Driscoll’s aggressive, often coarse preaching style and political connections, which became a norm in the Evangelical movement, are key to understanding why so many Evangelical churches quickly supported (and still support) Donald Trump in his presidency despite Trump’s obvious traditional scriptural “sins.”

By embracing an anti-science political line, or even by just flirting too close to it, fundamentalist pastors also enable the less-observant “Evangelical adjacent.” In late 2021, the New York Times published an interview with climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who identifies as an Evangelical Christian. Hayhoe talked about her frustration with conservative political influences infiltrating Christian theology and stymieing progress against global warming. Her words summarize the issue well:

“But nowadays something like 40 percent of people who self-identify as evangelicals don’t go to church. They go to the church of Facebook or Fox News or whatever media outlet they get their information from. So their statement of faith is written primarily by political ideology and only a distant second by theology”

It is not a given that conservative Christianity binds itself to the Republican party. In England, Evangelical Christians and Mormons are commonly in deep opposition to the Conservative Party. This, too, has sociological roots, as the non-Anglican churches have long been labelled as “non-conformist” and they formed the base of the modern Liberal Democrats and Labor Party. As one politically active British Evangelical once said to me, “Obviously, Jesus was a socialist.”

The question of whether religion drives culture or the other way around (or as sociologists say, that religion is part of culture) continues. No doubt more progressive Christians have shifted ideological positions as well over the decades, but primarily, I would argue, as the centuries-long impacts of our collective “sins” of racism, sexism, and homophobia have broken open our sheltered church bubbles. Good Christians, and a lot of sketchy ones, still disagree about the basics of the message that Jesus of Nazareth taught 2000 years ago.


Notes:

  1. American Christian Fundamentalism has much of its roots in the Niagara Bible Conference of the late 1800s and a series of essays entitled “The Fundamentals,” published between 1910 and 1915. These centered on six “fundamental” points of Christian doctrine, which largely remain the focus of American Evangelicalism today:
    • The doctrinal inerrancy of the Bible.
    • The literal nature of the biblical accounts, especially regarding the miracles of Jesus and the six-day Creation account in Genesis.
    • The virgin birth of Jesus.
    • The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ.
    • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (“Christ died for my sins”).
    • Note that none of these “Fundamentals” emphasize the many moral teachings of Jesus centering around love, compassion, and personal sacrifice.
  2. Even the Amish are more committed to an imagined 18th century German Anabaptist orthodoxy than to some “original” Christianity. Local Amish elders can determine accepted adaptations to modernity, such as the summer dress and tricycles used in Sarasota, Florida’s Pinecraft community rather than the black dress and horse-drawn buggies still required near my former Southern Iowa home.

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  1. Pingback: Separating the ethic from the dogma – When God Plays Dice

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