We Were Eight Years in Power
Perhaps the transition from a positive to neutral world was inevitable, but an evangelical elite was distinctly ill-equipped to arrest that transition, too.
Like most Americans this week, I have been thinking about 9/11. Twenty-two years is a long time, and twenty-two anniversaries give a lot of angles from which to look at something, including the time itself that has passed. In particular, I’ve found myself thinking about George W. Bush. Or rather, the Bush era, which seems now almost a foreign country. There are all the years between then and now, and what we know came after the president said “I can hear you!” at Ground Zero—the Iraq invasion, the Patriot Act, decades of sandy boots and more broken bodies—gives a grim cast to memory, but that first pitch at Yankee Stadium (“U.S.A.”), the yellow ribbon magnet on the family minivan, George and Laura smiling from a card on the refrigerator, all still sit Kodak-warm in recollection. We were American evangelicals and George W. Bush was our president.
Somewhere in the Bush era, from 9/11 to the Lehman Brothers’s bankruptcy, was a highwater mark of evangelical ease and confidence in this country. The mainlines had given up shepherding the people, and the born again were ready to step up in a crisis. Bioethics debates played out on NPR. Bush and Gingrich read Marvin Olasky. I recall picking a fight in Sunday school with a kid who said his parents supported John Kerry. Didn’t he, a child like me, care about abortion? The New Atheists, in their fear and contempt, reified by their opposition the sense that this was not just a Christian country historically but an evangelical country now. Yes, many evangelicals were educating at home or starting private schools, skeptical that an untrained child can be salt and light in what amounts to a government prison. A lot still feared the Man. But, at the same time, our guy was in the White House. Some of us were insiders. It felt good.
Today, the mood is dark and evangelical America is divided. There are a few very real theological issues at stake—e.g., the imago Dei as it informs sexuality and reproduction, nature and grace and the role of the state, Darwin and the genres of Genesis—but the questions are often, too often, only incidental to the division. Evangelicals are divided, fundamentally, by political sensibility and posture to American culture and “progress,” and they tend to find the theology that fits the camp they’re comfortable in, conservative or liberal. What happens when your elites “mainline,” as we might put it, while the pastors and people who fill pews of your not-mainline churches stay the same? We are running the experiment; we saw interesting preliminary results in 2016.
How did we get here? The Bush administration was, in retrospect, a disastrous failure. We, the evangelicals, had our guy, a man who respected us, who sounded like us, who had shared his testimony. And compassionate conservatism didn’t happen, and the mission wasn’t accomplished after all, and the surveillance state swallowed up the world. But the Bush administration also made our elites, the evangelical elites, feel like they had a seat at the big kid table, and that they should have one, that they belonged, as evangelicals. And many conservatives celebrated the evangelicals who were part of the Obama world, because they were supposed to be there. Then came Obergefell.
Readers familiar with evangelical America’s discussions of itself will recognize in this hasty sketch something of Aaron Renn’s “neutral world.” Renn argues that between 1994 and 2014, public Christianity shifted from a default background of American civic life, privileged and high status, to “a valid option within a pluralistic public square.” By his reckoning we are nine years into a negative world for Christianity, in which “subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.” I find Renn’s framework helpful, and so cite it here, but also mean to suggest more on top of it. Evangelicalism, a tent made to describe a low-church Protestantism that broke from or never joined the liberalizing mainline establishment, has been a victim of its own success. The dog caught a car in the Bush administration, but didn’t know how to drive.
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Perhaps the transition from a positive to neutral world was inevitable, with secularizing forces and demographic changes making multiculturalism, rather than toleration, the only settlement for public Christianity possible. But an evangelical elite was distinctly ill-equipped to arrest that transition, too. Members of congregationalist churches and small splinter denominations, the default evangelical political posture—political in the broad sense of institution building and participation—is countercultural, positioned in reference to a pre-existing establishment. In a sense, we were inclined to choose a neutral world on our own. And the divide the evangelical world faces today, inexactly mirroring the polarization of the country as a whole, comes from the two options a community has when it will not steer the ship: assimilation or reaction.
After the social revolutions of the Obama years, after the failure of apparent triumph in the Bush era, it should be little wonder that Donald Trump’s nakedly transactional approach to politics—“my evangelicals”—appealed so broadly. It has a certain honesty to it. And the present, related hysteria from evangelical elites about “Christian nationalism” should be no surprise either. For those who chose assimilation, it is a transparent threat to their own position, totally opposed to their sensibilities. For those who have withdrawn from national politics, it seems to threaten the purity of their communities. A prophetic voice, a pilgrim exit, these have been the tools of evangelical cultural engagement, not the governing and leadership of the old mainline establishment.
But the positive world was real; America has had a public Christianity before: Not just Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation, but Dwight D. Eisenhower, and, yes, in its own inadequate way, George W. Bush. And now, all these years later, with little left to lose, it occurs to some evangelical Americans that perhaps we can again.