White Christian Saviors: The Politics of White American Evangelicals in the 21st Century

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago)
Lauren Kerby, Harvard Divinity School
In two recent elections, white American evangelicals have confounded scholars, pundits, and the public by voting overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and Roy Moore—candidates whose confirmed and alleged moral failings appear at odds with white evangelicals’ stated commitment to “family values.” Since the 1980s, scholars have understood evangelicalism to be a set of theological commitments, most notably those articulated by David Bebbington (1989), while the American public has understood evangelicalism as strict adherence to the traditional moral values that make up the conservative side of the culture war. When white evangelicals behave in a way that conflicts with those expectations, they are called hypocrites for subordinating their religious commitments to their political loyalties. But the real discrepancy is not between white evangelicals’ moral values and their political loyalties. Rather, it is between how we expect white evangelicals to behave and how they actually behave, particularly in the political arena. We need a new way of defining white evangelicalism that accounts for white evangelicals’ political loyalties not as an anomaly, but as a central component of their collective identity.

This paper argues that what defines white American evangelicals today is their custodial relationship to the nation, which is mediated by their creative and strategic use of American history. Their conservative political loyalties derive from their conviction that history is the key to America’s salvation. In their view, the past provides a blueprint for how things ought to be: Christians running a Christian nation. At the same time, they see history itself as endangered by secularists who wish to erase Christianity from normative accounts of American history. This paper combines intellectual history with ethnographic research to demonstrate how white evangelicals understand their unswerving political loyalties not as an aberration, but as their duty as the saviors of the nation.

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