Campaigning for the Lord's Kingdom: Evangelical Political Loyalties and Legacies in Late 20th-Century America

AHA Session 225
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago, Lower Level)
Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University
Matthew Avery Sutton, Washington State University

Session Abstract

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in an era of evangelical ascendancy in American politics, exemplified in part by the embrace of a fiercely moral political agenda and demand for personal morality in political candidates. In the wake of recent elections, observers have marveled how evangelical Christians could nevertheless support morally flawed candidates with profoundly impious lifestyles. Inspired by this vivid debate, this panel reevaluates the ascent of the religious right and revisits its network connections across the United States. Probing the theory and theology of the Reagan Era’s preeminent ideological force, it seeks to offer new insights on the intricate political loyalties of American evangelicals.

The panel’s primary intent is to interrogate historical interrelations between evangelical activism and political action. Since the 1980s, scholars have relied on David W. Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism as a set of distinct theological characteristics. Recently, however, researchers in the field have also embraced the notion of Mark Noll and others that evangelicalism frequently undergoes processes of reformation and recalibration. Recognizing the full ideological spectrum of a large religious community, the panelists challenge narratives that tend to simplify discourse on the complicated and complex historical loyalties of American evangelists. Querying legacies of evangelical influence on policymaking in the United States over the course of four decades, their contributions trace major success and failures into the climate of the present moment.

The panel first looks at the place of politics within evangelical identity. Lauren Kerby argues that political aspirations have always represented a central component of their identity as a community, documenting how they used historical constructions of America as a nation to unify white American evangelicals. Allison Vander Broek, meanwhile, underscores the shifting nature of political loyalties in her exploration of the Right to Life movement and its relentless recruitment of evangelicals. The second set of presentations examines how evangelical political loyalties have influenced public policy in this country. Lindsey Maxwell approaches the Home School Legal Defense Association as the political arm of the American evangelical homeschooling movement to discuss the mechanisms behind the community’s intensifying politicization during the Reagan Era. Investigating the influence of evangelical writers on progressive educational policy, Kelley King suggests that the language of the Christian far right permeated mainstream political discourse and resulted in the current administration’s embrace of far-right rhetoric. In combination, these papers offer a panoramic historical perspective on an understudied yet enormously influential religious current in twentieth-century America.

Approaching the subject under scrutiny from a deliberately interdisciplinary angle, this panel offers a nuanced response to questions that inevitably arise from recent developments in United States politics. Investigating evangelicals’ conceptualizations of America as a country and a nation, the papers propose approaches to improve the historical understanding of their strife for political influence and document how their activism has left marks on the culture and society of the present.

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