Follow the Bouncing Evangelical Ball

Getting religion (at least a Progressive one) will not cure what ails America

In fact, prior to the 1920s, all stripes of white Protestants who were in the mainline churches were Progressive in politics and had no trouble with Prohibition, opposing Roman Catholicism, or censoring American letters. It may come as a surprise to learn that “evangelicals” were Progressive.


Readers may be hard pressed to figure out what some have recently written about evangelical and mainline Protestantism lately. Back in the 1950s these labels may have distinguished the right and left in the world of white American Protestantism, but any more, evangelicalism is meaningless even if journalists and academics pay it far more attention than the mainline denominations.

One indication is Matthew Lee Anderson’s review of John Compton’s The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution. Instead of following a tradition of constitutional interpretation known as originalism (for short, reading the document according to what the framers intended), evangelicals set in motion an interpretative tradition of regarding the Constitution as a living, breathing organism:

Compton’s fascinating and masterfully executed argument goes something like this: Evangelical campaigns against alcohol and lotteries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century aimed at not merely regulating such vices, but prohibiting them. But to enact their political vision, they had to break existing traditions of constitutional interpretation. By exerting political pressure upon courts and subordinating constitutional interpretation to their political aims, evangelicals helped create the legal and intellectual conditions in which the doctrine of the “living Constitution” arose.

Around the same time as Anderson’s review was Lyman Stone’s piece on the influence of mainline Protestantism and how it might restrain the nation’s current spate of populism (read: Trumpism) and balkanization:

For those who see in the decline of American religion a progressive, liberalizing force, I must offer a word of caution. Some meaningful share of the rise of populism in the Midwest is likely due to the decline of the moral and political organizing force of mainline Protestant denominations. When moderate swing states lose their religious restraint, the right drifts to Trump, the left to Sanders (note that Sanders performed well in the kind of rural areas where mainlines were traditionally vital community institutions).

But if you think the current wave of populism is a rough ride, wait until you see what happens when the South is freed of the moral restraint of the Southern Baptists — the Southwest of Catholicism, or the West of Mormonism. The social and political disorder unleashed by those approaching changes could truly be something to behold.

Not to be missed in the juxtaposition of these takes on white Protestantism is a widespread sense evangelicalism is growing while the mainline churches wane (Stone actually gives some of the numbers).

One problem here is to imagine that evangelicals were in charge when passing legislation against lotteries and alcohol. They were, but evangelicals were also mainline Protestants prior to roughly 1925. To call political Protestantism of the late 19th century evangelical is anachronistic. Is implies that Billy Graham type of Protestants were running the largest churches. They were certainly in the mix of leadership, but those churches had yet to have a theological controversy in which members and officers needed to take sides (like the fundamentalist-modernist divide).

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