The Politics of Evangelical Identity

The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada

LYDIA BEAN
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvhk7
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    The Politics of Evangelical Identity
    Book Description:

    It is now a common refrain among liberals that Christian Right pastors and television pundits have hijacked evangelical Christianity for partisan gain.The Politics of Evangelical Identitychallenges this notion, arguing that the hijacking metaphor paints a fundamentally distorted picture of how evangelical churches have become politicized. The book reveals how the powerful coalition between evangelicals and the Republican Party is not merely a creation of political elites who have framed conservative issues in religious language, but is anchored in the lives of local congregations.

    Drawing on her groundbreaking research at evangelical churches near the U.S. border with Canada-two in Buffalo, New York, and two in Hamilton, Ontario-Lydia Bean compares how American and Canadian evangelicals talk about politics in congregational settings. While Canadian evangelicals share the same theology and conservative moral attitudes as their American counterparts, their politics are quite different. On the U.S. side of the border, political conservatism is woven into the very fabric of everyday religious practice. Bean shows how subtle partisan cues emerge in small group interactions as members define how "we Christians" should relate to others in the broader civic arena, while liberals are cast in the role of adversaries. She explains how the most explicit partisan cues come not from clergy but rather from lay opinion leaders who help their less politically engaged peers to link evangelical identity to conservative politics.

    The Politics of Evangelical Identitydemonstrates how deep the ties remain between political conservatism and evangelical Christianity in America.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5261-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Religion, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Timeline
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-19)

    On the 2008 campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama accused Christian Right pastors and television pundits of hijacking the evangelical Christian movement for partisan gain. Has evangelical Christianity been hijacked? This top-down explanation makes sense to Christians who feel marginalized by the Christian Right. Randall Balmer, Episcopal priest and historian, protests that the evangelical faith “has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of the First Amendment.”¹ Progressive evangelical Jim Wallis argues that “God is not a Republican or a...

  6. Chapter 1 COMPARING EVANGELICALS IN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA
    (pp. 20-44)

    During Canada’s debate over same-sex marriage, many commentators wondered if evangelicals were mobilizing to fight an American-style culture war. Leaders like Charles McVety stepped forward, representing themselves as advocates for a united evangelical perspective on gay marriage. Canadians wondered how to respond. Did McVety speak for evangelicals? Did rank-and-file members of local churches share his Christian Right political vision? Most journalists took McVety’s leadership claims for granted. But I saw a different picture, by watching how McVety engaged his self-proclaimed constituency.

    One drizzly March morning in 2007, I joined a group of Ontario Baptists as they attended Mission Fest, a...

  7. Chapter 2 THE BOUNDARIES OF EVANGELICAL IDENTITY
    (pp. 45-61)

    To understand how religious identity becomes linked to conservative politics, I spent a year observing in two Baptist and two Pentecostal churches, matched on either side of the U.S.-Canada border. Entering these churches as an outside observer, I learned a great deal about how theologically conservative Protestants define the boundaries of their religious subculture. Social scientists have vigorous debates about who is, and who isn’t, an evangelical. Should survey researchers identify evangelicals based on theological beliefs, church affiliations, or particular practices? How important are historical divisions between Pentecostals, fundamentalists, and neo-evangelicals? But gaining entrée to local church life, I learned...

  8. CHAPTER 3 TWO AMERICAN CHURCHES: PARTISANSHIP WITHOUT POLITICS
    (pp. 62-87)

    In this chapter, I compare how political influence operated in two American evangelical congregations, which I call Northtown Baptist and Lifeway Pentecostal. Both congregations reinforced a conservative political orientation, but not in the explicit, militant ways that outsiders might imagine. For church members, political talk didn’t fit their church’sgroup style, or customs about how to be a good member.¹ But even though both churches avoided “politics,” they enforced an informal understanding that good Christians voted Republican. Political influence did not work through explicitpersuasionordeliberation, but rather through implicitcuesabout what political affiliations were for “people like...

  9. Chapter 4 TWO CANADIAN CHURCHES: CIVIL RELIGION IN EXILE
    (pp. 88-111)

    It was a Wednesday night, and choir practice was about to start at High-point Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario. I joined the soprano section, and sang along as the choir rehearsed their annual Easter Cantata to reach out to the Hamilton community. After an hour of singing, Ben, the energetic young choir director, stopped us for a time of prayer. Ben announced that he was going to preach a sermon this Sunday evening, and read his preaching text to us:

    If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn...

  10. Chapter 5 EVANGELICALS, ECONOMIC CONSERVATISM, AND NATIONAL IDENTITY
    (pp. 112-132)

    In 2001, the Bush administration established the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and generated a public controversy about the role of religion in providing public services. Prominent American evangelical leaders advocate a “Compassionate Conservative” approach to poverty, claiming that decentralized, voluntary caring is a superior alternative to state-initiated, structural solutions.¹ Many scholars argue that evangelical Christians are particularly resistant to redistributionist social policy and more supportive of economic laissez-faire. Pundits have characterized rank-and-file evangelicals as Compassionate Conservatives: personally generous toward the poor, but critical of the welfare state as a means to address poverty.²

    But in cross-national...

  11. Chapter 6 CAPTAINS IN THE CULTURE WAR
    (pp. 133-165)

    Many political commentators have blamed the culture war on its generals: national elites who exaggerate cultural differences among Americans for political gain. But this conflict is also a captain’s war, waged by local religious leaders embedded among the rank and file. While national generals may articulate the formal ideologies behind the conflict, these local captains are critical to rallying rank-and-file evangelicals behind a Christian Right agenda. Pastors are not the only ones who serve as local captains for culture war politics. They share this role with a much broader set of volunteer, lay leaders. These lay leaders are particularly important...

  12. Chapter 7 THE BOUNDARIES OF POLITICAL DIVERSITY IN TWO U.S. CONGREGATIONS
    (pp. 166-192)

    In this chapter, I debunk the stereotype that American evangelicals share the coherent ideology promoted by Christian Right elites. I describe the political diversity that existed in both American churches, by introducing a second group of members who didn’t fit the culture war mold. But I offer a different interpretation of this individual-level diversity than many survey researchers and political pundits, who conclude that the influence of the Christian Right is therefore exaggerated, weak, and in decline.

    Evangelical Christians do not all subscribe to consistently conservative attitudes on economic, moral, and foreign policy issues.¹ Working-class evangelicals often combine moral conservatism...

  13. Chapter 8 PRACTICING CIVILITY IN TWO CANADIAN CONGREGATIONS
    (pp. 193-220)

    After three decades of culture war politics, it is hard for Americans to imagine a theologically conservative evangelical church where Democrats and Republicans worship side by side. Everything about evangelicalism seems to generate lockstep political conformity: rigid theology, absolute moral beliefs, strong subcultural boundaries. But I contend that culture war polarization does not flow naturally from evangelicals’ strong moral beliefs, nor from their collective efforts to advocate for those beliefs as a distinctive subculture. Following Georg Simmel, I define an integrated society as one characterized by mediating interests and cross-cutting ties, that allow for broader solidarity in spite of strong...

  14. CONCLUSION Politics and Lived Religion
    (pp. 221-226)

    The Christian Right is no longer the only public voice speaking for American evangelicals. Since 2004, alternative leaders and advocacy groups have stepped out of the shadows to broaden the evangelical agenda. New voices appeal to evangelicals to consider poverty, creation care, and racial reconciliation as important moral issues. But this broadened political agenda will only gain traction with rank-and-file evangelicals if it becomes part of local religious practice. It is not enough to engage in top-down messaging about moral values. If these elites seek to challenge the hegemony of the Christian Right, they need to find substitutes for the...

  15. Methodological Appendix: Ethnographic Methods
    (pp. 227-234)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 235-274)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 275-306)
  18. Index
    (pp. 307-316)