The Rise of Evangelicalism in America
Weekly Pulse
July 7-13, 2006
Even though the US Constitution separates the Church from the State, and politics from religion, the situation on the ground in America in recent years has seen an increasing mix of the two. The main reason for this development, which negates the very secular spirit on which the entire American modernist discourse is based, is an unprecedented growth in Evangelicalism, a conservative Christian movement that has followers from different Protestant Christian denominations.

On Sunday, July 2, I, along with a global group of Fulbright scholars at University of California, Santa Barbra, attended a service at Santa Barbra’s Presbyterian Church, which is one of the leading liberal Protestant denominations in the United States. During the service, which was conducted almost in a post-modern style with power point slides and a puppet show, the Pastor took us to ancient Jerusalem, talked about biblical tales about the state of Israel, described the existing frontiers of the Jewish state surrounded by neighbouring Arab Muslim states, and then concluded his sermon with a description of how America’s foundation also reflected the fulfilment of a biblical tradition.

Nationalistic Fervour

What was most intriguing to most of us was that the religious ceremony also had this nationalistic tone, including the singing of a few patriotic songs. Perhaps that was due to the 4th of July Independence Day celebrations. However, the very attempt by the Pastor to mix religion with nationalism, even if the occasion was a couple of days ahead of the 4th of July, left one wondering that if this was the state of affairs at a liberal Christian place of worship, what the situation at a similar but conservative gathering of Evangelicals would be like.

In contrast to Protestant liberalism, which Presbyterians adhere to, Evangelicalism represents a tendency in diverse branches of conservative Christianity, typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically-oriented faith, and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to cultural issues. In short, an evangelical is a born-again Christian who is motivated by and spreads the message of the New Testament.

President George W Bush and the leading neo-conservative figures in his administration, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, are identified in the media as born-again Christians and prominent adherents of Evangelicalism.

Popular Movement

According to recent surveys, the number of Evangelicals is estimated to have grown to 100 million, roughly one-third of the total Christian population in the United States. Particularly for the liberal section of American population, this is a worrisome trend: For the practice of Evangelicalism is not limited to the confines of the Church alone; rather, it has broader social and political manifestations. The much-criticised neo-conservatism in US foreign policy is believed to be a direct outcome of the rise of Evangelicalism.

The United States is by and large a multi-religious society, comparatively more conservative in preserving family values than European societies. Even though the country is still predominantly lived by Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics form the second major Christian group. Like the Muslims and the Jews, which respectively constitute less than 3 per cent of the population each, the proportion of Roman Catholics is increasing due to their higher birth rates as well as new Latino immigrants who are Roman Catholics.

Given that, the growth in Evangelicalism can be attributed partly to growing fear among Protestant Christian people about their potential marginalisation in US demographic composition. However, there is also a historical domestic and external context within which the rise of Evangelicalism can be explained.

It is interesting to observe that Protestant Christianity in the United States is divided along political party lines, with the Republican Party considered as the political wing of the conservative Evangelical movement and the Democratic Party associated with Protestant Liberalism. The current wave of Evangelicalism has a history of less than three decades. The Reagan Administration introduced it as a counterpoise to liberal-leftist and somewhat irreligious trends of the Hippies generation. During the two presidential terms of Bill Clinton, the Evangelical movement could not flourish, since the Democratic Party rule discouraged conservative Christian tendencies. However, after his first election, President Bush and his neo-conservative associates in the Administration have adopted the same position on a number of domestically conservative issues as adhered to by the Evangelicals.

Shared Goals

Abortion and prayer at public schools are two issues which are at the heart of what is called the “culture wars” in the United States. The Bush Administration favours prohibition on abortion and permission for prayer at public schools. The Evangelicals also wish the same. President Bush is anti-immigrant, and so are the Evangelicals. The Roe versus Wade, the US Supreme Court decision rendered in 1973, preventing states from making laws that prohibit abortion, is the most prominent landmark of a new era of conservative evangelical political action, unprecedented in its intensity and coordination.

The Supreme Court is going to hear another case pertaining to abortion, and the Liberals currently fear that with its current composition, the Supreme Court may reverse the 1973 verdict. If that happens, then this will be another victory of Evangelicals. Apart from the issues identified above, the rise of Evangelicalism and its linkage with politics in the US is best reflected by voting patterns in the last two US elections.

The mass-appeal of Evangelicalism is in the so-called Red States of the Deep South, which are believed to have played a key role in electing George Bush twice as President. The Evangelicals’ success in rallying resistance to certain social agendas is sometimes characterized by their secular critics as an attempt to impose theocracy on the country.

Christian Zionism

Apart from the above-mentioned domestic issues of social and political significance, the rise of Evangelicalism in the United States can also be attributed to international political realities as determined by issues of terrorism and counter-terrorism, especially the post-9/11 American public perception about Islam and Muslims. Muslim extremist threats and acts since the terrorist events of 9/11 to now may have fuelled the Evangelical wave in the United States.

As Paul Rogers argues, a particular stream within American evangelical Christian churches that has acquired a considerable political significance is Christian Zionism. Those who adhere to this ideology believe that God has given a dispensation to the Jews to prepare the way for the Second Coming. There is to be the literal fulfilment of Old Testament promises to biblical Israel in the sense that the ‘end of days’ will involve a millennium of earthly rule centred on Jerusalem. As such, the State of Israel is a fundamental part of God’s plan and it is essential for it to survive and thrive.

He further argues, in any other era, Christian Zionism and its links with neoconservative thinking would be interesting but not particularly significant in guiding the polices of the United States. What is relevant here is that there has been a confluence of neo-conservatism, the vigorous pursuit of a war on terror that is seen to be primarily against Islamic groups and the Christian Zionist movement with its electoral strength, support for Israel and anti-Islamic strand.