The Ghost of Jerry Falwell Haunts the GOP Still

The following post was prompted by the recent Pew poll that found churchgoing white evangelicals (otherwise not defined) as supporting Donald Trump in the same proportion as infrequent churchgoers–and a majority of each were on his side. Often, the two cohorts differ, but not this time. 

Nine presidential campaigns ago, Jerry Falwell—Senior—led millions of American fundamentalists out of the political wilderness and into the Promised Land. His son and namesake’s appearance at the Republican Convention this past week in Cleveland marks simply another milestone in the ongoing success story of the elder Falwell’s political agenda.

As the University of Notre Dame’s George Marsden detailed in his magisterial study of Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford, 1980), the broad tradition of evangelical Christianity that dominated nineteenth-century American culture fractured into various mutually exclusive streams by the early twentieth.

Social gospel Christianity, led by the Detroit pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, carried on the evangelical tradition of caring for the poor, and especially for the victims of a rapidly changing urban industrial economy.

Pentecostal Christianity, emerging most obviously in the revival on Azusa Street, Los Angeles, in the first decade of the century, carried forward the tradition of intense spirituality going back to the Great Awakening of the 1700’s.

Fundamentalist Christianity, hardening into a subculture in the disputes with liberal Christianity and an increasingly secular society in the 1920’s, maintained a narrow focus upon doctrinal orthodoxy, yes, but also emphasized personal moral purity, evangelistic fervor, and a custodial concern for the nation. When fundamentalism lost out in those controversies, with the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 being a particular turning point, fundamentalists washed their hands of America and retreated into a parallel culture: their own schools, their own media, and their own mores.

It was Jerry Falwell who brought them back.

Read the rest of this entry »

Life on the Fifth of July

We Canadians and Americans have just emerged from the holiday weekend celebrating our respective countries’ nativities and histories. Canadians nowadays typically enjoy celebrating Canada by silly comedy pointing out our (generally small) differences from Americans, as here and here. Americans typically enjoy celebrating the U.S. of A. by…well, I can’t think of any particular way Americans celebrate, our cousins being so shy and undemonstrative when it comes to the Fourth.

It is a weekend particularly to recall nation-building heroes: John A. Macdonald, Georges-Etienne Cartier, Wilfrid Laurier and Louis Riel, plus the Founding Fathers of the American Republic, none of whose names come to mind just now.

The vast majority of us, however, are not heroes, and our names come to few minds today, let alone after we’re gone. Yet nations are built of such people as well. History is a river that flows with us. And two passages came to mind today as we consider July the Fifth, a sort of “All Citizens Day” after we recall the “All Heroes Day” of the first or fourth day of July.

The first is from the conclusion of George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch. The protagonist (could one call her the heroine?) of the novel, Dorothea Brooke, has sought to live a great life in small circumstances. And the narrator kindly concludes,

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Read the rest of this entry »

Canada: Getting Worse—and Better

The name of our national holiday is, not to put too fine a point on it, very Canadian. The first day of July commemorates the July 1, 1867, enactment of the Constitution Act, 1867, at the time called “the British North America Act, 1867,” which united three colonies into a single country called Canada.

You might think we would have called our national holiday by something that recalls some crucial part of our history, as does “Independence Day” or “Bastille Day.” And we used to call it “Dominion Day,” a wonderfully ambiguous term that spoke both to Canada’s political status as a kingdom independent of Great Britain (“the Dominion of Canada”), albeit with the same monarch governing both, and also to the hopes of many Fathers of Confederation that God “shall have dominion also from sea to sea” (Psalm 72:8).

In what was intended to be a final act of symbolic parting from Britain, and also, perhaps, from Canada’s Christian heritage, in 1982 the holiday was renamed “Canada Day.” It’s rather on the nose, but we Canadians are an earnest and straightforward lot, and “Canada Day” it remains.

Meanwhile, many Canadian Christians understandably feel that those early aspirations for a country thoroughly under God’s dominion have done nothing but fade, especially since that centennial year. A popular culture obsessed with sex, sports, and silly gossip; an intellectual culture relentlessly jaundiced, sarcastic, and contemptuous of Christian concerns; a judicial culture focused entirely on the expansion of individual rights, regardless of tradition or community, let alone religion; and a political culture of three major parties increasingly similar in their ideological flexibility entirely in the interest of power.

On this Canada Day, however, I prefer to light a (birthday) candle rather than curse the (indisputable) darkness. Let’s perform a brief thought experiment. (I’ve performed this elsewhere, even on this blog, but I trust it will be worthwhile doing it again today.)

Read the rest of this entry »