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.