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interviews: john green
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John Green has done extensive research and polling on the demographics and politics of evangelicals and is director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, Ohio and the author of Religion and the Culture Wars. In this interview, he analyzes the religious strands of the president's faith and offers an overview of America's evangelicals -- from their movement to the Republican Party over the past three decades to the mainstreaming of evangelicals in U.S. society today, and their growing political and cultural influence. Green says religion will very much matter in the 2004 election: "Bush needs to appeal to evangelical Protestants, the Democratic nominee … to black Protestants, Jews, and other religious. But the rhetoric is going to be heightened … because of same-sex marriages. This will energize many religious conservatives. I think we will see an intensification of religious rhetoric in the campaign." This interview was conducted on Dec. 5, 2003.

Many people say that President Bush is the most religious president of the last 25 years. Do you agree with that statement?

I'm not really sure that I agree, because many of our presidents have been deeply religious. One only has to think of Jimmy Carter. Even Bill Clinton, for all his various problems, was a deeply religious man.

President Bush differs in that he connects his personal faith and his personal experience much more directly than many other presidents do.  Most presidents simply invoke religious symbols; President Bush advocates on behalf of religious symbols.

But I think the reason people think of Bush as the most religious president in recent times is because he talks about religion so intensely, and with such conviction. There is an awful lot of religious rhetoric in the president's speeches. But not only that, he talks about his own faith constantly. Oftentimes, he uses his own faith experience and his own religious values to justify the kinds of policies that he's proposing.

What is the president's religious background, and how would you describe his kind of religious belief?

President Bush is an interesting figure in terms of his religious background. He currently is a member of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant church in the United States -- a very diverse church which has many different kinds of people.

But he also had a transforming personal experience, a conversion experience as a middle-aged man that helped him deal with some of his personal problems and changed his outlook on life. That's a common thing among Methodists. It's also a very common thing in other religious traditions, particularly among evangelical Protestants, where the term "born again" is often used to talk about these kinds of personal transformations.

So President Bush, in some sense, stands astride the major Protestant traditions in the United States. [But] …because President Bush has such strong religious beliefs and talks about his faith so explicitly, many people want to categorize him. They want to figure out what religious community or religious tradition he belongs to.

It's a difficult thing to do, because President Bush, in many respects, partakes of a number of different religious traditions. He's a member of the United Methodist Church. He's very closely connected to the Wesleyan tradition, and that leads him to lean a little bit towards mainline Protestantism. On the other hand, he's had a personally transforming experience.

He talks about how his faith changed his life and how he'd like faith to change other people's lives, and that puts him a little bit more in the evangelical camp. President Bush hasn't actually told us where he stands -- perhaps because he isn't entirely sure himself, because he draws from a variety of different perspectives, but also because it may not be the best thing to do politically to identify with one or another religious tradition when, in fact, he can identify with several. In his political activity, he often strides across different religious boundaries and can, therefore, appeal to people from different religious backgrounds.

Evangelicals claim him as one of their own. They feel they have an ally in the White House.

There's no question that the evangelical community has an ally in President Bush on a number of different issues, and in terms of basic values. There is a great deal of commonality between President Bush and evangelicals. Technically speaking, though, President Bush is a mainline Protestant, from the more conservative or traditional, or, if you will, evangelical wing of mainline Protestantism, but not really part of the core of the evangelical community, as scholars tend to understand it.

So there is a sense in which evangelicals are claiming somebody who really isn't part of their religious community, but someone who shares many of their values, who certainly understands them well, and shares a number of their religious beliefs.

And while he walks in both worlds, he also differs from both.

Certainly, President Bush differs from his own denomination, from the United Methodist Church, in that he doesn't adopt a lot of its official positions. For instance, he is pro-life on abortion, whereas United Methodists tend to be pro-choice. He disagrees with many Methodists on social welfare issues, and Methodists have a long tradition of supporting the welfare state. President Bush [is] very critical of the welfare state. On foreign policy, President Bush has a somewhat more aggressive foreign policy than many Methodists would agree with.

But if you compare him to the evangelical community, he doesn't completely agree with them either. For instance, when it comes to issues like how the government should relate to the gay population. President Bush is much more tolerant -- unwilling to stigmatize people. When asked about the gay community, for instance, President Bush will often say, "Well, we have to recognize that we're all sinners and we shouldn't be critical of one another, and we need to be tolerant of each other."

On a number of other issues, even on abortion, President Bush is unwilling to commit himself to, say, a constitutional amendment to abolish abortions, which evangelicals would really like to see. He has a much more moderate position on abortion. So on a variety of issues, he contradicts both the mainline Protestant position and the evangelical Protestant position.

Can you explain the differences between being a United Methodist or a mainline Protestant, and being an evangelical Christian?

The easiest way to explain the differences between evangelicals and mainline Protestants is to start with evangelicals, because evangelicals have a clearer set of beliefs that distinguish them than mainline Protestants do. The term evangelical comes from the word "evangel" which is a word from in Greek from the New Testament that refers to the good news of Jesus Christ -- that Jesus came to save humanity. And evangelicals have a particular take on the good news. That makes them distinctive from other Christians. It could be summarized, I think, with four cardinal beliefs that evangelicals tend to hold, at least officially.

One belief is that the Bible is inerrant. It was without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God. A second belief is that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ. A third belief, and one that is most well known, is the idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. They must become converted. Sometimes that's referred to as a born-again experience, sometimes a little different language. Then the fourth cardinal belief of evangelicals is the need to proselytize, or in their case, to spread the evangel, to evangelize.

Now different members of the evangelical community have slightly different takes on those four cardinal beliefs. But what distinguishes the evangelicals from other Protestants and other Christians is these four central beliefs that set them apart.

Mainline Protestants have a different perspective. They have a more modernist theology. So, for instance, they would read the Bible, not as the inerrant word of God, but as a historical document, which has God's word in it and a lot of very important truths, but that needs to be interpreted in every age by individuals of that time and that place.

Mainline Protestants tend to also believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. But many mainline Protestants would believe that perhaps there are other ways to salvation as well. People in other religious traditions, even outside of Christianity, may have access to God's grace and to salvation as well, on their own terms, and through their own means.

Mainline Protestants are much less concerned with personal conversion. Although they do talk about spiritual transformation, they'll often discuss a spiritual journey from one's youth to old age, leading on into eternity. So there is a sense of transformation, but there isn't that emphasis on conversion -- on that one moment or series of moments in which one's life is dramatically changed.

So mainline Protestants don't discount conversion, but they simply don't regard it as a central feature of their beliefs. Finally, mainline Protestants are somewhat less concerned with proselytizing than evangelicals. Certainly, proselytizing is something they believe in. They believe in sharing their beliefs with others, but not for the purposes of conversion necessarily. The idea of spreading the word in the mainline tradition is much broader than simply preaching the good news. It also involves economic development. It involves personal assistance, charity, a whole number of other activities.

But on many points, evangelicals and mainliners are sometimes hard to tell apart, because there are people in the evangelical tradition who are somewhat more modernist and tend towards the mainline. We often refer to them as liberal evangelicals. But then there are also people in the mainline churches who have a more traditional, or conservative perspective. They're sometimes referred to as evangelical mainline Protestants.

So this is a little bit confusing here, because the two communities are not as completely distinct as some might argue. But there are clear distinctions at the core of each tradition, which allows us to recognize them as different approaches to Protestantism.

Even though President Bush speaks very openly about religion and his language is religious in many of his speeches, we don't see him going to church. We don't see him sort of publicly announcing that he's a United Methodist or an evangelical or a Protestant…

President Bush talks about his faith in his own terms. He understands his faith as this personal experience that he had, and continues to have to this day. He's very open about that aspect of his faith. He does not feel compelled, however, to be seen going into churches holding Bibles, as some other presidents have felt was important. He doesn't tend to share his personal devotional life with other people.

In that sense, a lot of his religiosity is highly private. But it does inform his public utterances. At moments of great national tragedy, when presidents are expected to comfort the nation, a lot of Bush's religious convictions come out at that level.

I don't think that Bush is particularly concerned with identifying himself with a broader religious community. In fact, in many ways, I think he sees connections to a number of different religious communities. I think that's quite sincere. He sees commonalities between himself and evangelicals and Roman Catholics, and even sees a certain connection to religious people outside of the Christian tradition, too -- Muslims to Jews and so forth.

In fact, politically, that's probably a good thing, because that allows the president to appeal to the more traditional members of a great variety of religious groups. Given the diversity of American religion, that's a pretty good political strategy.

Can you talk to me about Methodism, and about John Wesley?

Methodism was a religious movement, a revival that arose in the 1700s in Great Britain and spread to the American colonies and all across the world. Charles Wesley was an Anglican priest, a member of the Church of England. Of course, the descendants of the Church of England are the Episcopalians. John Wesley followed his father's footsteps into the Anglican church, went to Oxford, where he developed a high degree of discipline in his private life -- a devotional discipline, the study of Scriptures, a tremendous emphasis on personal holiness as a way to connect himself to God.

Wesley found all of that discipline very unsatisfying. Somewhat later, he had a conversion experience. In his diary, he wrote about thinking how his heart was strangely warmed. The connection of that discipline and a connection with holiness to his own personal transforming experience, produced an enormous outpouring of religious enthusiasm -- revivals all across England, where Wesley and his associates went and preached their version of the good news to the masses in Britain, to coal miners, to people on the street corners.

This revival eventually created the Methodist churches, which we find all over the world, but particularly here in the United States -- the United Methodist Church just being the most recent version, and the largest of the Methodist churches to this day. But Wesley's unique contribution of combining a high degree of personal discipline and spiritual matters with this sense of the personal assurance that God loves each individual was a very potent mix, and is still very much alive in Methodism today. We see a lot of that in President Bush.

In what way are there similarities between President Bush's faith and Wesley?

President Bush's religious development has a certain parallel with John and Charles Wesley. One doesn't want to draw too close a parallel, but there is a similarity. Both of the Wesleys were raised in the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, very much as President Bush was. Then they developed a different kind of religiosity because of a personal conversion experience, and combined that conversion experience with a high sense of devotion to then go out and do great things in the world.

One of Charles Wesley's most famous hymns is "A Charge to Keep," a hymn that's still sung among Methodists today, and a very important hymn for President Bush. In fact, he's taken the title of the hymn as sort of a personal motto. It's the name of his autobiography. He has it on a plaque behind his desk in the White House. It's something very important to him. I think it reveals Bush to come very much out of the Methodist tradition, with this connection of personal discipline, worldly mission and personal conversion. ...

Let's talk about fundamentalists versus evangelicals.

The differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism are a bit subtle, and oftentimes difficult to understand from the outside. A lot of it is a style. Fundamentalists tend to be very strict. They tend towards intolerance. Notice, I said, "tend towards intolerance." Many of them are not intolerant. But they tend towards that direction. They tend to be very judgmental. They tend to want to require an awful lot of individuals who would join their communion. And they tend to be very, very critical of other Christians -- even other evangelical Christians -- who don't share their very strict approach to religion.

But there are some other things besides style that differentiate fundamentalists from evangelicals. … Evangelicals and fundamentalists both agree that the Bible is inerrant, but fundamentalists tend to read the Bible literally.

Many evangelicals don't actually read it literally. They're willing to understand that there's metaphor and poetry in the Bible, and it's just that the truth expressed in that metaphor and poetry is without error; whereas fundamentalists would tend to want to read even the metaphor and the poetry literally. That's a particular way to interpret the Bible.

Likewise, many fundamentalists would see conversion as a sudden event -- something where you could actually pick the date and the time when one accepted Jesus; whereas many evangelicals might have a broader understanding of conversion, something that might take place over a longer period of time, and in fact might not even really be understood until long after it happened. Someone might look back and say, "Yes, it was at that particular time that this transformation occurred in my life."

Also, when it comes to the question of who Jesus was, fundamentalists tend to have a fairly narrow, specific, very strict view of who Jesus was. Evangelicals have a somewhat broader interpretation of who Jesus was.

Fundamentalists also add some additional doctrines to their beliefs that many evangelicals would not agree with. For instance, many fundamentalists have a dispensational view of the Bible. That is to say, they have a particular understanding of sacred time, where the activity of God and history is divided up into particular eras. Different things happen in the different eras or different dispensations. Depending on which fundamentalist you talk to, we're either at the end of the sixth dispensation or the beginning of the seventh dispensation. This, of course, will eventually lead to the return of Jesus to Earth and the end of human history as we know it.

Many evangelicals would not accept dispensationalism. They do take the return of Jesus very seriously. They do take sacred time very seriously, but would not necessarily buy into a dispensational approach.

Another difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals is the degree of separatism that they practice. Both fundamentalists and evangelicals believe that conservative Christians should separate themselves from the world in many important ways. But fundamentalists are much stricter in that separation, and they would extend it to religion as well.

Many fundamentalists don't want to associate even with other Christians who don't agree with them. They want to separate themselves from people that have fairly similar values. Oftentimes, fundamentalists will even want to separate themselves from people who refuse to separate themselves from people who they don't agree with. Of course, this can be extended a long way.

Evangelicals are not as separatist. They are perfectly willing to cooperate with people of other religious faiths, with whom they don't agree on all of the particulars, for the greater cause of evangelizing and bringing people to Christ. So evangelicals, for instance, will often talk about making common cause with Roman Catholics or with mainline Protestants. Fundamentalists are very reluctant to do that, because they see it as being wrong to associate in religious terms with people with whom they don't have complete agreement. So those differences are sometimes subtle. But in style, belief, and practice, fundamentalists really are different from evangelicals.

Can you talk about and compare how the evangelicals versus the fundamentalists got their ideas out there, and began appealing to the mainstream of America?

The evangelical Protestant tradition contained a lot of fundamentalists. The term "fundamentalism" was first used widely early in the 20th century. The name comes from a series of pamphlets that were published by evangelicals, theologians, that detailed certain fundamental beliefs that they regarded as non-negotiable.

Many evangelicals today by the way would agree with many of those fundamentals. But the strict separatism, the special doctrines and the harsh style of fundamentalists often turned out to be unproductive when it came to the mission of the church, and when it came to politics as well.

So all throughout the 20th century, there's actually been many people who wanted to drift away from fundamentalism and, in some cases, wanted to actually have a break with fundamentalism -- not to reject the fundamental beliefs of evangelical Christianity, but to have a more effective style in social and religious matters.

In fact, the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in the late 1940s was one example of that moving away from strict fundamentalism. We've seen a lot of that since. In the 1990s, for instance, there was a real effort on the part of the National Association of Evangelicals and many other evangelicals to move away from some of the aspects of fundamentalism which were problematic.

These are individuals who, both at a religious level and in their social and political life, wanted to make common cause with a broader group of individuals in the United States, and wanted to find allies. They wanted to work with other people who agreed with them on many important issues, but maybe not on everything. They found that a more tolerant, open and inclusive style was much, much more effective.

So there has been a move away from strict fundamentalism. In fact, if you look at surveys today, there are actually relatively few people who identify themselves as fundamentalists. If you look at measures of fundamentalist doctrine, those measures have become somewhat less common.

A good example is separatism. In recent surveys, my colleagues and I asked evangelical Protestants, broadly defined, the following question: "Christians should separate themselves from the world to avoid evil." Relatively few evangelicals in the survey agreed with that statement, including some who called themselves fundamentalists.

So there really has been a movement away from fundamentalism, properly so called. Now, oftentimes, the word fundamentalist is used to mean other things. It's used to mean intolerant, because some fundamentalists really did have those intolerant tendencies. So oftentimes, in popular discourse, we'll refer to an intolerant person as a fundamentalist, as sort of a code word for certain aspects of religion that that people don't like.

Sometimes it's also used to refer simply to having an orthodox Christian position. So we'll often say, "Well, that person takes the Bible seriously. They must be a fundamentalist," when in fact they may not be a fundamentalist at all. They may be simply a person that takes the Bible seriously, but doesn't have the other attributes of fundamentalists.

It was interesting for me to read that, previous to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decisions and other political actions that were taken on the federal level, that many evangelicals were more Democratic-leaning. They were more liberal-leaning, politically, and then they shifted to being more Republican. Can you talk a little bit about this shift?

The one way to think about the politics of evangelicals is to go back to the New Deal era, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal coalition. The New Deal coalition was, in part, a religious coalition. It was also about economics and social welfare. But it was a religious coalition, and it included a very diverse group of religious communities. It included Jews and Catholics.

But it also included evangelicals, particularly evangelicals in the South. Evangelicals were very strong supporters of the New Deal coalition. They were strong Democrats. In terms of the issues of the day, particularly social welfare issues, the economy, the expansion of the national government to solve economic problems, they were pretty much in line with the liberalism of that era. I don't think they were ever the most liberal groups in the Democratic coalition. But they were certainly at the heart of the coalition.

What's happened since the New Deal era, since the 1940s and the 1950s, is that evangelical Protestants have drifted away from the New Deal coalition. They've drifted away from the Democratic Party. In recent times, in the 1990s, they actually became strongly Republican.

There were many reasons for this drift. Part of it was the success of the New Deal. … So there wasn't as big a reason for evangelicals, or for that matter, Catholics and other groups, to stay more to the Democratic Party. But then some other issues arose, and one of the first was race. The New Deal coalition developed some big cracks over the issue of race. Many evangelicals, particularly Southern evangelicals, did not agree with the civil rights movement, and that led them to drift a bit away from the Democratic Party.

But the real change occurred with the advent of social issues -- abortion, questions of gay rights, questions of prayer in school, religious expression in the public realm. Evangelicals had always been very conservative on moral and social issues. Of course, back in the 1930s and 1940s, most of America was pretty conservative on those issues, and those issues were not on the agenda.

But a series of Supreme Court decisions and other changes in our culture brought those moral issues, social issues to the fore. Those influenced evangelicals, and led them, first to abandon the Democratic Party, which became the party of innovation on social and moral issues, and then slowly but surely to enter into the Republican Party.

Of course, many Republicans, if you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, were fairly liberal on social issues. They lived in the North. Many of them were mainline Protestants. Some of them were non-religious. They were secular people. They were in the Republican Party for conservative economics. But then an opportunity appeared for the Republicans to mobilize conservative Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants, around issues like abortion and other social issues. And they did that with some success.

It wasn't always pretty. There were some big fights in the Republican Party over that. But eventually, evangelicals were brought into the Republican coalition. So then in the 1990s, in 1996, and then in the very close election of 2000, evangelicals were the strongest Republican voting bloc among religious groups, and a very strong supporter of President Bush.

So there's been a transformation over the last 30 years with evangelicals moving out of the Democratic Party and then into the Republican Party.

Do you think they're in the Republican Party to stay?

It's hard to tell. I suspect as long as the social issues, the moral questions, the sexual questions, are on the forefront, that evangelicals will stay in the Republican Party, because that is a very critical set of issues for them. But were those issues to fade, were politics to become about other things, then it's entirely possible that evangelicals would drift out of the Republican Party and perhaps even back into the Democratic Party. Much as evangelicals left the Democratic Party because of a change in the issue mix, they could leave the Republican Party if the issue mix changed again.

I met an evangelical in Chicago who told me, "Listen, if there was a candidate out there who is pro-life and socialist, I would vote for him."

There are many evangelicals, and, by the way, many Roman Catholics and other religious people in America who would like to see a combination of liberal positions on social welfare and conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Why is this? Because biblical morality, the Old and the New Testament put together, tend to stress both of those things. After all, Jesus talked extensively about aiding the poor and taking care of the widow, taking care of the orphan, of welcoming the stranger. But he also talked about strict sexual morality and people adhering to the traditional Mosaic code when it came to marriage and those types of issues.

So there are a lot of people who would like to see those two issues pulled together. They could get very excited about a candidate who wanted to care for the poor, but also was pro-life on abortion.

Can you talk about the mainstreaming of evangelicals in society in recent times?

Evangelical Protestants have certainly become much more prominent in recent times. Many people who didn't know that they've ever met an evangelical Protestant now see them all around in all kinds of different places. There are a number of reasons for this.

One is that evangelicals over the last 30 years have experienced a great deal of upward mobility. They used to live out in the countryside. Now they've moved into the cities and into the suburbs. Evangelicals have achieved a great deal of affluence, so now they can participate in the marketplace, and they can buy goods and services and entertainment that's to their taste.

They also have become better educated. Many evangelicals have gone to college or have technical degrees, and that's, again, brought them much closer to the American mainstream. One of the features of evangelicalism is its ability to adapt to the culture around it.

Evangelicals have adopted a lot of the aspects of popular culture, a subject that is, by the way, fairly controversial in some parts of the evangelical community. So for instance, when evangelicals have personal problems, they go to Christian counselors. When their children want to listen to music, they listen to Christian rock 'n' roll. When they develop a weight problem and want to get in shape, they go to a Christian gym. In some communities, there are Christian yellow pages, where individuals can buy goods and services from fellow believers.

They have a large media presence. Many people know about the "Left Behind" books, which have, of course, transcended the evangelical community, and are now read very widely. But Christian book publishers generate literally thousands of new titles every year. Then there's Christian radio, and there's Christian television.

So evangelical Protestants, in many respects, have moved into the mainstream, in some cases, by adopting some of the aspects of popular culture, and sometimes by creating their own parallel culture.

Why is the evangelical church growing, and the mainline churches shrinking?

… It's a very complicated question for which there are not a lot of good answers. But one thing seems to be clear -- that individuals that have strong religious beliefs tend to build stronger congregations, and therefore, stronger religious communities. The stronger a religious community, the easier it is for it to maintain itself, to educate the young, to keep their children involved in the faith, and to attract converts. So evangelicals have had some success in the American religious marketplace, precisely because they have strong religious beliefs.

On the other hand, mainline Protestants have had some troubles in the religious marketplace, because they don't tend to be as characterized by strong religious beliefs, and therefore, they don't compete as well for members.

Why is it that abortion is the issue that is so important to evangelicals, still to this day?

The issue of abortion and other social and sexual issues are especially important to evangelical Protestants, because of the emphasis that their religion puts on traditional morality. They have a strong support for the nuclear family, what they see as the traditional family. They put great stress on individual morality and personal behavior. The pro-choice position on abortion goes directly against those particular values.

You know, religious people, if they're serious about their faith, oftentimes have to make very tough choices in politics, because we have a two-party system and we rarely have candidates that represent all of the perspectives of a particular religion. Then individuals have to make choices, and they have to set priorities.

Evangelical Protestants have increasingly found that their priorities lie with the social issues, because those issues are so close to the moral precepts that are at the foundation of their beliefs. That isn't to say that they don't also believe in caring for the poor and the social welfare and peacemaking and those sorts of things. But they have chosen to give them somewhat lower priority.

Sophisticated evangelicals will oftentimes produce some pretty cogent explanations as to why that is. For instance, they might say the point of social welfare is to help the vulnerable, the widow and the orphaned. But what is more vulnerable than an unborn child? So, see, from their point of view, there is a connection there, even though they realize that they're having to make a choice and to go with, say, the Republican Party, which is a pro-life on abortion, but is not in favor of social welfare and aiding the poor as much as the Democratic Party.

Can you talk about political activism, and how this evolved for the evangelical community over recent decades?

If one goes back to the New Deal period, evangelical Protestants were not very active in politics. Many of them did not vote. There was a very low level of turnout. Their leaders were not very interested in politics. If they were interested, they were interested in local affairs and in state affairs.

… But that all changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when the social issues came onto the national agenda. Of course, a very important part of that was Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion all across the country, even in communities where abortion never would have been legalized locally because of the presence of conservative Christians.

The initial activities in the 1970s, after Roe v. Wade were fairly sporadic. They were mostly protests of one kind or another. It really wasn't harnessed electorally. But in 1979, Reverend Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist minister, founded the Moral Majority as an organization that was going to actually mobilize voters.

Part of that zeal came from Reverend Falwell and his associates. But quite frankly, some of the ideas came from political operatives -- some of them associated with the Republican Party, some of them conservative activists who wanted to move the Republican Party to the right, and saw [that] moving a large group of social conservatives into the party would achieve that goal.

So the Moral Majority wasn't entirely motivated from within the evangelical community. It had some help from the outside. The Moral Majority was not tremendously successful, as these things go. But it did help mobilize evangelicals at the grassroots, get individuals involved in voting, get more interested in public affairs. That has continued up to the present and is still going on.

More and more evangelicals, ordinary people, have become engaged in politics, have become registered to vote, pay attention to issues. After the Moral Majority had run its course, a new group arose that many people have heard of, the Christian Coalition. …

There may be organizations in the future that arise to fulfill that role. So between the activists and then the activities of the activists to mobilize evangelicals as a community, they're much more active in politics than they were 30, 40 years ago.

Explain the significance, as you see it, of the Moral Majority in the evolution, the growth and political power of the evangelical community.

When historians write the definitive history of this period of time when evangelicals moved into the political process and became more active, the Moral Majority will be a very important part of that story.

The Moral Majority is really a transition from the apolitical era, when evangelicals were not involved in politics -- and in fact [were] very hostile to it -- to the period where they were much more involved in mainstream politics. In some respects, the Moral Majority represented a pragmatic step for evangelicals.

Jerry Falwell, for all of his limitations, had this idea that evangelicals could really change the direction of the country and bring their particular values into the political process. Since the Moral Majority, however, evangelicals have become more characterized by pragmatism. Many of the early movement activists were very purist in their orientation. They had certain goals they were unwilling to compromise. But over time, the activists have become more and more pragmatic.

[And the pragmatists] began to have some success in elections, some success at the state and local level. They could imagine that they might have success at the national level if they were pragmatic enough, if they kept on that course. Part of pragmatism is a willingness to compromise, a willingness to take little steps rather than have to get it all accomplished all at once, and also the willingness to reach out and work with a broader variety of groups -- groups that they might not agree with on all issues, but maybe they can make common cause on a particular issue.

One of the reasons that evangelicals have the kind of influence in politics they have now is that the pragmatists have come to dominate their leadership.

The Pew Foundation has conducted studies, and they separate out black Protestants from white evangelicals. Why is there such a division between the two?

One of the basic ways to look at religion is religious belonging, what types of groups one belongs to or affiliates with. A lot of that has to do with personal choice and individual beliefs, but a lot of it has to do with historical developments and other social factors. One of the most important and enduring divisions in American society is based on race. It arose from slavery, and then through the long period of segregation, and even today, the problems of race are still very much with us.

This, of course, has divided whites and blacks on a whole variety of different issues. It has divided them in terms of religion. So there are a group of churches, historically black churches, which really represent a different religious tradition than the other Protestant churches in the United States, which were historically white churches.

Now, when I say historically, I'm not suggesting that all historically black churches only have blacks. Some of them there are some white members, and of course, there are white churches that also have black members and Hispanic members. A lot has changed. But we're talking about history, and how these structures developed over time. There are a number of African-American churches which were historically the only institutions that were wholly owned and operated by the black community, because of the restrictions that the Jim Crow laws and racial prejudice imposed upon the black community.

These historically black Protestant churches developed their own set of beliefs and their own perspective, which leads them to be quite different politically and even different religiously than their white counterparts. Many people will go to a black Baptist church and notice, for instance, that the Bible is preached quite literally, and recognize that that's similar to what happens in some evangelical churches and some fundamentalist churches, where the congregation is almost entirely white.

So there are similarities between black Protestants and white evangelicals. But there are also very important differences. Black Protestants read the Bible very differently than white Protestants do. For instance, the Exodus story in the Old Testament, the story of God rescuing the children of Israel from Egypt and from slavery under Pharaoh, has a very special meaning to African-American Protestants that really doesn't occur in white churches. It's not as if white evangelicals ignore the Exodus story. It's a very important part of the Bible. But it doesn't have the kind of meaning that it does for the black Protestant tradition, because black Protestants really were slaves, almost within living memory. From that perspective, God has delivered them in much the same way that the children of Israel were delivered in the Bible.

[Also], they tend to understand political and social issues from a very different perspective, even though there are some important religious similarities. … For instance, many black Protestants would give social welfare or civil rights top priority when they make their decision politically. Of course, that would lead them to choose the Democratic Party, which is, of course, the party of social welfare and the party of civil rights.

Now many of these black Protestants also have traditional moral views, and would be pro-life on abortion, and skeptical of gay rights and so forth. But they tend to give those issues somewhat less priority when they make their choices.

In contrast, evangelical Protestants tend to make the moral issues top priority. That leads them to want to support the Republican Party in many cases -- because the Republican Party's the party that is more socially conservative -- and not support the Democratic Party, which is, of course, the party of social welfare.

The partial birth abortion ban -- the evangelical community was thrilled about this, and many see this as a first step towards overturning Roe v. Wade.

One of the issues that was very important for bringing evangelicals into politics in recent times has been the issue of abortion. It has been a source of enormous frustration for them. They have worked in elections, they have lobbied, they had helped elect people, and yet there's been very little change in abortion politics until recently. When President Bush, during the 2000 election campaign, promised to sign a late-term abortion ban if it came to his desk, many evangelicals were absolutely thrilled, because were that to happen, that would be one of the very first successes in their effort to limit and eventually ban abortions.

So when President Bush kept his promise and signed it, many evangelicals were absolutely thrilled. Even though they would like to see a lot more done in that area, and President Bush has not made a commitment to make changes in that area, this was the first tangible restriction on abortion in all of the years that they had struggled with this issue. So, many people, Reverend Falwell, Reverend Robertson and any number of other individuals who've been involved in this struggle were absolutely delighted.

Of course, from the political point of view, this allowed President Bush to do something on the conservative social agenda for evangelicals, something that he committed himself to, but something that would not be perceived as extreme by many other Americans and therefore, potentially drive away votes from the Republican Party.

President Bush is known for his religious rhetoric in his speeches. Can you talk about this?

President Bush is well known for the religious references in his off-the-cuff remarks as well as in his prepared speeches. A lot of this comes from Bush himself. He really does understand his life in religious terms, and often talks about his faith quite personally.

But in addition, his speeches are filled with religious rhetoric. Part of that is on purpose, because President Bush tries to appeal to religious constituencies. He has employed a group of very talented speechwriters, particularly Michael Gerson, who is an evangelical, a graduate of Wheaton College, and a journalist, and quite a gifted speechwriter, who knows how to take religious texts and religious symbols and embed them into speeches, even speeches about fairly dry policy matters.

The result is very powerful rhetoric that Bush has learned how to deliver with some effect. His inaugural address was a good example of that. But he's gotten better and better. Many people will remember his speech right after 9/11 and to both Houses of Congress, which was filled with this kind of religious rhetoric.

Now, a lot of this is new with Bush, and Bush feels very comfortable with this kind of language. But it's important to point out that American presidents have frequently filled their speeches, particularly at times of crisis, with religious rhetoric. Because there were so many religious people in the United States, a kind of non-sectarian religious appeal often works very, very well.

… A very good example of the use of religious rhetoric by President Bush was from his inaugural address where, like all other presidential candidates, he thanked his opponent, Vice President Al Gore. But he did it in a very particular way using religious language. He said that Vice President Gore had conducted the campaign with spirit and concluded [it] with grace. Those were religious terms which religious people understand, because spirit comes from God. Grace comes from God as well.

What President Bush was communicating to his religious followers was that Al Gore was a good guy; that despite all the bitterness at the 2000 campaign and the Florida ballot debacle, that Gore really had conducted himself well. But Bush was also talking to Gore's religious supporters, arguing that he recognized that Gore had behaved himself quite appropriately. This is a very sophisticated use of religious language.

One very interesting thing happened from a historical perspective. Franklin Graham gave the [inaugural] invocation. That's something that often happens, religious figures appear at inaugurals. But Franklin Graham actually used the name of Jesus in his invocation. Historians tell us that that's the first time that had ever happened in all of the inaugurals that we've had, despite the fact that Christians have been the majority in the United States throughout all of our history.

This is a good example of an evangelical minister proclaiming his faith in a fairly sectarian way on a public stage. That's really quite interesting. … Normally, in political events such as that, God is evoked in a much more general and not a sectarian way. I think this had certain important implications. One is it gave evangelicals and other conservative Christians a sense that they were part of the inaugural. It also showed that President Bush supported their agenda and agreed with some of their issues.

How would you compare past presidents and their use of religious references and language to President Bush's use of this?

American presidents often use religious rhetoric. It's a very common thing. One only has to think back to Jimmy Carter, who was a self-described born-again Southern Baptist who laced his speeches with religious language, as well.

I think that President Bush differs in that he connects his personal faith and his personal experience much more directly than many other presidents do. He's often very careful to not be sectarian in his religious references. But he talks about it a great deal. He makes a point of saying very positive things about religion. Most American presidents simply invoke religious symbols; President Bush advocates on behalf of religious symbols.

Now, many people who hear that assume that beneath that language there is a sectarian agenda. It may be the case that there isn't. It may simply be that President Bush has strong personal faith, and wants to encourage the faith of others.

Since 9/11, some say that President Bush is moving towards a more Calvinist use of language in his speeches.

There are a number of different currents in evangelical Protestantism that overlap into mainline Protestant as well. One of them is Calvinism, which is an emphasis on predestination and a belief in the primacy of the sovereignty of God.

President Bush really doesn't come from a Calvinist tradition. He comes from a Methodist or pietist tradition which puts a tremendous emphasis on individual will, on individual holiness and on the religious experience of the individual believer.

In most of President Bush's rhetoric, particularly earlier in his administration, he talked about compassion when he talked about individuals performing wonders and miracles. That's the language of pietism; that's the language of Methodism. But since 9/11, a new kind of rhetoric has appeared in his speeches, more of a Calvinist rhetoric, which talked about God's plan for the future, that identified the United States -- and in some cases he himself -- as being part of the articulation of God's plan in the world. This is a really sharp departure from the pietist or Methodist language of earlier in his administration.

Were you surprised in the 2000 election campaign, when President Bush said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher?

When President Bush made his famous comment that his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ because he changes your heart, I was a little bit surprised by that. Surprised, because presidential candidates usually do not make specific sectarian references to their beliefs. They often talk about God and about faith, but they usually don't make those kinds of specific beliefs.

Most political consultants would encourage a candidate not to make those kinds of references, and it may very well be that that was just the real Bush speaking. But it did have a very important political effect. Evangelical Christians and other conservative Protestants immediately understand what he was talking about, and they began to identify with President Bush.

Remember, in the 2000 primaries, then-Governor Bush was locked in a tight contest with people like Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, who had a claim on the evangelical vote and the votes of conservative Christians, perhaps superior to Bush's own. By using that personal reference and that personal rhetoric, Bush in effect undercut the campaigns of his rivals, and brought many millions of conservative Christians into his camp.

In the 2000 election, Karl Rove says that it would not have been so close had more evangelicals turned out, because his belief was that evangelicals would sort of across-the-board vote for President Bush.

Karl Rove, who is one of the smartest people when it comes to American politics, has noted some concern that evangelicals did not turn out in as high a number as he expected in the 2000 campaign. He believes that President Bush would have done a lot better in the popular vote, and perhaps even in the Electoral College, if there had been the kind of turnout he expected.

I tend to disagree a little bit with Mr. Rove's interpretation. Evangelicals really did not turn out at the level that the campaign expected. But most scholars who study this were not all that surprised by evangelical turnout. It was down a little bit. But one reason was that many of the states where evangelicals are numerous, such as South Carolina and Mississippi and Texas, were not close at all. These were states that President Bush carried handily. So there wasn't the emphasis to get the kind of turnout that might have been expected.

But if you look at states that were close, like Florida, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, evangelical turnout was higher than it had been in the past. So there was, in fact, a bit of a surge there. So there was a perhaps a little bit of a different interpretation here. I suspect that even with higher turnout, Bush still would have won the same states that he ended up winning. It's possible that Mr. Rove has a point. He might have actually won the popular vote which, as you know, was a little bit of an embarrassment to him to actually fall behind Al Gore in the total number of votes cast.

In the 2004 election, will religion matter?

Religion will be very important in the 2004 election. It was going to be important anyway, because each political party has religious constituencies that they need to appeal to. President Bush needs to appeal to evangelical Protestants. The Democratic nominee … has to appeal to black Protestants and Jews, and other religious people as well.

But the rhetoric is going to be heightened, because of the decision in Massachusetts to argue that prohibitions of same-sex marriages are unconstitutional. This will energize many religious conservatives to become involved in the political process. I think we'll see an intensification of religious rhetoric during the campaign.

Will this get evangelicals into the voting booths?

Many scholars see a parallel between the abortion issue in the 1970s and the same-sex marriage issue in 2004. This is an example of an issue that really arouses the zealotry of evangelicals. They really feel imposed upon, and think that it's necessary to do politics to prevent gay marriage from coming to pass.

Evangelicals are very likely to conclude that President Bush is a stronger defender of traditional marriage than the likely Democratic presidential nominee, although evangelicals have been fairly critical of President Bush because he was not very quick to come out in defense of traditional marriage, and often said what they would perceive as fairly soft and wimpy things about the whole question of marriage. But in the end, it's likely that the Republican Party will be seen as the vehicle for preserving traditional marriage, and the Democratic Party seen as a vehicle for attacking traditional marriage.

President Bush has generally adopted a somewhat more tolerant and moderate position on the whole question of same-sex marriage. He's made very clear that he doesn't support it, that he believes in a traditional marriage. … But he's certainly not as zealous about the issue as many of his evangelical allies. Part of this is because Bush is committed to a very traditional position, which is that one loves the sinner but hates the sin. I think President Bush, for both personal reasons as well as political reasons, does not want to be seen as intolerant of gay people. He wants to support marriage, but he also wants to not be perceived as an intolerant person.

When I asked an evangelical, "What is a person who's Christian and gay to do?" the answer is, "Abstain." Gay people find this offensive, that those two things can't co-exist -- being Christian and being gay.

Evangelical Protestants put a great deal of emphasis on human sin. In fact, they commonly note that all human beings are sinners, even evangelicals, even Christians, even regular church-attending people. So evangelicals believe that individuals can overcome their sin, whatever that proclivity might be, by the grace of God and with the help of God.

So when there is a person in an evangelical church who has gay sexuality, they would argue that that individual can overcome that behavior and can abstain by the grace of God, by being a converted person and having a help of the religious community. Obviously, many gay people, Christian or otherwise, don't see it that way at all. They understand their sexuality as being something foundational to their character, and not something that can be changed, even with the help of God.

How would you describe evangelicals' views, generally, on social activism and on the government helping people?

Evangelical Protestants are highly individualistic, both in their religious beliefs and in their political beliefs. When in doubt, they tend to put a lot of emphasis on individual behavior, on individual achievement, on hard work, on discipline. Those are the ways that evangelicals see individuality, so they tend to be very skeptical of broader social or community solutions to problems.

So for instance, if there is a poor person, the reaction of many evangelicals is that person should work harder, but also that other Christians should then share with that poor person as an act of charity, as an act of Christian love, as opposed to, say, creating a welfare program or having some kind of government or state solution.

Now, it's not as if all evangelicals are completely against a government's role in dealing with poverty. It's just that they tend to be skeptical about those programs. They don't like to see them expanded, and where possible, they like to see them returned to the realm of private charity. So there is a high degree of individualism when it comes to the question of poverty and individual wealth.

When many evangelicals look at poor people in our midst -- and they're keenly aware, by the way, of poor people being around -- they believe that the way to solve those problems is for individual Christians to reach out with charity, and also to share the Gospels, so that that poor person will acquire good values and life skills and be able to cope with their poverty by themselves.

So it isn't the case that evangelicals don't care about poor people. They care about them, yea mightily, in fact, they care about them as much as anybody else. But their idea of how you solve poverty is just very different than what other religious traditions have.

Can you talk about President Bush's faith-based initiative?

One of President Bush's original policies was the faith-based initiative, the idea that public welfare money could be channeled through faith-based organizations to solve community problems. President Bush is very committed to this idea, partly from his personal convictions and partly from his experience as governor of Texas, where some faith-based programs were implemented and, from his point of view, were very, very successful.

The faith-based initiative was not greeted with uniform approval among evangelical Protestants. Many of them were deeply skeptical of it, because they felt that if their churches and religious organizations took public money, then that would limit the religious mission of those organizations. They understood that, with public money, always come public regulations. There are always strings attached to those dollars.

So from the very beginning, there was a major argument within the Bush White House and within the Republican coalition about whether the faith-based organization was a good idea, and more importantly, what the details would be.

Another problem that evangelicals had with the faith-based initiative is, from President Bush's point of view, it probably included too many groups. There were some evangelicals that didn't want certain religious groups to be able to participate in the program, because they don't think that those groups are legitimate. There's some talk about Muslims, for instance. There was some concern about Scientologists and New Age individuals and people who have religious beliefs which evangelicals would not regard as legitimate.

Many people were deeply skeptical of the faith-based initiative, because it felt that they felt it would distort the separation between church and state, which is one of the foundational doctrines of American government. The feeling was that if this money was being sent through religious institutions, that it would skew policy in favor of particular religious beliefs, and against other beliefs. …

One of the fears with the faith-based initiative was that public money would in fact be used for proselytizing. Now, some people felt that there was simply no way to avoid proselytizing and, therefore, the faith-based initiative should not be enacted. Others were willing to go along with some version of it, but wanted very strict limits on the relationship between that public money and the private religious character of the faith-based organizations.

This presented a really interesting problem, because one of the reasons that President Bush and others want the faith-based initiative is they want to rally the "armies of compassion," as they call it. They want to use the power of faith to solve social problems. Well, if it's faith that solves the social problem, then putting restrictions on faith means that the program may not succeed.

What's your take on the success of these programs?

To date, it's unclear if the faith-based programs work particularly well. There is some strong evidence that some of these programs have been very successful in particular policy areas. There is also some evidence to the contrary -- that some of these programs in other policy areas don't work as well. Numerous scholars all across the country are busy studying these programs to see if they really work. To date, the results are very mixed.

In the early weeks of his presidency, President Bush reinstated the international gag rule on U.S. foreign aid that funds abortion services, he established a National Prayer Day, and he started the faith-based initiatives office within the White House. Can you talk about these three events, and what message he was sending to his religious constituents?

One of the political problems that all presidents face when they first come into office is how can they reward the people who helped elect them. … So all presidents look for symbolic things, perhaps even things that go beyond symbolism that can reward their followers. President Bush in this regard is no exception.

When he came into office, he immediately found three ways to reward his religious supporters, evangelicals and other conservative Christians. One of them was the establishment of the National Day of Prayer, which is symbolic, but, of course, to evangelicals who believe in the power of prayer, a very important thing. Another was he reinstated the gag rule with regard to the abortion services in American foreign aid.

Then he established the office of faith-based initiatives in the White House. That's one of the few examples in our history of an element of the White House being explicitly connected to religion. Now, it's not connected to a particular religion. But nonetheless, it highlights faith, and it highlights religious institutions in one of the most powerful symbols of American government, the White House.

This is an unusual thing. If you take these three things together, this allowed President Bush to appear to reward his evangelical supporters, from the very beginning of his administration.

Among evangelicals, there recently has been growing interest in some foreign policy issues. Can you talk about this?

Historically, evangelical Protestants were not very focused on foreign policy, and to the extent they were, they cared about evangelism and issues that were related to that. But in recent times, they've had an expanded foreign policy agenda. They've talked about a much broader set of issues, and have connected their historic concern for evangelism with questions that they historically did not care about, such as human rights.

A very good example of that is their concern for the persecuted church. Evangelicals have noted that many of their missionaries in countries such as Sudan have been the subject of considerable harassment. Some of them have even been killed. But more to the point, the converts from their missionaries, Christians in those countries, have been subject to religious persecution. They've been able to broaden that agenda beyond things, such as the civil war in the Sudan, to include persecution in China, persecution in other Islamic countries, or the fate of Christians in places like North Korea.

This is really quite a departure for evangelicals. I think it shows that they have a broader agenda. Evangelicals have been very effective at getting their foreign policy agenda before the president. They've lobbied the president directly. They've lobbied the administration. They've used their allies in Congress, where the Republicans control both the House and the Senate.

But they've also done something that's very unusual for them. They've joined a broader coalition that includes many groups that we would normally associate with the liberal side of the political spectrum. …

One of the new foreign policy issues that evangelicals have been concerned with recently has been human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of women and children for sexual purposes -- something that's a very major problem all across the world. They were able to bring that to the attention of the president and the State Department in a way that surprised a lot of people. So when the president went to the United Nations and gave a broad speech about the role of the United States and the U.N. in the world, the issue of human trafficking had a very large portion of the speech.

Evangelicals were delighted. People in evangelical churches that have heard a lot about this issue over the years were very pleased. But many people were not so much opposed, but surprised that this type of issue would have risen to this level of the administration's agenda. I think it's a pretty good example of the kinds of connections that evangelicals and their leaders have to the White House.

What about the relationship between Islam and evangelicals?

Evangelical Christians have a problem with Islam. They do not agree with the basic tenets of Islam. They are very critical of Muslims. This antipathy pre-dates 9/11. You know, most Americans were only vaguely aware of Muslims before 9/11, but evangelicals knew a great deal about them. Most of what they knew was, from their perspective, quite negative. This was because of the experience of Christian missionaries in Muslim countries, particularly the Sudan, but also places like Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

The problem that evangelicals have with Islam is two-fold. On the one hand, they disagree with the basic beliefs of Islam. Since evangelicals are very strong believers in the truth claims of their own religion, they tend to react negatively to any religious group that they disagree with.

But beyond that, the experience of their missionaries and Christian converts in Muslim countries has lead them to conclude that Islam is a religion with violent proclivities -- that it defends its truth claims by suppressing opponents.

President Bush has been quite moderate in this regard. …

President Bush is consistently taking a more moderate attitude towards Islam than many evangelical leaders. Right after 9/11, President Bush made the point that Islam was a religion of peace and that it had, quote unquote, "been hijacked by terrorists and by extremists." Many evangelical leaders disagreed with that.

[Is it true that] within the evangelical community, undoubtedly a certain percentage could go either way in voting in the upcoming election?

In recent times, evangelical Protestants have become a solid Republican constituency, but they are no means monolithic. There are lots of different opinions within that community, and there are different degrees of religious commitment and of religious belief.

Some evangelical Protestants are more moderate, even liberal in their theological perspective, and they often vote for Democratic candidates. So it would be possible, under the right circumstances, with the right issues, for a Democratic candidate to actually win the votes of liberal or more moderate evangelicals.

Could that matter in this election?

In a very, very close election, all of the votes count. Even a relatively small group like the more moderate or liberal evangelicals could be the difference in key states.

A final question. What was the significance for the evangelical community of John Ashcroft's appointment?

The appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general of the United States was a very important symbol to the evangelical community. John Ashcroft is a Pentecostal, belongs to the Assemblies of God. He also, of course, had a long and distinguished career in politics. He was governor of Missouri. He was a senator from Missouri.

One could argue that the appointment of John Ashcroft represents the highest rank that any card-carrying evangelical has ever held in an administration. That appointment was extremely important to the evangelical community, because it signaled very early on that President Bush was not going to take them for granted, and was going to pay attention to at least some salient elements of their agenda.

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posted april 29, 2004

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