Evangelical imperialism

Published July 20, 2023

By Alexander H. Jones

GOP legislators have introduced a bill that would transfer full control of public education to the evangelical community. This is not the banner under which they’ve brandished the legislation; their marketing consists, as usual, of pablum referring to “parents’ rights.” But the parents to whom they are referring are perfectly unambiguous: white people who identify as born-again Protestants. These are the people seeking a kind of cultural irredentism in our country.

The details of this bill are appalling but beyond the scope of my article. What matters more is the suite of implications that evangelical aggression has for the present and past of Republican Party politics. As so often happens in the politics of a Southern state, this legislation evokes ugly memories of our nation’s Civil-War trauma. After the war, Southern whites were discredited in the eyes of other Americans. It was broadly understood for a century after the Civil War that a Southerner could not be elected president, which explains the burst of euphoria that exploded in Southern hearts when Jimmy Carter brought respectability back to Dixie.

Trump, the most intense malefactor American politics has seen since the Confederate insurgency, had a similar discrediting effect on white evangelicals. Both whites and evangelicals have been in long-term demographic decline in our country, but the fall from dominance seen in the born-again community has been particularly striking to see. In 2004, 40% of Americans identified as evangelical Protestants. By the late 2010s that number had fallen below 20% nationally, and even in the North Carolina Republican primary electorate only 37% of voters frequented evangelical churches. Already dwindling as a share of the population, evangelicals’ strong support from a lewd fascist completed their decline into a marginalized subculture.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass, but sometimes even a challenge to privilege only invites vicious backlash. That pattern of belligerence has erupted with tremendous force in the cultural-politics arena. Aghast at their loss of hegemony, evangelicals are using the ironclad political alliance they have forged with Trump Republicans to strike back at a changing America. They are attempting to reverse-engineer social changes that have alarmed and enraged them.

Interestingly, the evangelical strategy has taken mirror-image form relative to what they imagine their progressive opponents are doing. Evangelical conservatives are apoplectic at the supposed campaign by progressives to commandeer and revolutionize every American institution. As if public schools were the Disney Corporation, evangelicals are using the force of legislation to impose their values on public education in America, even to the point, in North Carolina, of allowing conservative parents to recall and fire superintendents. They’ve turned New College Florida into a conservative indoctrination instrument. And for all Ron DeSantis’s arcane fulminations about “gender ideology,” red-state legislators are imposing their own gender ideology–the ideology of the binary–on young transgender people.

I believe this backlash will dissolve into vapor. The fact is that America is becoming a more compassionate society with a culture that welcomes and values marginalized groups with a tenderness not seen in the Bush years. Evangelicals can screech about wokeness, but they will not persuade most Americans to abandon the liberalizing creed that has taken root in our multicultural century. Our institutions, however, are built to allow a provincial white-male minority faction to rule the nation, an artifact of the pre-modern precepts that held sway among the Constitution’s framers. The god-and-gun right has the tools to recover more privilege than they deserve.