Review: The Politics of Evangelical Identity
Lydia Bean. The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. 336 pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-16130-3.
Far too few scholars of religion in North America have answered the late George Rawlyk’s summons to study religious life in the United States juxtaposed with that of Canada. Lydia Bean’s willingness to do so makes the The Politics of Evangelical Identity a worthy project. Bean, who earned a doctorate in sociology at Harvard and now teaches at Baylor University, is herself a product of both societies, having lived on both sides of the forty-fifth parallel. She set out to sample the politicization of rank-and file evangelicals in the United States and Canada by doing ethnographic work in what she calls the “black box” of Baptist and Pentecostal congregations, one coupling in suburban Hamilton, Ontario, and the other in suburban Buffalo, New York (10).
The comparisons are illuminating. Bean finds that “the worlds of local evangelical congregations are far less overtly political than the worlds of Christian Right elites” (3). Evangelicals in the United States and Canada invoke the halcyon days of, respectively, the “Christian nation” and “God’s Dominion.” Explicit political cues, though, tend to emanate not from the clergy but from the laity, those Bean calls “captains in the culture war,” who in turn derive their politics from organizations outside the congregation. Political activism, the author concludes, generally percolates from the bottom up rather than from the pulpit.
The differences between evangelicals in the United States and those in Canada are subtle but significant. The American congregations are far less tolerant of ideological or political diversity and often are overtly partisan. In Canada, however, the congregants also generally skew right on social issues, but they leave room for those with dissenting views. Bean suggests, in fact, that one-third of Canadian evangelicals have drifted toward the political left in recent years.
Unfortunately, Bean’s historical acuity pales next to her ethnographic work and sociological savvy. In a single calamitous paragraph, fundamentalists (not the recrudescence of the Ku Klux Klan) denied the election of Al Green (not Alfred E. Smith) to the presidency in 1928, the Scopes trial brought “William James Bryan’s” career to an end, Franklin Roosevelt singlehandedly repealed Prohibition, and Catholics greatly expanded their influence, a development that would have been a surprise to the aforementioned Al Smith (28). Sometimes the author’s handling of history is simply a matter of internal contradictions, inducing something akin to whiplash—as when she acknowledges that evangelical leaders supported the Roe v. Wade decision, but later posits that they “embraced a hard-line position on abortion” beginning in 1973, and still later says that “evangelicals had not yet identified abortion as a defining ‘moral issue’” in the 1970s (8, 25, 32). Bean asserts that Morton Blackwell and Ed McAteer “orchestrated” the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, a feat generally attributed to Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson (33). “The ‘New’ Christian Right,” the author writes, “was the culmination of more than forty years of continuous organizing by politically conservative evangelicals;” the countervailing 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern receives no mention whatsoever (27).
Nowhere is this historical myopia more debilitating than in the author’s treatment of evangelicals’ attitudes about economics. Bean sets out to explain the connection between evangelicalism and economic conservatism, asking, “Why is the evangelical subculture linked to economic conservatism in the United States but not in Canada?” (112). Good question, and one that has long vexed me. Once again, the cross-border contrasts are illuminating. Whereas evangelicals in the United States link the expansion of welfare programs to moral decline, Canadian evangelicals find linkage of that sort utterly perplexing; they are proud of the Canadian health-care system, for example, and they see it as consistent with biblical principles about caring for those less fortunate. Bean ascribes the contrast, somewhat cryptically, to differences in national identity, but what I find incomprehensible is the apparent assumption that American evangelicals have always defended laissez-faire capitalism. Has the author never read Charles Grandison Finney’s excoriations of business? Has she never tracked William Jennings Bryan’s withering critiques of unbridled capitalism? The salient question here—and the missed opportunity—is not why evangelicals in the United States are economically conservative, but when they became so and under what pressures. Intriguingly, Bean starts to answer that question in the book’s conclusion. She echoes recent arguments advanced by Darren Dochuk and Kevin Kruse to the effect that conservative businessmen in the 1930s and 1940s sought to suborn evangelicals for their own ends, but this line of thought is curiously absent from the entire chapter devoted to the issue.
Given the confusion above, when the author asks, “What Makes Traditional Morality So Polarizing?” I’m left to wonder what she means by “traditional morality.” Is it Charles Finney or Jerry Falwell? The New Testament or the Republican Party platform? The author protests that evangelicalism is diverse and that elites don’t really have much sway over rank-and-file evangelicals. Yet she anoints Richard Land, formerly head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, as “a mouthpiece for official evangelical stances on the ‘moral issues’” (34). Official stances? I thought that evangelicalism was too fissiparous and that evangelical elites were not that influential. Isn’t that the argument of the book?
I ask that question not entirely rhetorically. It’s not always clear what the arguments are. In the end, The Politics of Evangelical Identity, despite its lofty and worthy aspirations, collapses beneath the weight of its own contradictions. Even more frustrating, we are left with the question as to why politically conservative evangelicals in the United States are so relentlessly dualistic, while Canadian evangelicals appear to be more capacious. Is it nothing more than the two-party versus the parliamentary system, which affords Canadian evangelicals the space for political gradations? Is it the difference between the First Amendment and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Is it something peculiar to the histories of these two nations?
I wonder, finally, if sociology or ethnography, despite the ambitions of the author, can ever answer these questions, especially absent the ballast of solid historical understanding.
I suspect that George Rawlyk himself, superb historian that he was, would also have harbored doubts.