What We Believe

Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicals by Timothy Padgett, ed. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020, 489 pages, $28.99.

Is the Religious Right, associated primarily with figures like Jerry Falwell (the elder), Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, an organic expression of evangelicalism, or was it the imposition of Republican operatives who saw a bloc of voters worried about secularism and moral relativism that cultivated their support? Those may not be the only alternatives for evaluating the Religious Right, but the question is useful for framing the relationship, to put it simply, between Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. The former came to prominence in 1949 as the modern-day George Whitefield. In addition, Graham rose to fame as part of the so-called neo-evangelical (now simply evangelical) movement that was important for launching organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals (1942), Fuller Seminary (1947), and Christianity Today magazine (1956). (Graham lent support by serving on the boards of the latter two institutions.) The Moral Majority that Falwell headed, in contrast, began in 1979, and the Lynchburg Baptist pastor had more of a footing in fundamentalism than evangelicalism. That contrast could imply that evangelicalism was more a religious than a political movement, and its public face was more moderate than indignant. The Religious Right, in turn, was from the start political in purpose, and its confrontational stances on abortion, feminism, sexual promiscuity, not to mention nuclear arsenals, may have felt more fundamentalist than evangelical.

This collection from Christianity Today in the book under review, Dual Citizens, should supply evidence for a plausible answer to the question posed above. Although the editor, Timothy D. Padgett, introduces the essays with a tip of the cap to two-kingdoms theology—Christians live in tension between ultimate loyalty to God and proximate allegiance to the civil magistrate—the book reads like a warm-up for the Religious Right. That is not to say that Falwell and other evangelical spokesmen who came to prominence during the Reagan presidency rejected this model of divided citizenship, as if the Religious Right was theocratic or favored Christian nationalism. Instead, this book suggests continuity between evangelicalism of the Nixon era and the conservative Protestantism of the Reagan and Bush presidencies era because so many of the contributions sound like arguments that contemporary evangelical activists still make.

Padgett arranges the articles around five themes: the presidency, evangelicalism’s right and left political sides, foreign policy, domestic issues, and patriotism (or nationalism). Although all the essays come from the magazine proper, some are anonymous as the collective voice of the editors while others come from writers who occasionally wrote for the magazine. Padgett does not clarify which if any of these authors were on the staff of Christianity Today. That leaves a question about which articles reflect the magazine’s internal outlook and which were part of the editors’ effort to include a diversity of opinions. Either way, the contributions, coming as they do from the flagship publication of the evangelical movement, reveal something of the outlook of born-again Americans between 1956 and 2016. As such, Dual Citizens presents the sort of expectations and points of view that made the Religious Right possible.

The difference between an official editorial and a guest contribution is obvious in the section on presidents. Here readers will see a critical piece from 1978 on Jimmy Carter, which asks whether the president actually lived up to his own standards. The author is John B. Anderson, the Illinois Congressman who ran as a third-party candidate against both Carter and Ronald Reagan two years later. The piece reads like the reasoning of a person looking for votes and testing campaign talking points. Otherwise, the section is solidly behind Republican presidents. An early op-ed column from 1956 about the presidential contest revealed that the magazine’s ministerial readers favored Dwight D. Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson eight-to-one. The editorial itself was not as partisan—it ended with a call for the country to find its way back to the “centrality of the gospel” (21). But it certainly indicated where the magazine’s readership was electorally. With John F. Kennedy, the magazine, even after the election, was still raising questions about a Roman Catholic’s undivided loyalty to the American Constitution. One official editorial on LBJ showed support for the Vietnam War as long as it was based on “freedom for all, opposition to all tyranny, and peace with justice” (36). Of the two editorials on Nixon, one expressed hope for a national day of prayer and the other defended Billy Graham’s close relationship to Nixon (“no evidence that he has watered down his convictions to gain access”) (40). The magazine did not approve of Watergate, but it did not hammer Nixon even as it spoke positively about Gerald Ford, even trying to find evidence of an evangelical faith in the Vice President. By the time of Reagan’s 1980 victory, the magazine was downplaying evangelical influence on the election and calling for greater maturity among evangelicals as citizens. From Clinton to the 2016 election, Padgett includes no official editorials but a mix of writers, some not household names, addressing each president. One possible inference from these essays on the presidency is that even as evangelicals became more identifiably political, the magazine moved from its largely pro-Republican position to one of seeming neutrality.

Such moderation was not for reason of avoiding issues. Most of the essays in the volume repeat the core political convictions of evangelicals (at least as the editors of Christianity Today understood them). Some of these concerns are evident in the section on domestic affairs which includes several articles on race and civil rights (in support), and abortion (opposition). But in other essays about elections or government more generally, readers will see recurring themes: anti-Communism, lower taxes, religious freedom, separation of church and state, freedom of speech and the press, just treatment of the poor, pro-life, and pro-family. In foreign policy, the magazine was firmly anti-Communist in the way it framed Vietnam and the Cold War. Later armed conflicts in Kosovo or Iraq allowed writers to draw upon just war theory in ways that expressed support for American intervention. Very few writers, aside from the discussion of just war, employed arguments from schools of political theory or foreign policy. Only in the section on the Evangelical Left and the Religious Right did Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, directly appeal to the left’s talking points of “the priority of the poor” and nuclear disarmament (186). Wallis was quick to add that his politics came directly from Scripture.

The other contributor to the book who has at least seven articles and who could sound the most theoretical in his use of political philosophy is Chuck Colson. The aid (of Nixon) who went to jail for his involvement in Watergate converted while in prison, returned to society, started Prison Ministries, and became a popular evangelical pundit on American life through books and his radio editorials on Break Point. Colson is one of the lower visibility figures in the Religious Right. His manner was polished and clearly different from a pastor like Jerry Falwell who seemed to rely on biblical provocation more than political common ground. Colson’s ability to present evangelical convictions in principled ways that were intended to persuade (rather than assert or clarify) was likely a reason that he wrote regularly for Christianity Today. At the same time, Colson did not back away from the culture-war side of his positions. In 1985 he wrote, “If you start reading the Bible you will see that there is a whole agenda that God has laid before us on the makeup of a righteous society” (178). For Colson, the list started with abortion. That way of stating the problem indicated that in the 1980s, the heyday of the Moral Majority, the editors and readers of Christianity Today were far more part of the Religious Right than they would become by the presidency of George W. Bush.

Overall, Dual Citizens is a valuable collection of writers and points of view in the gate-keeping periodical of the evangelical movement. Readers may be disappointed that the book includes less material that explains how Christians should calculate their loyalties to God and Caesar. It certainly provides evidence of how others made that calculation. In that sense, its usefulness is that of a documentary collection. That is, it gives readers examples of what some persons at a particular time thought about certain topics. Dual Citizens is especially instructive in taking the political pulse of evangelical Protestants before the rise of the Religious Right.

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, November 2021.

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