Churches, Evangelical, 1946–Present
CHURCHES, EVANGELICAL, 1946–PRESENT
Religion has played a central role in shaping American society and culture, in particular the notion that America has a special mission in the world as part of a divine plan to create a godly world. During the journey to New England in 1630, Puritan Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop told the settlers they were to create a "City upon a Hill" that would serve as a model for the rest of the world. In 1974, at the First Conservative Political Action Conference, Ronald Reagan invoked the same metaphor, one he repeated as president, to explain America's historic mission in winning the Cold War. Evangelical Christians embrace the idea that America has a special mission, but differ as to whether it is to be fulfilled by example or by action.
A common stereotype of conservative Evangelical Christians in America is of flag-waving patriots who equate overt and militaristic patriotism with godliness. As with most stereotypes, this one does not always represent the truth. Evangelical churches, on the whole, have attempted to provide a centrist position in terms of issues surrounding war. Many have offered support for individual conscientious objectors. Evangelical churches and individuals hold to ethics of war from the full spectrum of positions.
Most members of conservative Evangelical organizations will argue for a spiritual nature on the issue of war. The Southern Baptist Convention, in its "Resolution on Summit Peace Conference" of June 1960, stated: "We believe in the ultimate triumph of goodness, love and truth and in the power of God as an everlasting Protector to rule his world. We therefore re-assert that our hope of escaping war rests upon spiritual foundations. Men must undergo moral regeneration if they are to perfect the means of making peace." As the statement of faith presented by the Committee on Baptist Faith and Message in June 1963 put it: "The true remedy for the war spirit is the gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of His teachings.…" Unlike many of those within liberal, or mainstream, Christianity who argue for the essential goodness of humanity and, as a result, the possibility of solely human resolution of international conflict, Evangelicals argue that true peace can be found only through spiritual adherence to biblical principles.
The diversity of views within the relative unity of Evangelicalism found expression regarding the U.S. military action in Iraq in 2003. A number of Evangelicals, led by Charles Colson, Bill Bright, Richard Land, and D. James Kennedy, wrote in a statement addressed to President Bush: "We believe that your policies … are both right and just. Specifically, we believe that your stated policies … are prudent and fall well within the time-honored criteria of just war theory as developed by Christian theologians in the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D." A group led by Linda Fuller of Habitat for Humanity, Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, and Tony Campolo voiced a contrary view: "It is our considered judgment that a preemptive war against Iraq, particularly in the current situation, would not be justified. Yet we believe Iraq must be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction; and that alternative courses to war should be diligently pursued." In general, Evangelicals have tended to accept either pacifism or some form of the just-war ethic.
Part of the debate within Evangelical circles lies in the interpretation of specific biblical references, such as the Fifth Commandment from the Hebrew Scriptures, "Thou shalt not kill." The official position of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is that the word for kill is not used anywhere in the Bible in reference to taking life in battle. Therefore, "the tragic task of taking up arms for combat under orders from legitimate authority is not by itself a violation" of this biblical commandment. Yet others will point toward the teachings of Jesus, especially the statement recorded in Matthew 5:39 (paralleled in Luke 6:29), where it is stated that one should "not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.…" This is understood by some to mean that Christians should not respond to even blatant evil with violence of any sort.
Mormons, though not within the Evangelical fold theologically, do fit in the same frame of ethical reference. In an editorial in the Deseret News-Church News of December 4, 1965, the First Presidency of the Mormon church stated: "Latter-day Saints are not pacifists in the accepted definition of that term. Neither are they conscientious objectors. Much as they hate war and its horrors, they recognize their divinely appointed task to help preserve liberty on the earth, and to sustain their governments in meeting unjustified aggression by evil powers." With this statement, the Mormon church responded to the wave of protests sweeping the United States during the Vietnam conflict and advised its own members.
Evangelicals hold a variety of positions on other issues that revolve around specific international relations. Primary among these in U.S. history are U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, China, Israel, and the Islamic nations of the Middle East. Drawing on early fundamentalist understandings of the end of the world, many conservative Christians viewed the Soviet Union and China, under the control of explicitly atheistic Communist regimes, as the dangerous enemies of "One Nation under God." Although distrustful of what they saw as the secularization of the American government, Evangelicals simultaneously viewed the United States as the most blessed and religious nation in the world. This understanding, which many Evangelicals shared, prompted many to demonize the Soviet Union and China as tools of Satan.
The arguments against the Soviet Union and China may have centered on their atheistic governments. This was not the case for the Islamic nations of the Middle East. It was, rather, the Islamic nations' common enmity toward Israel that was of great concern to Evangelicals. At various times, fundamentalist and Evangelical groups pictured Islamic states as the armies of the Anti-Christ, the apocalyptic or end-time enemy of both Israel and the God of the Evangelicals. Although from an Evangelical perspective the people of Israel may have stood on controversial and shaky theological ground, the idea of Israel and the existence of the nation was a vital focus of Evangelicals' attention. The battle cry of many Evangelicals was for uncompromising and neverending American support of Israel.
Since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and especially Ronald Reagan in 1980, Evangelical Christians have played a prominent role in politics. The Moral Majority, an Evangelical organization, was influential in the election of Reagan. Its perspective was reflected in President Reagan's depiction of the Cold War as a war between good and evil rather than a conflict between great powers, as an earlier generation of "realists," such as George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, had portrayed it. President George W. Bush has described the war on terrorism in similarly stark terms, and as a "just war." Although differences exist among Evangelical churches on specific policies, as a religious movement they continue to exert significant influence.
Colson, Charles. Kingdoms in Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989.
Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Weber, Timothy P. On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004.
Wilcox, Clyde. Onward Christian Soldiers: The Religious Right in American Politics, 2d edition. New York: Westview, 2000.
D. E. "Gene" Mills, Jr.