The Politics, or a-Politics, of the Evangelical Church in the 1970s

I came to Christ in 1973, at the high tide of the Jesus movement.  No, we weren’t all hippies; the movement swept through secular colleges [even fraternities!] and youth groups as well.  It is worth pointing out that my [deservedly notorious] generation, the Boomers, came into the Church in two different waves.  The second wave, the Seeker wave, came in later, at a time when the generation was having children and wanting to know what to do.  Rick Warren and Willow Creek were some of the leaders of that wave.

At least the Seeker wave got the parents to go to church too.  I was raised being sent to Sunday School on my own.  Once I was past ten, until I was sixteen, my parents – first my mother, then my father – took me to church.  [They were separated, and I lived for three years with my mother, and four years with my father.]

After I was sixteen, I could drive, and attended Hollywood Presbyterian for a year, but they actually believed in Jesus and that was a stumbling block.  I had allowed my father to talk me out of the belief that Jesus was the Son of God at ten.  Before that, I would have said He was, but I did not understand that He had to die for my sins; I think Jesus said something like, “Come back to Me when you really understand what I did for you!”  My mother was raised in Christian Science and was more what we now call New Age in her beliefs.

I stopped going to church after I entered university at Occidental College.  But after I graduated and had my Wanderjahr in Europe [a lot of the Oxy students had had their Wandersommer between high school and college, and I needed to catch up] I came back and found that two sets of friends, one in my college fraternity and one around the west side of Newport Beach, had all become Christians [classical Protestants] in my absence.  Because of this, and because I was limping around with an attack of rheumatoid arthritis [which had sent me home from Europe, and gradually faded away after my return] I read some apologetic literature from Fritz Ridenour, a popular Christian author of the day, and believed.

The leadership of the Church at that time, overreacting to the overindividualism of us Boomers and trying to whip us into shape, was taking a slightly authoritarian tack in the 1970s.  [See my post on “Freedom” and Christianity for more on this subject].  The first retreat I went to, where I decided to believe, had indeed had a presentation on “God’s Chain of Command” taken directly from Bill Gothard.

Gothard is hardly known today, but in the 1970s he was an evangelical household word.  He went around the country holding seminars in packed auditoria with his Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts.  Basically, the youth were supposed to lose the conflict.  He also defined ‘gossip’ in such a way as to make most book and movie reviews and political discussions in the public media ‘gossip’.  Only the “chain of command” part was in that retreat, however.  If I had not already made the decision, I might never have after that, to be blunt.  For me, ‘freedom’ was an idol.

The summer of 1974 I lived with a fundamentalist couple in Garden Grove who attended Long Beach Alliance Church.  They finally got me to be baptized, after I’d been a Christian for 16 months.  They were in the habit of leaving Christian talk radio on in the morning.  The one program that was really sort of God and Country was Carl McIntire, and I usually felt the desire to put on my running shoes and go run while he was on.  The rest of the programs – J. Vernon McGee and all that – had none of that.  Carl McIntire was unusual in the day.  And the young people of the Jesus Movement mostly didn’t even know about him.

That fall I enrolled in the Summer Institute of Linguistics, in Dallas, for graduate school.  SIL is the academic arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators.  Wycliffe operated internationally, and their political view was that all governments in charge, including Third World kleptocrats and dictators, had the Mandate of Heaven as long as they were in authority.  The translators were to bring the Bible, not the American Bill of Rights, to the ethnic groups they were serving.  And they sought the support and favor of the rulers, even the kleptocrats, by saying they were translating ‘moral literature’.  Of course, they claimed no responsibility for what the people did with the Word of God once it was in their hands!  Whatever Wycliffe was, it was not Religious Right as we have known it more recently.

My wife Roberta, on the other hand, was raised in a church that defined itself as fundamentalist, in a denomination called the General Association of Regular Baptists.  She testifies that not a lot was heard in their circles about “God and America.”  They had missionaries from all over the world come to their church; and so she felt connected to the whole world in a way that people outside the church were not.  A strong missionary emphasis is a good cure, I should think, for “God and Country” idolatry.  As a Kuyperian, I have rebelled, not against the Great Commission, but against “Great Commission Utilitarianism,” the idea that God’s sole interest in the world today is conversion and discipleship, and that our work in the world has no interest to Him except to that end.

I was not called to join Wycliffe.  An excellent movie, by the way, about not being called to “full time service” is The Sound of Music.  You ought to go see it from that point of view, if you haven’t.  Anyhow, that was Wycliffe and me.  I came home to California, which was not such a mess then as it is now [today I think I would have stayed in Texas].

Then I had to really wrestle with my status as a “Trust Fund Baby” and a Christian.  There was not a lot of guidance for that.  Neither Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger nor the Campus Crusade model of getting into the circles of the rich [who were mostly business people, which I was not] and having evangelistic dinners seemed quite right for me.  Instead, I discovered the Christian Reconstructionists, R. J. Rushdoony and Gary North.  They seemed to have the easy answers that I wanted.

So the Christian Reconstruction view dominated my life in my 30s, during which I got married and had a child.  But being married, I became aware of the weaknesses of their view.  They talked of Rules, but very little about Virtue; I had to learn what the ‘heart’ was – it’s not your emotions – and learn to deal with it.  I moved by the age of 40 to being a more ‘catholic’ [small ‘c’] Christian, with Reformed, especially Kuyperian, leanings, and in various forms I have been there ever since.

By the way, I ended up doing a little research.  In the early 1960s my dad took me to visit a service at First Congregational Church in Los Angeles.  The pastor was one James Fifield, and he was known for his unusually God and Country emphasis and liturgy.  [This was not my dad’s view; he took me there to see it.]  I found out later that Fifield was not just a local pastor but had played a national role in a kind of ‘Christianity and Free Enterprise’ movement since the 1930s!  He had an organization called “Spiritual Mobilization” that took what one might describe as a ‘Christian Libertarian’ view.

Libertarianism in those days, I can assure you, was strictly economic, not social.  However, in the First Principles web journal of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Fifield is called “a politically conservative but theologically liberal Congregational minister.”  When groups split off from the Congregational Church in the 1950s in the face of their coming merger becoming the United Church of Christ (UCC), they joined the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, which was worried about the polity, or maybe too much central control.

They did not join the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, which came out on doctrinal grounds defending Christian orthodoxy.  The ‘Conservative’ is theological, not political.  They are not a large denomination, but they have two megachurches; Park Street in Boston, the only church to have stayed Christian in Boston [as opposed to Unitarian] since its founding in 1809; and Lake Avenue in Pasadena.  As for Fifield’s church, it returned to the UCC in 2017.   Today its website declares, “First Congregational Church of Los Angeles is a progressive, positive, and open church with a strong arts and music culture.  We welcome and celebrate those of different faith traditions, cultural backgrounds, and sexual orientations.”  So much for that!

So the first “Christian conservatives” were not evangelical, or as I prefer to say now, Classical Protestant.  The rise of ‘conservative’ politics in the classical Protestant church owes more to the Christian Reconstructionists and to two critical events, both of which happened around 1979.  First, Francis Schaeffer and his son Frank released a video series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race, which succeeded in convincing most of the classical Protestant world that abortion and euthanasia were evils and should be opposed.  Hitherto, including right after Roe vs. Wade, many classical Protestants had dismissed these as a “Catholic issue” along with contraception.

Second, in the last ten years, many Classical Protestants in the British Isles tradition, who had traditionally supported the public schools, had begun to set up private schools to teach their children in a Christian environment.  [It is to be noted that Catholics and Continental Protestants, from the German and Dutch traditions, had always created parochial schools.] But before that, white Southerners had started moving their kids to private schools for, ahem, somewhat different reasons.

In 1979 the Internal Revenue Service came down with a decree that all newer private schools were guilty until proven innocent of being “segregation academies.”  And this under that Evangelical Christian President, Jimmy Carter!  And, locally, officials started going after these newer Christian schools on the grounds that they weren’t ‘licensed’, didn’t have ‘certified’ teachers, or whatever.  They did not have a theological foundation to counter this.

Rushdoony, however, had written a text called The Messianic Character of American Education, in which he declared that the Bible assigned the job of education of children primarily to the parents and secondarily to the church, that education [at least what we call ‘liberal’ education; not so much technical education] could not by nature be ‘neutral’ between Christianity and other worldviews, and that the whole idea of public common schools had been a mistake in the first place.  He spent much of the decade of the 1980s flying around the country testifying on behalf of Christian schools harassed by local bureaucracies.  It is to be noted that he did not travel mostly to what we now call ‘blue’ states.  Bureaucrats are the same in every state in the USA.  As a matter of fact, one cause célèbre was in Louisville, Nebraska, where seven fathers were put in jail and other parishioners had to flee over the state line because of their ‘unlicensed’ school.  And Nebraska is not generally thought of as a ‘blue’ state.

The Christian Reconstructionists generally took the view that the civil laws of the Old Testament [it was the ceremonial laws, that pointed to Christ, that were fulfilled by Him] were a model and blueprint for polities today.  And it so happens that in the Old Testament, the penalties for offenses against the family and sexual offenses were generally quite explicit, often involving throwing stones.  But nothing was said about specific punishment for failure to tithe, or much about business and economics except condemning outright theft; no program of state-imposed redistribution.  Therefore Reconstructionism acquired a position of combining a quite libertarian economics with a very strict legal standard on matters sexual.

It is to be noted that the ‘evangelical left’ [not the same as the ‘liberal church’, because the ‘evangelical left believed in the Gospel, not the Parenthood of God and the Siblinghood of Humankind, nor did they believe in the natural goodness of humankind] had to draw on the Old Testament too, specific statements in the Red Letters [the words of Jesus in the New Testament in some Bibles.  Classical Christians hold that the whole Bible is the word of Jesus, however] being lacking; and they focused on the Jubilee.  For fifty years the more successful people were able to accumulate land, the main resource of the day; but at the end of the fifty years the cards were called in, everyone got their land back, and it started over.

[You had to give the ‘cards’ back; it’s not clear whether you had to put all the ‘chips’ {cash} or not.  This was presumably enforced by the state or the law.  The Reconstructionists thought that this was only something for ancient Israel and could not be literally applied elsewhere.  It’s also worthy of note that there is nothing said in the historical books about the Jubilee, or the Sabbatical Year of not cultivating crops and living off what grew naturally, ever actually being implemented].

And even if you can argue for a sort of forced redistribution by the state, there is not one verse in the black or the red letters of the Bible conferring a moral entitlement by anyone to the resources of the state.  Not one. This does not necessarily mean I am against any form of welfare state; but Jesus doesn’t say we have to have one.

Jerry Bridges, the Navigator author, wrote a book in 2007 called Respectable Sins in which he complained that too much of the classical Protestant church had gotten focused on the two ‘political’ sins of abortion and homosexuality, while not talking enough about the others.  [In the early ‘70s, the biggest sin seemed to be failure to perform in your ‘quiet time’ or devotional life; it was worse than missing church.  Second was sexual sin, and not just the two ‘political’ sexual sins of today.  Third was booze, but only in Baptist circles.].

I’ll have to say that I’ve been spared that in the churches that I have attended.  They could talk about sins, in general, more than they do, but I’ve been lucky.  Salem Radio Network, however, has been heavily politicized, and according to Politico, Trinity Broadcasting Network is now following the same politicized path.  It makes me feel nostalgic for the old days when left leaning preachers in the mainline church were nagged at to “just preach the Gospel.”  I’m not going to take the time to go into detail as to how the shift happened; but as an old curmudgeon, I’m just telling everyone that I remember a different time.

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