Evangelicalism and the Problem of Selective Memory by Kevin Stewart Rose

May 3, 2018

The past century or so of evangelical history in America might best be understood as a story of multiple rebrands. In the 1910s, evangelicalism drew on the expertise of business leaders like Henry Parsons Crowell of Quaker Oats fame to rebrand itself as “fundamentalism” through a massive print campaign that cast evangelical doctrine as authentic old-time religion. By mid-century, many fundamentalists felt their “old-fashioned” branding had come to be associated more with backwardness than trustworthiness, so they underwent a second rebrand, reclaiming the name “evangelical” to signal a more respectably modern presence in the public square.

Last week, some fifty evangelical leaders met at my alma mater, Wheaton College, for yet another exercise in branding, this time to reclaim the name “evangelical” from its negative association with President Donald Trump’s allies such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham.

Often, as in the case of the fundamentalist image invented a century ago, the recovery of a brand’s public authority and legitimacy is based on the invocation of a more authentic past and a promise to restore it. But often these calls for restoration are deeply selective, choosing to overlook contested issues from a group’s past and present in order to construct a streamlined, positive basis for restoration.

As a case in point, Wheaton’s brand of respectable evangelicalism often invokes the positive legacy of its founder, Jonathan Blanchard, who was a noted opponent of slavery as early as the 1830s. But as evangelical historian, Mark Noll, has argued, by 1860 the majority of evangelicals, both southern and northern, actually believed in a biblical basis for slavery. When leaders choose to remember Blanchard’s stance on slavery without bothering with that of the majority of evangelicals, they engage in selective memory. This enables the construction of a respectable brand whose cultural authority might go unchallenged by difficult questions from its past and whose white American adherents might go unperturbed by their connection to it in the present.

Not all in attendance at Wheaton were so enthusiastic about this selective remembering.  Katelyn Beaty, writing in the New Yorker, observed a rift between an older, largely white group of leaders who wanted to focus more on unity and civility (including one who worried that calls to repent from racism might seem “too political” to his followers); and a younger group of leaders, many of whom were women and people of color, who expressed a desire to deal directly with the movement’s less-than-spotless record on white supremacy.

In addition to their troubled history on domestic issues, many evangelical leaders have used their public platforms to sanctify American military aggression abroad. Billy Graham, whose legacy in mid-century evangelicalism’s respectable brand was what these meeting organizers had hoped to revitalize, wove Cold War nationalism into much of his preaching. He even recommended military intervention in Vietnam to Eisenhower, promising to “do [his] best through radio and television to make [his] contribution in selling the American public” on the president’s decision.

Recently, former George W. Bush speechwriter and Wheaton alumnus Michael Gerson, wrote an extensive criticism of religious conservatives and their loyal adherence to Donald Trump. In a subsequent reflection on the Wheaton meeting, he joined these calls for restoration.

For Gerson, Bush’s brand of compassionate conservatism embodies the kind of respectable evangelicalism that should be restored. Gerson is particularly selective, saying that Bush’s compassionate conservatism was derailed by “global crisis,” but he fails to mention the direct hand his former boss had in creating that crisis when he launched a war in Iraq.  Gerson, himself, coined the infamous phrase “Axis of Evil”  which was instrumental in shepherding the nation into a war whose massive civilian death toll is yet another troubling memory too often hidden away from American public discourse.

By forgetting the troubled history of white evangelicalism on race, evangelical leaders allow their followers to continue comfortably in a respectably-branded evangelicalism that makes room for white supremacy. And by building their brand around civility and legitimacy, evangelical leaders can go on sanctifying a militaristic nationalism that has enjoyed an all too long moment in the sun of American public life.

What is called for now is repentance from racism and a frank, direct reckoning with the way evangelicalism has legitimated and sanctified state violence in the public square. This applies not only to those who have enthusiastically fused the evangelical brand with that of Donald Trump, but also to those who see themselves as trying to rescue it from such a legacy.

Kevin Stewart Rose is a doctoral student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.