Religious right still mired in political muck

Booing Pence just another sign of how far faith has strayed from its roots

The heckling of Mike Pence by religious conservatives reflects the reality facing the former vice president for not going along with Donald Trump’s lie about a stolen election. After all, insurrectionists incited by the former president smashed into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 chanting “Hang Mike Pence.”

What is more significant about Pence being called “traitor” during the June 18 Faith & Freedom Coalition in Orlando is that it is another sign of how far the evangelical movement has strayed from its religious roots into extremist politics.

Consider also that the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical group, barely survived a June 15 takeover attempt by a group of ultra-conservatives pushing GOP talking points such as attacks on teaching about racism. And evangelical churches of all denominations are challenged by a growing mixture of conspiracy theories, right-wing populism and a gospel based on deserved prosperity.

“Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant,” The New York Times reported that former Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear told the convention. “And the offspring does not look like God the Father.”

The insurrection should cause evangelicals to rethink their overwhelming support of Trump, said Ed Stetzer, head of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois.

“I think there are some significant and important conversations that we need to have inside of evangelicalism asking the question: What happened?” he said in an NPR interview. “Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more?”

But this transformation began decades ago. Modern-day evangelism was rooted in a focus on religious practice: a more expressive form of worship, the idea of being “born again” by Christ’s suffering and a commitment to spread the word about salvation.

While working as a religion reporter in the South in the late 1970s, I saw followers split mainline Protestant churches and create ecumenical ones; the like-minded gathered for camp-ins on secluded mountains and built organizations. Soon, Billy Graham-style camp meetings were replaced by “The PTL Club” theme-park glitz.

It wasn’t long before political strategists channeled that enthusiasm into political fund-raising and activism. A key organizer was Ralph E. Reed Jr., former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now founder of the organization where Pence was booed.

Early, tentative discussions about whether evangelicals should even engage in politics led to plans to run for school boards. Reed handed out cards with creeds used by volunteers who risked their lives to end segregation across the South. It was a way to instill a sense of sacrifice. And it helped lay the foundation for both the national Tea Party and Trump’s MAGA movements.

All this is happening at a time when organized religion is losing influence. A March Gallup survey found that, for the first time, less than half of Americans are members of churches, mosques or synagogues. The percentage of evangelicals in the country has dropped from 23 percent in 2006 to now 15 percent, according to the Public Religious Research Institute. Yet they do vote, religiously.

Manipulating the faith and sense of purpose of any group remains a surefire way to gain power and money, and to sow conflict. So, it is unwise for even the unchurched to ignore how religious groups interact with the world.

As for Pence, he made a political bet: to use his reputation as a religious conservative to aid Trump, in hopes of greater power later.

Over the boos at the conference, he declared: “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”

The bottom line: It no longer matters.

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Vanessa Gallman

Experienced journalist, educator and retired opinion-page editor with occasional musings