Understanding the Origins of Conservative Christian Suspicions – Four Pivotal Moments

Recently, I have been a partner in the initiation of a student-led interfaith movement on a university campus in the American South. And although we have had success getting some conservative Christian student groups to participate in our interfaith collaborations, we have struggled to gain overwhelming support for the movement. Simultaneously, I have been attempting to better understand the origins of public distrust by conservative Christians. Or to state it another way, was there events which prompted conservative Christians (specifically in the American South) to be suspicious of public (read governmental) institutions, which continues today? And how would understanding these events, assist in building relational bridges in interfaith discourse?

Many search history over the last one hundred years and identify the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, TN, as pushing conservative Christians out of the public arena due to national embarrassment. This prompted conservative Christians (namely, Fundamentalist Christians) to adopt an isolationist approach to public engagement. In essence, governmental affairs were seen as too liberal, therefore too corrupt, and therefore beyond redemptive possibility. The Scopes trial was probably the first incident to incite real, broad appeal from conservative Christian leaders (probably due to national media) to public abandonment. It is at this point in history, Christian colleges emerge to provide a very particular Christian education to the next generation of Fundamentalists. Conservative Christians, during the trial and since, have perceived themselves as defenders of an inherited sacred text and of a transcendental purpose for all human existence.

The second main incident in creating governmental and public distrust was probably the desegregation of public society (again in the American South), especially, but not limited to public education. Whites in the South collectively perceived this as governmental intrusion. One should not underestimate how desegregation changed southern social norms (albeit, social norms constructed by white privilege). From private economic practices (who is served, who is hired, etc.) to public education which had played a significant role in perpetuating the status quo of African Americans and whites, desegregation substantially altered power dynamics. Again, this time, conservative Christians (which made up a majority of the American South and were still bemoaning the absence of prayer in public schools) joined with other whites as defenders of a Eurocentric preeminence.

Next, the rise (and its resulting failure) of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s and early 1980s served to reinforce lack of trust in the American government. Ironically (as Mark Noll has pointed out in God & Race in American Politics), the Religious Right adopted many of the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement to gain influence in the public sphere (including national media). Many have provided demonstrations of the Religious Right’s rise as it culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. However, Reagan quickly disappointed conservative Christians with the appointment of Sandra Day O’Conner as a Supreme Court justice and many other decisions. The Reagan administration’s political decisions, which extremely disappointed conservative leaders like Jerry Falwell, only served to reinforce the notion that conservative Christianity had failed to accomplish its agenda through an governmental outlet.

And I would suggest that the events on September 11, 2001 was the catalyst that has shifted moderate evangelicals (and even some Mainline Protestants) toward fundamentalist tendencies. The idea that the government failed to protect American soil and citizens developed a serious critique of the efficiency of the federal government. Simultaneously, the 9/11 events has led to a broad deconstruction of American exceptionalism by many American citizens. As people of faith and those not of faith have adopted a more realistic view of America as a nation-state, conservative Christians have tended to rewrite American history to include a specific (and a specific kind of) Christian founding and attempted to dismantle the power of the federal government perceived to have destroyed the white, Christian dominance once enjoyed.

All of these events have coalesced to create a hyper religious patriotism within conservative Christian churches (again, including many who were once moderate). This nationalism has developed an adopted notion of “defenders of a way of being,” which is both political and religious. To lack an understanding of the merging of religious and patriotic fervor seriously disables any attempts to bridge relational gaps with conservative Christians. And this identity has become primary for conservative Christians who are suspicious of the federal government, the media, non-Americans, non-Christians, and Christians who have not adopted these views.

This is obviously a very generalized view, and I do not intend to defend or attack these opinions, values, and responses. There are many events which serve to reify the opinions of conservative Christians in regard to the United States’ public sphere; however, it is these four events which greatly influence the collective conscience of contemporary, conservative Christianity. For those outside of this world of Christian conservatism, a clear understanding of these events and the responses could assist in grasping what seems to be a conspiratorial position by a collective and sometimes vocal subgroup in American culture. Even further, understanding these events could aid in the creation of relational solutions and discourses by increasing our knowledge of the religious Other.

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