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Retelling evangelical history

What did Peter Wehner know, and when did he know it?

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee speaks during a campaign event in Le Mars, Iowa, on Jan. 21, 2016. Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer

Retelling evangelical history
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Several years ago, during heated debates about Confederate soldiers’ statues, one common refrain was that these monuments were the products of local Southern communities that used war memorials to signal white supremacy to black residents. Thus, it is argued, only Jim Crow conditions could explain honoring officers who led an insurrection against the United States, the same soldiers who went to war to preserve slavery.

That logic hardly explains the case of Yale University, which in 1931 named a residential college for John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), the South Carolinian who served as vice president of the United States and U.S. senator from his home state. An 1804 graduate of Yale, Calhoun also defended slavery and devised constitutional theories to nullify federal law in case Congress abolished slavery. In 1931, when Yale adopted a system of residential colleges (one was also named for Jonathan Edwards), Calhoun was at the top of the list of distinguished graduates to be commemorated. As an Ivy League university with a top-flight history department, no one could plausibly claim Yale was unaware of Calhoun’s career and influence. In 1933, the history department even approved a dissertation, “Northern Quakers and Slavery.” But in 2017, after several years of protests, Yale renamed Calhoun College after Admiral Grace Hopper, a career officer in the Navy who completed a doctorate at Yale in mathematics.

Such instances of remembering and misremembering have also rumbled through the ranks of American evangelicals who for the last several years have heard a different version of their history from evangelical historians. Retelling evangelical history—not as conservative Protestants withstanding theological liberalism and secularization but as a source of racism, bigotry, and misogyny—has trickled down to pundits and thought leaders. One example comes from Peter Wehner’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Where Did Evangelicals Go Wrong?” A speech writer in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, and a scholar at several think tanks, Wehner has had a front row seat for evangelical politics as both believer and Republican. His insider-status is akin to Yale University’s knowledge of Calhoun. If anyone should have known that the Christian right was “going wrong,” Wehner would have. Yet, he now writes as if surprised by evangelicals’ history the way that Yale did not notice Calhoun’s past until 2017.

Wehner provides a brief history of conservative Protestantism—from fundamentalist renunciation of cultural involvement (1920s and 1930s) to evangelical influence on politics (1970s). All went relatively well until the 1980s when evangelicals turned up the dial on culture wars and went to battle with secular humanists. Wehner writes, “The rhetoric had turned apocalyptic.” Jerry Falwell claimed that America was “floundering to the brink of death.” In 1982, Francis Schaeffer declared that “we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in this struggle.” Wehner argues that evangelicals adopted an outlook that “secular, progressive barbarians were always at the gates.” “It was a zeitgeist of catastrophism.”

For whatever reason, Wehner does not mention that in the world of climate activism, criminal justice reform, opposition to sexual abuse, and pandemic policy, existential threats are par for the rhetorical course. Saying the sky is falling is a persuasive strategy (not very effective if overdone) to heighten awareness.

Fifteen to 20 years ago when Wehner was thick in Republican and evangelical circles, he was not warning about the dangers of the religious right.

Wehner seems to be aware that perceptions of evangelicalism have changed. What used to be a story of conservative Protestant success—one he used to tell—has become a horror story. Wehner appeals to Kristin Du Mez’s history of evangelicalism told through the lens of male toxicity. The Calvin University scholar has convinced Wehner that the election of Donald Trump was not the “betrayal” but the “fulfillment” of “white evangelicals’ most deeply held values.” For 75 years, evangelicals sought “to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.”

What Wehner leaves out is his own involvement with both Republican and evangelical leaders during the period when the religious right turned apocalyptic. Did he fail to notice the rhetoric of Falwell and Schaeffer? If he did notice, what did he do to restrain it? Even more, why didn’t he see then that evangelicals were abandoning Jesus? Did he ever consider how his work for three presidents may have compromised his own faith?

Wehner has written a lot over the years and holding him to past articles (that may have looked sound at the moment but turned out to be wrongheaded) is likely an unfair standard for anyone writing about current events. Still, he does have a paper trail that makes his current view of evangelicalism—Trump as the fulfillment of the religious right’s base instincts—look unreliable. In 2007 when observers were noting a shift among evangelicals from the old guard—Jerry Falwell and James Dobson—to the kinder, gentler versions of Tim Keller and Rick Warren, Wehner thought former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the best candidate for faith-based voters. Wehner could not have predicted that Huckabee would endorse Donald Trump, the candidate who according to Dr. Du Mez proves evangelicals abandoned the faith. A year later, Wehner defended  Sarah Palin from critics like David Brooks even when the vice presidential nominee was a foretaste of Trump’s populist appeal to white evangelicals.

The question is not whether Wehner made some incorrect calls in the heat of writing deadlines. It is instead his current rendering of evangelical history. Fifteen to 20 years ago when Wehner was thick in Republican and evangelical circles, he was not warning about the dangers of the religious right. Today he tells a different story. The reason appears to be that he sees the past through the prism of today’s acceptable opinions. Wehner can’t be faulted if the smartest people in the country—Yale University—make the same mistake. Even so, readers of Wehner can’t be blamed for taking his judgments with a grain or more of salt even when printed in elite magazines like The Atlantic.

D.G. Hart

D.G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author most recently of Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (2021).

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