Teavangelicals: in capitalism and free markets they trust
By Anthea Butler, Monday 15 August 2011 12.21 BST
Charles Finney, the great 19th-century revivalist and evangelical, would have had a hard time preaching a revival in America today. Finney’s brand of evangelical fervour, called the “new measures”, emphasised saving souls and reviving worship by incorporating elements of personal testimony and music into church services. The new measures are still a staple of evangelical churches in America, but took on epic proportions in governor Rick Perry’s triumphal dominionist political prayer rally held recently. The 21st-century version of Finney’s new measures, called “The Response“, was infused with American religious symbolism and loud imprecatory prayers and music, and called on American Christians to pray and repent for a nation in trouble. Perry’s earnest Christians came to fast and pray not for people, but the Christian America they have embraced as their “teavangelical” gospel. Salvation in this version of the teavangelical gospel means that God not only loves you, God prospers you: as long as you vote for the right candidates, shun big government and ignore the poor on your doorstep and in the foreclosed homes around you.
These 21st-century teavangelicals who represent a considerable segment of the Republican party, are vastly different from their 19th-century forebears. Nineteenth-century evangelicals were concerned with societal ills such as temperance, slavery, the rise of industrialisation and suffrage. The teavangelicals of the 21st century have flipped the script, turning their ideas about Christianity, social responsibility and care for the downtrodden into a mythology of Christian founding fathers. Add in some rugged selfish individualism, and the shameless promotion of a conservative prosperity gospel, and you have the modern day teavangelical that trusts in capitalism and free markets, and not the God stamped on American coins.
Nothing about this conservative solipsistic morality of teavangelicals today would have been recognisable to 19th-century American evangelicals. In fact, most of the 19th-century evangelicals would denounce their heresy. Nineteenth-century evangelicalism embraced Christianity not only to save souls, but also to combat societal ills. Many evangelicals, for example Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, were involved in not just anti-slavery movements, but also suffrage. Her concerns as an evangelical were not individualistic and spoke out against the No 1 evil of the day.
There is not one particular moment that can account for the shift from the social issue concerns of 19th-century evangelicals into the state of American evangelicalism today. Some historical moments are telling. The rise of biblical criticism in the 19th century forced evangelicals to make choices about what they believed about the gospel. For some, that meant going into a more liberal reading of scripture. For others, it meant a more strict fundamentalist reading of the bible. The Fundamentals, first published in 1915, would be the first salvo in pushing back against the notion that scripture was not the inerrant, infallible word of God. Evangelicals in the first part of the century made it a point to study scripture to challenge higher criticism.
Instead of the close readings of scripture, today many American evangelicals rely on Rick Warren and organisations like Focus on the Family to dictate their understanding of scriptures. Scripture reading today is rarely focused on theological issues. Bibles are a tool of comfort, or a tool of punishment, and are not for discussions about interpretation.
Nineteenth-century evangelicals also had to wrestle with a growing awareness about the “end of the world”. Movements such as the Millerites and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the rise of dispensationalism caused many evangelicals to focus on the return of Jesus Christ. That emphasis ramped up their missionary zeal in the 19th century, and in the late 20th century that zeal turned into a cottage industry surrounding the “end times”. Writers such as Hal Lindsey, who wrote The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970s, and the Left Behind series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, made millions scaring Christians and others about the antichrist and end times. For some of these Christians, called dominionists, Jesus cannot come back until Christians rule in positions of power on Earth. The most recent debacle of Harold Camping’s 21 May 2011 end times date is a byproduct of this fearful frenzy. The focus on the end times has turned evangelicals, especially the teavangelicals, into a group that is constantly looking for signs that the end of the world is imminent, and that Jesus is coming soon.
The question remains then, is America a Christian nation? To the teavangelicals and other evangelicals, their ideologies will not allow them to think or believe otherwise. The Bible and the US constitution are seen as a seamless document. Perhaps the question isn’t about whether America is a Christian nation or not, but whether this teavangelical brand of nationalistic, capitalist Christianity will consume the rest of the Christian world if one of their own becomes president in 2012.
Photograph of Gov. Perry at The Response prayer and fasting rally, by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News. http://kutnews.org/post/watching-and-waiting-rick-perry-2012-12 or http://bit.ly/o57PGo or http://tinyurl.com/3dllg8b