Politics and American Evangelicalism
Series: Best of Christianity Today
- ISBN: 9781683594079
- Published By: Lexham Press
- Published: October 2020
Given the rise of recent scholarship on Christian nationalism, there is a tendency to paint evangelicals as monolithic in practices and politics. Timothy Padgett's Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicalism disagrees with a simplistic picture of evangelicals. Padgett meticulously pieces together a story of the plurality of American evangelicals throughout the last sixty years by analyzing carefully chosen articles from Christianity Today (CT). Padgett selects essays that demonstrate the magazine's intention "to keep readers informed about the pressing concerns of the day in light of the eternal truth of God in the Bible" (1). Padgett argues the "Christian's call is to live with this dual citizenship—always subject to proper authorities within contingent limits but never allowing the state to claim itself as final arbiter of truth and morality" (3). He demonstrates the diversity of thought and opinion on moral, ethical, and especially political issues from the 1950s to the 2016 presidential election.
Throughout the book's five chapters, Padgett has two well-articulated intentions in choosing the articles for this work. Padgett argues American evangelical Christians are (1) simultaneously devoted to God and country as dual citizens and (2) not monolithic in their political opinions and affiliations. Evangelicals find themselves dual citizens, even if they disagree on the most appropriate way to hold this duality. Padgett notes that dual citizenship is not always a perfect marriage of ideologies. He states that "few public temptations are so great to evangelical Christians as the urge to unite our political goals with our biblical faith . . . this is one sin to which few can claim immunity" (403). The authors of CT, however, espouse a balance between loyalty to God and proper American patriotism.
In his first chapter on presidents, Padgett demonstrates how evangelical Christians grappled with both the policies and faith of various commanders in chief. From John Kennedy to Donald Trump, writers for Christianity Today have implored their readers to weigh not just the religious affiliation of the president but his policies on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and church taxation. They did not advocate one singular opinion on any of these policies. There was, however, a Christian duty to respect whoever was president as part of being a dual citizen. Christians could disagree with the president's policies. They were, however, still under obligation to pray for him as "only with the help of God can America be a nation worthy of honor, and only as America genuinely honors and obeys God can we expect his continued blessings" (editors of Christianity Today, quoted by Padgett, 38).
Padgett further indicates the plurality of political thought for American evangelicals and notes the overly simplistic nature of bifurcating evangelicals into right and left. Over time, evangelicals aligned themselves with the Republican Party more closely, but Padgett notes, "the articles in CT reflected this evolution, but they never became partisan" (138). CT looked at various political issues through the eyes of the dual citizen. The authors discussed their Christian duty to their nation while arguing that being the best American citizen they could be was a Christian obligation. Even during the Cold War there was still no single-mindedness for evangelicals, but the threat of communism was widely regarded as a threat to human rights for Christians. Padgett argues historians have often missed the subtle way in which evangelicals saw communism as "a rival religion, complete with prophets, saints, and an eschatological hope" that was "not an equal to the American system but an intrinsically oppressive and tyrannical caricature of Christian principles" (220). Padgett notes that while evangelicals were concerned with the religious persecution of Christians in communist countries, they were also worried about the threat to their American way of life. Many evangelicals saw communism as requiring citizen singularity, loyalty to the state. Communism was a threat to evangelicals' dual citizenship.
However, unlike foreign policy, concerning domestic affairs, CT articles only focused on a "political dispute if it impinged on an element of Christian life or doctrine" (301). Again, there was no uniform consensus on these issues. Therefore, the articles concerning communism indicate evangelicals' desire to be dual citizens while the disagreements around domestic affairs show the plurality of Christian viewpoints.
Dual Citizens is a valuable history of American Christian political thought. While it does not give us a complete picture of the politics of evangelicals, Padgett admits his limitations in that it would not be possible to "include over a half-century's worth of political commentary in a single volume" (6). Yet, in limiting his scope to articles of Christianity Today, we do not see the readers’ responses. It leaves one to wonder if the audience was receptive to the authors' attempts at admonishing their readers to be dual citizens. Still, Padgett excels at giving us snapshots of themes in historical context to prove his argument that evangelicals have never been of a single mind. Instead, they have been citizens of God and country through an interweaving of Christian doctrine with America's laws and policies. The CT authors' goal has been to give Caesar's things to Caesar while remaining faithful servants to God. Padgett's work is essential reading for scholars of American Christianity, political history, and political philosophy.
Meghan E. Tiller is a PhD student at the University of Southern California.Meghan E. TillerDate Of Review:September 22, 2021