The Infantilization of Evangelicals in American Politics

When Karl Rove mobilized the Evangelical vote in the 2000 election, he opened a Pandora’s Box that everyone would subsequently try to close — or master. Evangelicals didn’t know they had such power politically, and it scared them. This fear has led them to retreat from politics — on a large scale — over the last eight years. But, low and behold, it appears that the Evangelical leadership is once again preparing to become more politically engaged as this New York Times article notes. The upcoming election will bring them out of the woodworks.

We could say they retreated into spirituality, but that distinction between politically engaged and spiritually engaged, or being inner-directed and more outwardly or politically engaged, is false when it comes to Evangelicals. For starters, the Evangelical base is incredibly diverse and very few are actually politically active in a strong sense. Secondly, Evangelicals aren’t spiritual in the sense that we define spiritual. They are spiritual in a way that is outside of a technology of the self — they don’t treat spirituality as an instrumentalized act for improving the body as in most spiritual practices. I would argue that they are more serious than this when it comes to spirituality and they desire a sort of total catharsis. They express spirituality in a way that is from another time, and this is part of the reason why they scare us. But this is a point for another post all together.

Here are some assumptions about Evangelicals, politically speaking:  Evangelicals are exceedingly easy to convey messaging to politically. They receive messaging in a top-down pastor-dissemination-model that harkens back to old pre-mass media days. This assumption, albeit correct in some sense, is precisely why Evangelicals are infantilized by political and social change activists: they are perceived as a distinct mass that might absorb a given act or political platform. The logic goes something like this: if only we can find that one pastor who “gets” our social issue (engaging Muslims, the environment, anti-war, anti-nuclear issues) we can make a major impact!

The interesting premise that undergirds all of this is the assumption that Evangelicals, despite their views of Biblical inerrancy, might be made more progressive on single-issues. The truth is they are more progressive on single-issues. But the question is why? Is it because a few pastors endorsed the talking points by some D.C. lobbyist. No, in fact, the Evangelical base is protesting this infantilization and pandering they have been put under. This protest is evidenced by the growth of the global-oriented church, the turn towards more experimental theology a la Rob Bell, and the more pro-environment and pro global warming trends that young Evangelicals are showing.

The infantilization of the Evangelical bloc plays a very particular function in the American imaginary. The idea of a shape-less mass of ignorant “folk” remind us of our past. They remind us of where we came from. Who we were. This is why we are nostalgic about them. Their simplicity is slightly prosaic and profound. We might hold their views if our lives weren’t so a mess with urban living, technology and over-education. This is the fantasy that keeps the Evangelicals both powerful and infantilized.

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