An (Evangelical) Voice in the Wilderness: The Modern Roots of Evangelical Engagement with American Politics

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Art, Media and American Studies


Today, evangelicals are almost exclusively associated with the right wing of American politics. Having supported in overwhelming numbers the election of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, and openly advocated, and in some cases achieved, socially conservative policy on issues including abortion, contraception, sex education, same-sex marriage, and women's rights, the association is unsurprising. The rise of the so-called Religious Right in the late 1970s has made it seem that the connection between evangelicals and the Republican Party was all but inevitable.

Look to the 1940s and 1950s, however, and the connection between evangelicals and Republicans was far from clear. Through their newly-formed organisation, the National Association of Evangelicals (founded in 1941), American evangelicals in those decades worked equally closely with the administrations of both Democratic and Republican Parties. This project uncovers a history in which, contrary to dominant popular rhetoric, religion and partisan politics were neither intertwined nor inevitable.

The absence of party politics in fact exposes the critical contradiction at the heart of evangelical activity: their very engagement with government at the same time as their emphatic public support for the separation of church and state. Untethering evangelical political engagement from support for the Republican Party means their activities cannot simply be defended as a legitimate expression of support for a Party; their deeper motives are exposed. The project thus uses this period of nonpartisan political engagement to explore, untainted by partisan concerns, how and why evangelicals engaged with government and how they rationalized their activities with their separationist stance. As such, the project speaks to the mid-century history of the evangelical movement but also to a deeper understanding of the roots of today's politically-charged evangelical campaigns.

Central to the project's exploration of the roots of the modern relationship between evangelicals and politics in the US are two key themes. First, the project traces exactly what influence evangelicals exerted in those areas of most concern to them: radio broadcasting, Christian education, and missionary activity and religious liberty abroad. Evangelicals' perception of success in these areas convinced them that continued engagement with government was beneficial and important. The project will thus analyse the extent to which evangelicals were successful in influencing policy, and with what consequences both at the time and in subsequent decades.

Second, the project assesses the legal and constitutional consequences of evangelical activity at mid-century. Today evangelicals accuse the US Supreme Court of discriminating against people of faith by adhering to a position of separation of church and state. Yet those decisions, from access to contraception to same-sex marriage, drew on fundamental principles established in the foundational rulings of the 1940s and 1950s, rulings which were, in part, influenced by the examples, arguments, and rhetoric of the newly-emergent evangelical movement which advocated separation. In uncovering and analysing evangelicals' contribution to the debates about church and state that played out in American public life in the 1940s and 1950s, the project provides not only a detailed understanding of the significance of those early rulings, but explores the ways in which those rulings have been reinterpreted and, arguably misappropriated, in more recent years.

In seeking to uncover, explore, and analyse the nature, extent, and significance of evangelical engagement with law and government in the two decades in the middle of the 20th Century, the project offers not only an understanding of that twenty year period but also an exploration of the roots of today's evangelical movement that many in that movement are currently unwilling to acknowledge.

Planned Impact

Recent changes by the government to A-Levels in the UK have led to a number of schools, especially in Norfolk, dropping their coverage of American politics as part of the Government and Politics A-Level despite widespread interest in the subject. This is, in part, the result of the changes themselves and of the relatively low provision of support in terms of teaching material and lesson plans offered by the main A-Level providers (especially in contrast with the material offered for the British and comparative politics strands). This project will work with local teachers and their students to develop a portfolio of primary sources, websites, accessible and appropriate scholarly material, and lesson plans to support teachers who are currently, or who wish in the future, to teach the US politics strand of the A-Level. The project will do so through a series of knowledge exchange events, drawing on the expertise and interests of teachers, and with conferences that will test the portfolio as it develops. The aim is that by the end of the project a dynamic, exciting, and workable portfolio of material, drawn in large part on the PI's current and past research projects, will have been produced that teachers in Norfolk are using as a regular part of their classes. In the longer term, the aim is to offer this portfolio at a national level, although the project envisions future research grant applications to support this expansion.

American Studies at UEA has a long history of working closely with the Second Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich, designed as a living memorial to the American military personnel stationed in Norfolk and Suffolk during World War Two and with the remit to facilitate greater understanding of the United States in the UK. Two series of public talks emerging from this research are planned which will be hosted by the Library: such talks will not only be of interest to the local public, which has already shown an interest in American-related talks at previous events, but also allows the project's PI to contribute to the Library's mission to deepen understanding of the United States in Norwich and the surrounding areas.


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Description Religion in American Life Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Forty scholars working in fields relating to religion in the United States attended a conference at UEA in July 2019. Speakers included MA and PhD students as well as academic colleagues at all levels. Attendees also included some undergraduate students. The event sparked cross-disciplinary dialogue about the place of faith and belief in American life, discussions which have subsequently continued. Early discussions about the possibility of follow up events also took place.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019