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The Road to Jesusland

Although liberals and secularists seemed stunned by the ascendancy of evangelicalism among the electorate, in actuality politics and evangelicism are a match made in heaven — or at least, in history.

Keira Slevin

Issue #72, February 2005

Although liberals and secularists seemed stunned by the ascendancy of evangelicalism among the electorate, in actuality politics and evangelicism are a match made in heaven — or at least, in history.

Deal-making between unlikely political forces for the purpose of advancing complementary agendas is not new, and evangelical religion has been a player since colonial times. But more than that, evangelicalism is exactly what its name suggests, a belief system that emphasizes the process of evangelizing. Recently some have suggested that since anti-abortionists campaign only to make sure fetuses are brought to term and not to ensure child health or welfare, they are better described as “pro-birth.” On the other hand, evangelicals (who include most fundamentalists but include other sects) live up to their name by being mainly about conversion. And conversion is not limited to “proselytizing” the unconverted and spreading the “word” but is expressed best in the mission to transform civil society so that it reflects to every participant the ubiquity and inevitability of belief. The destruction of church-state separation and the establishment of religion is what evangelicals are about by definition, although individuals in the churches do not necessary have the big picture.

That evangelicals — and their chosen candidate — have been successful, however, is not surprising when you consider that the dynamics of persuasion animate both evangelicism and democracy, and that for evangelical Christians the out-front manipulation of minds in the pursuit of a higher goal and a Christianized future is not just palatable but praiseworthy.

Disestablishmentarian Evangelicals

For a brief moment during the colonial era, evangelicals opposed the establishment of religion. Surprising to us now, at that time colonial fundamentalists, evangelicals, and other dissenting sects saw that government support for religion meant privileging established, traditional, hierarchical churches. These churches were bent on limiting if not wiping out the dissenting groups and in many cases were already receiving funding from colonial governments to pay for clergy and buildings. In passing the precedent-setting Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (a bill written by Thomas Jefferson) as part of that colony’s constitution in 1777, the backing of Baptists and other evangelical sects was crucial.

As William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia writes in The First Liberty, “Some key supporters of the American arrangement — the voluntary way, the separation of church and state, ‘free trade in religion’ — were not Enlightenment philosophers but energetic Christian believers; proponents of all sorts held that, far from damaging the prospects of religion in America, those arrangements would be a boon. . . .” And how right they were; Miller continues, “as a result of that achievement, the religion of their pietistic allies flourished and soaked the nation’s culture in its characteristic themes.”

Church-state separation meant freedom from discrimination and suppression at that time, but ever since, evangelical religion has campaigned relentlessly to order American culture according to its tenets of morality and doctrine.

The unlikely alliance of evangelicals and other religious conservatives with progressives cropped up again in the nineteenth century, when the suffrage movement joined forces with the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. “In return for the powerful lobbying assistance of the WCTU, suffragist organizations gave their support to, or at least did not oppose, Sunday closing laws and proposals for nationwide prohibition,” notes Susan Jacoby in her recent book, Freethinkers. It took decades before American women were able to garner support for the vote, but along they way the U.S. got restrictions on prurient speech and the temperance amendment.

The current attempts of religious conservatives to subvert the religiously neutral civic culture of the U.S. are brazen but completely within the ethos of evangelicalism. Operatively, evangelicism shows itself, not Bible-besotted and heaven-bent, but rather leader-centric and an ingenious manipulator of mass culture.

Preacher-in-Chief and Vernacular Leadership

Discussions of evangelicism often overlook the role of leadership. Evangelical theology, after all, emphasizes “salvation by faith,” the individual’s relationship to God as crystallized in a moment of conversion. Religious rituals are banished in favor of the ecstatic connection. Clergy, hierarchy and ordination are downplayed, and the spotlight is on personal spirit.

Nevertheless the history of evangelicalism is the history of leaders, largely male just as in establishment religions. Achieving leadership through their personal effectiveness in attracting large groups and in catalyzing individual change, evangelical leaders have not always possessed formal training. In mainstream churches religious leaders are sanctioned (and standardized) through organized education and ordination. Sometimes, however, after rising to notoriety, evangelical leaders backtrack to acquire formal clerical training to shore up their resume in the wider world. Still, personal magnetism and motivational esprit remain important qualifications for leadership in evangelical groups.

Scholars generally cite the “Second Great Awakening” (early 1800s) as the moment when charismatic leadership and even showmanship became the engine of the evangelistic revivals. There was in fact a shift in evangelical theology that heightened the significance of the revival meeting as the crucible of conversion. Previously, conservative American religious sects held that salvation resulted from the individual’s inner transformation through the coming of God’s grace – the Calvinist view that dominated the earlier colonial revivals in the 1730-45 period (known as the First “Great Awakening”). In the Second Great Awakening, people came to God and not vice versa, adopting the Arminian view that will power could and even had to be mobilized to bring about personal commitment to God.

The assistance, and even insistence, of a preacher exhorting listeners to come forward to be saved and of group prayer and intervention in an individual’s resistance became staples of nineteenth-century revivalism. Roger Schultz, a professor at Liberty University writes in the journal of the Chalcedon Foundation (an evangelical group) that “the trick for the revivalist was to apply the best techniques for prompting changes (or what appeared to be changes) of the will.” He quotes historian Sydney Ahlstrom that “revivals came to be understood less as the mighty acts of God than as the achievement of preachers who won the consent of sinners.” The evangelical movement became fully centered around charismatic preachers and the mass revival.

The view that evangelical religions emphasize the personal over the organizational is not completely accurate; rather, the organizational dimensions are just different than in mainstream religious groups and possibly less apparent to believers as controlling structures. To look at another aspect, evangelicals hold that their personal commitment to the literal authority of the Bible negates the need for seminary-trained interpreters; in practice, evangelicals still look to their leaders for emphasis on particular scriptural passages.

From the viewpoint of the wider culture, believers putting blind trust in a leader who claims — or emanates — inspired authority is a private matter, that is, until that leader is a candidate for office. Liberals and secularists have been naive in thinking that supporters of a man with a catalogue of disqualifying revelations and daily evidence of incompetence are ignorant or allergic to facts. But placing trust in a leader because of his personal characteristics—charm, self-esteem, oratorical facility, fervent religiosity, and religious will—is exactly what evangelicals do. In the world of the evangelical preacher, the personality constitutes the professional resume, with book-learning and degrees a subsidiary matter. And how could it be otherwise: acquiescence to the unlikely tenets of literal Christian belief needs to be greased by leaders perceived as both down-to-earth-accessible and uniquely gifted spiritually.

Another way of putting it: ignoring evidence and giving credence to the impossible are the common currency of fervent evangelical belief. Furthermore, such belief is both modeled and mid-wived by no-holds-barred display of faith by the evangelistic preacher.

Considering George W. Bush as “preacher-in-chief” seems incongruous when he is so often tongue-tied. But there are characteristics of his communication style that are in sync with the low-register of oratory that became valued in the historic revival movements. The accessible vernacular was preferred by the masses to more formal oratory of church-educated mainstream-trained preachers, according to Sandra M. Gustafson in Eloquence is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America. In addition, the ordinary speech of the converted was held to have great authority because it was so natural. The nineteenth century heralded the breakthrough of the vernacular in everything from poetry to the pulpit.

Hyping the Great Awakening

Like the political realm, the world of fundamentalism is marked by savvy use of persuasion; what is more, it always has been.

It’s important to understand the history of evangelicals in the U.S. because only then can the duality of the movement be seen; it is both salvation-oriented and driven by the engine of conversion. Instead of being a mysterious societal trend in which people gravitate toward belief out of their personal or psychological needs — or (according to evangelicals themselves) through the visitation of God’s grace upon America — current uprisings of evangelicism result from the aggressive marketing of belief, a campaign that has been a constant throughout American history and which has reached a crescendo in today’s mass-media-saturated world.

Fundamentalist leaders know that the narrative of conversion depends on the groundwork laid by marketing, public relations, event staging, and showmanship. Well-constructed, the evangelical strategy places vulnerable people within a vociferous community where radical belief is normative and peer pressure assists the novice in accepting a revised reality.

Even the touchstone of American evangelicalism, the concept of a “Great Awakening,” is a result of adept wholesaling of God’s intentions for the new nation.

The original Great Awakening is recorded as having swept through the colonies in the late 1730s through the early 1740s. Several series of campaigns by British and colonial preachers gained wide notoriety for large crowds and numerous conversions and have become established in our history as a narrative of a continent-sweeping religious transformation. That narrative is inaccurate, according to the scholarship of Frank Lambert of Purdue University’s history department, who has discussed the issue in several books, especially his 1999 Inventing the Great Awakening. Only a scattered and local phenomenon rather than sweeping in its effect, the revivals now known as the Great Awakening were promoted during and after the fact as more general and grandiose than they were. In particular, the itinerant British preacher George Whitefield adopted bold marketing techniques and press agentry to ensure the success of his campaigns.

Advertising and marketing were new in the eighteenth century, and Whitefield was a pioneer in seeing their usefulness to his mission. First experimenting with the techniques in England, Whitefield connected with a zealous convert named William Seward during his second preaching tour in the colonies. Seward had been a ruthless “stockjobber,” or broker, adept at creating buzz for business deals; acting as press agent, Seward fed summaries of Whitefield’s successful revivals in Britain to colonial newspapers to arouse interest in his coming. Once Whitefield began his tour, each individual event was marked by “careful planning and organization,” Lambert writes, “as riders fanned out in the city drumming up a crowd, taking up broadsides along the way.” Nothing was left to chance. Whitefield’s revival meetings were well rehearsed and had been performed previously for a year in London and environs. Whitefield’s revival campaign “was a prepackaged, well publicized import.”

“The Whitefieldian revival differed most visibly from earlier colonial awakenings,” Lambert continues, “in the ‘new measures’ the evangelist introduced to propagate his brand of the gospel. . . . And he exploited the colonial press as he had the English print trade to publicize his successes and prime distant audiences to expect similar experiences when he preached among them.” Lambert compares the effect of the promotion to the frenzy generated around modern rock stars.

Not only were Whitefield’s performances hyped, but after the fact and for years, even decades, into the future, religious publishers collected conversion stories and published as many as they could, creating a long-lasting notion that the preaching of Whitefield and other evangelicals had transformed the soul of America. The manufacture of the narrative of America’s “great awakening” became a national industry.

The Second Great Awakening is more well-known for the showmanship and even carnival-like nature of the revivals and has long been considered a conscious effort to recreate the phenomenon of the original Great Awakening. But in both cases, the mass media of the time was enticed to promote and even exaggerate events and to certify a spiritual import for them.

What Lambert’s meticulous scholarship implies is that “inventing the great awakening” amounts to a fraud perpetrated on history — and on future converts — as to the operation of the Christian God in our world. Believers have been kept in the dark about the historical truths of the progress of evangelicism in the U.S. They have never been led to the obvious question: could God’s grace really be operative in a campaign characterized by the falsification of crowd numbers, the exaggeration of conversions, the hyping of charismatic leaders, claims of divine intercession, and so on, as purported in the mass revivals now referred to as the ”Great Awakenings”?

There are dozens of books chronicling the startling and inventive ways evangelicals have seized upon the mass media as vehicles of conversion since the nation’s early years. Religious radio and television have long been with us. Usually they are viewed as stellar examples of “preaching to the converted.” Yet the ability of the religious media to insinuate its perspective into history and strong arm religious ideas into place as societal norms has gone unnoticed.

Toledo, Ohio. Evangelical church ceremony at which the preacher delivered a hysterical speech, and then burned a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf. Interior of the church. Spring 1942. Arthur S. Siegel, photographer. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In the colonies, broadsides, runners, and follow-up publication campaigns recounting and publicizing testimonials gradually inserted the phenomenon of conversion into mainstream life. Today, think tanks generate Bible-centric and conservative-values-based research and opinion pieces; evangelical universities inculcate biblical theology and the conversion narrative in undergraduate and professional education ranging from journalism to law; rabble-rousing publicity stunts by “Ten Commandment” judges and others attract widespread attention. Christian rock is played on mainstream stations; angels, miracles, and even God himself are represented on television shows; a gory film about Christ’s death draws millions and whips the devout into an emotional froth that is reported everywhere. Evangelical perspectives gain exposure and legitimacy and the publicly worshipful Christian life begins to look like an American norm.

The success of evangelicalism in this deployment of its values has been assured because of the complicity of the supposedly secular media. By treating all religion as authoritative in public affairs, the media has given ministers and other religion promoters the same platform to discuss policy as scholars, politicians, and other real-world experts. As evangelicals began sounding off on policy, talk shows began including evangelical and fundamentalist authorities, sometimes alongside, but often instead of, mainstream religious representatives. Also in recent years, the media have acquired a sorry record of accepting religious extremism as serious news, and increasingly spectacles that once were too fringy for exposure have been sanctified as bona-fide stories: madonnas on muffins, court suits over the sanctity of rye-flour hosts, and all-night vigils for banned crèches receive treatment as “neutral” and “relevant” news. With a talent for event-staging and a proclivity for long-term hammering on its truths and values, evangelicals discovered the utility of ”buzz,” “media hijacking,” and “product placement” long before these terms were even invented.

Blessit Blesses Bush

Interestingly enough, the narrative of George W. Bush’s religiosity has two layers, showing him to be not just a master manipulator of his constituency’s beliefs but someone as vulnerable as they to the salvation-mongering of the evangelical movement.

In the more well-known story, the troubled alcoholic son is provided with counseling by none other than the Rev. Billy Graham on a visit to Kennebunkport, and through a course of one-to-one discussion Bush becomes religious, starts to attend Bible study, and rectifies his life. A more recent revelation, however, indicates that prior to the 1985 meeting with Graham, Bush was evangelized by Arthur Blessit, who recently added to his website a description of their 1984 meeting titled "The Day I Prayed with George W. Bush to Receive Jesus!” Blessit is a showman who uses soundtrucks and rock-style posters to create buzz for his revival meetings. He arrives in a locale toting a huge cross, set on a wheel so as to facilitate dragging (he describes himself as a “world evangelist who has carried the cross in . . . 300 nations, island groups and territories” achieving a Guinness record for “world’s longest walk”). In his youth, with the long hair and biblical robes he affected, he was considered a Jesus look-alike (current photos show him middle-aged, groomed, and suited up).

In 1984 during his father’s tenure as Vice President, George W. became aware of the Blessit revival machine as it landed in Midland, where George W. Bush was in the oil business. Blessit recounts that Bush listened on the radio and through an intermediary requested a meeting with the minister. Blesssit describes a lengthy session during which he evangelized an intrigued and willing GWB; records indicate that it was the following week that Bush joined a Bible study group at his own church in Midland.

The narrative of Bush’s conversion, then, is not solely one in which the prodigal Yalie son and the minister to the elite engage in long discussions at the dynastic summer home. Rather, it appears that Blessit, the vernacular showman, attracted Bush and in his folksy way prepared the ground for Graham’s intervention, Bush’s commitment to Jesus, and our country’s jog to faith-based politics.

Jesusland, then, is not so much a place of faith and worship, virtue and compassion, as much as the land of the eternal revival. It is a place where leadership emerges out of soul, no experience necessary. Individuals flow tropistically toward warmth and hope, in a mass of others similarly affected. Material evidence withers in the fire of promises both biblical and patriotic. And an uncritical media, as it has throughout our history, provides legitimacy to biblical values, evidence-less theories, and the whole evangelical juggernaut.

After twenty-plus years in the academy teaching rhetoric and communication, Keira Slevin now researches and writes independently. Her interests include American religion, politics, and the media.

Copyright © 2005 by Keira Slevin. All rights reserved.