Benjamin T. Lynerd, Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
The website of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, founded in 2009 by Ralph Reed, who had led Pat Robinson’s Christian Coalition for a decade and is one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters on the evangelical Right, introduces itself with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, explaining that “Religion alone is the safeguard of morality, and morality is the best and surest pledge for the survival of freedom.” They then outline their core principles as “respect for the sanctity and dignity of life, family, and marriage as the foundations of a free society”, “limited government, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility to unleash the creative energy of entrepreneurs”, and “free markets and free minds to create opportunity for all”. How on earth do those things go together? And why do American evangelicals quote John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville instead of each other when articulating their tradition? Benjamin Lynerd answers some of these questions and more in Republican Theology. Before Lynerd’s book no-one even knew that American evangelicals had a coherent tradition of political theology, but he demonstrates conclusively that the same dedication to a combination of limited government, free markets, and private morality can be found in the sermons and pamphlets of evangelical leaders such as John Witherspoon (1723-1794), Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), Charles Finney (1792-1875), Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), Harold Ockenga (1905-1985), and Billy Graham (1918- ).
Republican Theology is pretty boring reading but Lynerd’s ability to analyse the intellectual foundations of the marriage between American evangelicals and demagogues like Donald Trump makes it an absolutely invaluable guide to understanding what happened in 2016. In the Protestant Reformation, Lynerd tells us, the Reformers rejected a political theology based on natural law and replaced it with one based on the new covenant of grace that God makes with believers. Calvinists of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries argued that God saves us as individuals, but that Christians then enter into society (1) to convert it, and (2) because they see civil government as a vehicle for facilitating individuals’ growth in holiness. Thomas Hobbes rejected the covenant theology of the Puritans in Leviathan (1651), arguing that God communicates with people first and foremost through the state. John Locke didn’t turn his back on covenant theology quite so completely, but in his Two Treatises (1689) he did modify it quite profoundly. Whereas Calvin said that God brings us into covenant with Him when He saves us, Locke said this happened at creation, when God endowed human beings with reason: “for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master . . . they are his property.” Lynerd explains that “for Locke the state should play no role, financial or otherwise, in the support of the church but must confine itself to enforcing everyone’s natural rights to life, liberty, and estate. For its part, according to Locke’s mature theory, the church must restrict its purview to matters of faith and to those who have voluntarily joined it”. Though it was modified once again by the moral sense philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, it was essentially Locke’s approach to church-state relations that was picked up by American Christians in the eighteenth century.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) tried reminding Americans about covenant theology during the First Great Awakening, but in the late 1760s the new president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), John Witherspoon, began preaching Lockean political theology he had found in the writings of the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. Echoing Locke, Witherspoon said that “justice consists in giving or permitting others to enjoy whatever they have a perfect right to—and making such a use of our own rights as not to encroach upon the rights of others”. Witherspoon argued that we need natural rights and limited government in order to guide our personal virtues. “Yes”, Lynerd writes, “God has written these duties on our hearts; but unlike our obligations to each other, our obligations to God involve an inner discipline that relies on engagement with scriptures, creeds, catechisms, hymn-singing, prayer, and other acts of worship that are more easily practiced in community with others”. Society should not impose virtue on others, in other words, but it should do everything possible to help us cultivate our own virtues (and to protect our lives, liberties, and possessions). Witherspoon’s friend, Benjamin Rush, was an educational reformer, and he taught that schools should also promote the cultivation of individual virtue both because it helps them as individuals and because it makes the Republic stronger. Lynerd writes that for people like Rush, “A Christian cannot fail of being a republican,” and this for four reasons. First, a Christian understanding of the creation account reveals “the original and natural equality of all mankind,” precluding the reflexive deference to social hierarchy of the feudalists; second, “the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy and the pageantry of the court”; third, Christianity teaches its followers that no man “liveth to himself,” making them capable of seeing past their own interests; and finally, the heart of all Christian virtue is the Golden Rule, which renders its adherents “wholly inoffensive”—that is, suitably self-restrained to live in a free society”.
The theology of Witherspoon and Rush quickly became entrenched in American political thought and during the American revolution the Founding Fathers argued that America would only survive if its people were good. John Adams stated in 1776 that “public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” Witherspoon trained a whole generation of American preachers at Princeton, and in the early nineteenth century the leaders of the Second Great Awakening entrenched his message deeply into American evangelicalism. “No other portion of the human race ever commenced a national existence as we commenced ours”, Lyman Beecher preached in 1812, “Nowhere beside, if you search the world over, will you find so much real liberty, so much equality, so much personal safety and temporal prosperity, so general an extension of useful knowledge, so much religious instruction, so much moral restraint, and so much divine mercy, to make these blessings the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation”. In his sermons, Charles Finney emphasized that civic liberty was conditional on private virtues: “God has always providentially given to mankind those forms of government that were suited to the degrees of virtue and intelligence among them”. If Americans stopped being good, the republic would cease to be great.
The relationship between private virtue and limited government evolved over time and its inconsistencies produced various schisms between abolitionists and the temperance movement, Arminians and Calvinists, and between supporters of a working class Social Gospel and free market capitalists. Eventually the capitalists won out, as preachers drew on Social Darwinism to show that competition was a natural part of the human condition and that liberty existed to make profit possible. In the words of Henry Ward Beecher, “It is impossible to civilize a community without riches. I boldly affirm that no nation ever yet rose from a barbarous state except through the mediation of wealth earned. I affirm that the preaching of the Gospel to the heathen will be invalid and void if it does not make them active workmen, and teach them how to make money”. As Newman Smyth explained, “Any group of men whose condition needs improving must begin by improving themselves. Self-help is the first condition of all help . . . Frugality, management, self-control, temperance, purpose, pluck, persistence—these are the cardinal virtues upon which success and advancement depend in any sphere or place”.
Billy Graham took up this theme again during the Cold War: “Unless God’s people turn to Him and the city repents, we are going to see the judgment of God come upon us.” There was only one way to defeat atheistic communism, Graham said, “the only hope of our present day is to re-inject into American society the moral stamina which can be brought about by spiritual rearmament”. Lynerd shows how this message mobilized Southern Baptists behind the Republican Party during the 1970s and argues convincingly that at its core it was the same political theology of limited government, free markets, and private morality that American evangelicals had been preaching since the establishment of the Republic. If he is right then evangelicals supported Trump not just because of identity politics or because they were “conned” by the smooth businessman, but because he supports the same political theology that has energized American Christianity since the 1770s.