WHEN STUDENTS AND FACULTY at Calvin College in Grand Rapids protested the invitation of President George W. Bush to speak at commencement in 2005, it made national news. This wasn’t Harvard or Columbia, but an evangelical institition supported by the Christian Reformed Church—the president’s supposed home turf, at least spiritually speaking. After all, weren’t evangelicals the shock troops of the Radical Right?
The evangelical movement has never been a political monolith. In the early nineteenth century, evangelicals were most likely to be found on the radical left. Indeed, evangelical religion helped lay the groundwork for modern liberalism. Its contribution can most clearly be seen in the spiritualized politics of the abolitionist movement in the years before the Civil War.
Although Quakers always played an important role in abolitionism, they were soon joined by large numbers of both white and black Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The evangelical message of individual redemption through political action resonated deeply with Americans in a deeply pious era when Judgment Day was an event as real as the annual spring planting and autumn harvest, and the secularist passions of the Revolutionary generation had grown stale.
ABOLITIONISM FLOURISHED most vigorously where evangelical revivalism was most active, and found its most ardent foot soldiers in Americans for whom religion infused politics, and politics religion in a seamless transcendental web. At a time when the old Calvinist doctrine of divine predestination was rapidly fading, abolitionism—especially in its ultimate form, the Underground Railroad—offered the chance to live out prayer in action, to put faith to practical effect. “Christianity is practical in its very nature and essence,” the New York abolitionist William Goodell declared in 1837. “Come, then, and help us to restore to these millions, whose eyes have been bored out by slavery, their sight, that they may see to read the Bible. Do you love God whom you have not seen? Then manifest that love, by restoring to your brother whom you have seen, his rightful inheritance, of which he has beeen so wrong and so cruelly deprived.”
Evangelical preachers underscored the damning contradictions between the “sin” of slavery and the democratic ideals of the republic. Among the most influential was John Rankin of Ohio, a Presbyterian minister and committed underground agent whose writing were widely published. Attacking the common belief that blacks must have been designed by God for slavery, Rankin wrote, “Every man desires to be free, and this desire the Creator himself has implanted in the bosoms of all our race, and is certainly a conclusive proof that all were designed for freedom; else man was created for disappointment and misery.”
THANKS IN LARGE PART to the spiritual imperatives of evangelical Christianity, abolitionism became the country’s first racially integrated political movement, as well as the first grass roots movement to assert the principle of personal, active responsibility for others’ civil rights. Abolitionism’s cutting edge, the Underground Railroad, was the nation’s first great movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution, engaging thousands of citizens in the active subversion of federal law and the prevailing mores of their communities. The underground, in particular, also gave many African Americans their first experience in politics and organizational management in an era when proslavery ideologues stridently asserted that blacks were better off in slavery because they lacked the basic intelligence to take care even of themselves. Finally, abolitionism was also the seedbed of American feminism, spurring countless women to raise their voices in public for the first time, in opposition to slavery.
The evangelicals of the nineteenth century would surely find much to disappoint them in the materialistic, not to say hedonistic, United States of the present day. But their faith was also balanced by generous idealism, and by an uncompromising devotion to the rights of others. Their descendants would see the ultimate fruits of their struggle in the triumph of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and in the ongoing effort to ensure fairness and equality for all Americans. They would probably find little to admire in the glamorization of self-interest promoted by today’s Republican Party.
The first modern president to be helped into office by the evangelical vote, Jimmy Carter, was a Democrat, an evangelical Christian—and one of the most liberal men ever to hold the office.