From Supreme Court nominations to support
for faith-based initiatives, George W. Bush has pushed the
agenda of evangelical Christians to the forefront of American
politics. Benjamin J. Hubbard, emeritus professor of comparative
religion, discusses the impact that this will have upon the
||First, could you explain what you mean when you say
evangelical Christian? How do they differ from other
There are some hallmarks. First, the “born again” experience
is central. This is what makes you a “Christian.” There
is a belief in the centrality and inerrancy of the Bible.
There is a great emphasis on convert-making and a strong
conviction that the end of the world and Christ’s
second coming are imminent.
Politically, they are very
supportive of the state of Israel, strongly opposed
to abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and the
teaching of evolution. They are political conservatives
in most cases; for instance, they are strong on national
More liberal Christians may embrace Christ’s
teachings but they don’t necessarily feel the
need to be “born
again” or believe in a literal translation of
||How did the evangelical influence come about?
Well, I like to start with the origins. While evangelical
Christians like to talk about America being founded
on Christian principles, that isn’t entirely true.
While our country was founded as a predominantly Protestant
Christian country, there was a strong Deist or rationalist
strain among our founding fathers: Franklin, Jefferson,
Paine, Adams and, to some extent, Madison. The First
Amendment guarantees freedom for religious expression,
as well as freedom from an official religion.
the founders created our system of government based
on many influences: Greek philosophy, rationalism and
English law. It wasn’t based on Christian ideals
although they undoubtedly had an influence.
during the Scopes trial, we saw the demise of the
evangelical/fundamentalist influence that had been
growing through the decades. Their power was further
eroded during the repeal of Prohibition, which they
Then in 1962, the Supreme Court banned
institutionally sponsored school prayer. This not
only shocked evangelicals but also seemed to incite
them. Billy Graham, as an adviser to President [Richard
M.] Nixon, helped galvanize conservatives.
v. Wade was enacted in 1973, it awakened a slumbering
giant. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in
1979, and Ronald Reagan was elected president in
1980. Over the next few years, other evangelicals gained
prominence, such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson.
||But this isn’t the first time we’ve
had a president in the White House who proclaims to
be an evangelical Christian.
That’s true. Jimmy Carter also was a born-again
Christian. I think the difference between Carter and
Bush is that Carter was a president who happened to
be a Christian. Bush is a Christian who happens to
Bush has moved evangelical Christianity
to the center. His Supreme Court nominees reflect
his faith, as does his support for faith-based initiatives.
While many of these programs do wonderful work, we
have to ask ourselves this: Is it appropriate for
the government to support religiously affiliated charities
that proselytize beneficiaries and may discriminate
||But faith-based organizations do a lot of good work.
Yes, they do. And there’s nothing wrong with
offering needed services or goods based on Christian
principles. Where it gets dicey is when the government
gets involved or expects these entities to do the work
that rightly should be overseen by the government to
ensure a lack of discrimination and so on.
said that, let me also state that I find most evangelicals
to be highly moral, decent people. They are sincere
in doing what they think is right. And they don’t
like being portrayed as Bible-thumping kooks or fanatics.
However, there has to be a degree of respect on all
sides and an understanding that different people
have different points of view.
||What is the impact on the Supreme
Court of President Bush’s selections?
||Well, since John Roberts has replaced William Rehnquist,
we have another conservative as chief justice. With the
massive backing of conservative Christians, Bush is pushing
hard to replace Sandra Day O’Connor with Samuel
Alito, who’s considered a more reliably conservative
justice. If that happens, there could be changes in the
way the court rules in religion-state and related cases.
||What sort of changes do you envision?
Well, here are some examples that could happen:
• Further restrictions on, or outright banning of, abortion
• Some kind of sanctioned prayer in public schools
• More direct aid to parochial schools
• The teaching of “intelligent design” alongside
evolution in science classes
The posting of the Ten
Commandments in public places
And I think we could safely say that the statement “under
God” in the Pledge of Allegiance wouldn’t
be an issue.
||So what do you do if you don’t
agree with these policies?
First off, you oppose them with all your strength.
But you also have to find areas of commonality — ideas
you can both embrace. For instance, members of different
religions can all agree that gang terrorism is bad. That
we need to do something about the drug epidemic. That
we need to try to reduce poverty, homelessness and hunger.
These are all areas we can agree on. And if you’re
working side by side with somebody, the differences don’t
seem as extreme.
There are some signs of religious “détente.” Yet
there is still a desperate need for promoting greater
respect between evangelicals and liberal Christians
and finding common ground on human problems. What is
critical is that both groups respect the integrity
of the other side.