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The Impact of Evangelical Christianity on Bush Presidency and Nation
Comparative religion professor Ben Hubbard gives his thoughts on Supreme Court nominees, faith-based initiatives and evangelical Christianity.

December 15, 2005
by Valerie Orleans

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 nation.

Q: First, could you explain what you mean when you say evangelical Christian? How do they differ from other Christians?

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 defense.

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 the Bible.

Q: 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.

In fact, 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.

In 1925, 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 had championed.

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.

When Roe 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.

Q: 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 be president.

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 in hiring?

Q: 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.

However, having 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.

Q: What is the impact on the Supreme Court of President Bush’s selections?
A: 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.
Q: 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.

Q: 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.

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Benjamin Hubbard
During a discussion about the impact that evangelical Christians may have on American politics, Ben Hubbard, emeritus professor of comparative religion, said he hopes that different religious groups can reach a state of “détente.”

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