There is nothing new under the sun. And this includes evangelicals’ fear of losing religious liberty and being labeled as bigots for speaking the truth.
Today, evangelicals see themselves as being unfairly tagged as haters. As Stephanie Wang reported , many evangelicals see themselves as no longer welcome in public debates. They’re not the ones who are bigots; they’re the ones being targeted by intolerant bullies.
But such is evangelicalism. It is a tradition that wants to engage in public debates in which evangelical arguments are met with hostility. They long for the glory days when they could speak the truth of the gospel without being silenced or branded as bigots.
That was the view back in 1956. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) held its annual meeting in Cleveland. The association heard a warning from Dr. Albert Lindsey of the First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington.
Religious liberty, Lindsey said, was being “slowly but surely taken away.” Americans had less religious freedom than it did just fifty years earlier. It was a line that could easily be heard from an evangelical pulpit this Sunday.
The NAE saw several threats to religious freedom. One was the government’s refusal to uphold the separation of church and state, particularly the separation of the Catholic Church from government. The NAE (and other Protestant groups) opposed President Truman sending an ambassador to the Vatican. In 1958, the NAE called into question the citizenship of Archbishop Samuel Stritch because he was joining the Roman curia as a Cardinal.
The NAE did not see a violation of the separation of church and state or religious freedom when Congress’s investigation of so-called un-American activities. In 1953, the NAE supported Senator McCarthy’s investigation of clergy who might be traitors (i.e., Communists). Such investigations did not, according to the NAE delegates, amount to threat to religious freedom or the Bill of Rights.
Evangelicals in the 1950s saw the real threat being their inability to speak about their faith plainly. Internationally, this meant a push for religious freedom, including a call to withhold U.S. foreign aid to any country that did not protect religious freedom.
At home, they saw their voice as being silenced or chastised for being intolerant.
“There seems to be a code of platitudes that certain people have prepared who in many cases make no profession of true Christianity. You either use these platitudes or you are silenced,” Lindsey said. “Or, if permitted to be heard, smeared as a bigot or fanatic.”
This claim seems eerily similar to contemporary statements among evangelicals.
Writing last year in the Atlantic, Alan Nobles wrote that evangelicals have reason to fear. The only acceptable religion in America, wrote Nobles, is a private faith approves of contemporary mores.
“If the evangelical worldview is deemed invalid in the public sphere, then the public sphere loses the value of being public,” Nobles wrote. “American discourse will be marked by paranoid conformity, rather than principled and earnest disagreement. And our ability to prophetically speak to one another and to our nation’s troubles will be restrained.”
What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again. In another fifty years or so, our time may be seen as the good old days when religious liberty was cherished and evangelicals could speak plainly about the gospel.