In the tributes to Chuck Colson so far, I haven’t seen much written on his place as one of American evangelicalism’s brightest and most industrious students of political philosophy. That’s natural, of course, given all the other things there are to write about, but I’d like to note this aspect of his work. I had the honor of having lunch with Colson once; we were supposed to talk shop, but we spent most of the time discovering our shared passion for political philosophy. I was shocked by the raw power of his mind (I think everyone who met him was), but also by the depth of his learning in this field. Hearing him give quickie radio commentaries on the latest nonsense in Washington, you would never guess—or at least I hadn’t—that this was a man whose eyes would light up in excitement at the chance to discuss the relationship between Aristotelian and Augustinian influences in Locke’s philosophy. But so he was.

The article below has been in the works for months, since long before Colson’s health turned. I wish I could rewrite the whole thing as some kind of tribute to him. Nonetheless, I regard the timing of the publication as providential. Colson exemplified how valuable political philosophy is when it actively informs political practice, and I can’t think of a better tribute to him than to start a conversation about the implicit political philosophy that I think has stood behind American evangelicals’ activism since their movement began.

In the past few years, American evangelicals seem to have been reaching a turning point in their engagement with politics. A growing number of evangelical leaders are no longer satisfied with the model of political participation that has predominated for a century, and yet the available alternatives seem no better. The time is ripe for a new model to emerge, if we can build one.

But we can’t build it successfully until we understand where the old model came from and why it’s now coming to be viewed as unsatisfactory. The inherited model originated in the tumultuous religious developments of the early twentieth century; it presupposes a broad consensus in American society on the moral basis of civic life. For the twenty-first century, we need a model that builds moral consensus rather than presupposing it.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

For some time, the conventional narrative has been that evangelicals mostly stayed out of politics until they were mobilized in 1976 and 1980. It would be truer to say that there were some periods in the last century when evangelicals were politically inactive, especially the 1930s and the early 1940s, but, on balance, they were more active than not.

A little forgotten history: “The Christian people of America are going to vote as a bloc for the man with the strongest moral and spiritual platform, regardless of his views on other matters. I believe we can hold the balance of power.” That was Billy Graham in 1951, during the first of what would become recurring efforts to deliver the evangelical vote to the GOP. Graham baptized Eisenhower in the White House and had Nixon speak at his crusades. Though his activism shifted away from the GOP for a while in the mid-1960s, since he preferred Johnson to Goldwater (a preference Johnson aggressively cultivated), Graham didn’t pull back from politics until 1974, when he and the rest of the world heard on the Watergate tapes how Nixon had contemptuously duped and manipulated him and his followers.

Graham was no trailblazer in leveraging the leadership role his ministry gave him for political activism. From the Social Gospel movement, Prohibition, and opposition to the presidential candidacy of a Roman Catholic in the 1920s; through anti-Communism, drugs, sexual morals, and opposition to the presidential candidacy of a Roman Catholic in midcentury; to the Religious Right of the 1980s and 1990s—political activism was normal among evangelical ministry leaders for most of the twentieth century.

Political activism is normal among just about all demographic groups in this country. Not everyone is called to be an activist, yet the presence of activism across all major cultural subgroups is an essential element of America’s political tradition of democratic citizenship, self-government, and the rule of law. American evangelicals are more activist than evangelicals elsewhere in the world for the same reason that American Catholics, Jews, agnostics, and atheists are more activist than their peers abroad—because they’re Americans.

But evangelical activism in the past century has been dominated by a distinctive model, the roots of which lie in the great schism of American Protestantism at the turn of the century. Evangelicals saw the apostasy of the liberal mainline and the consequent division of the American church as a harbinger of social disruption and moral disorder. From the 1920s onward, evangelicals have publicly anticipated a trend of cultural decline leading ultimately to the collapse of society. To take only two examples, William Jennings Bryan declared in 1924 that Catholic candidate Al Smith would “lead the nation back to wallow in the mire.” One of the century’s most important evangelical broadcasters, William Ward Ayer, explained in 1942 that the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals was necessary to “save American democracy.”

Evangelicals did what any good citizens would do in the face of a threat to their country: they mobilized to save it. It speaks well of them that they did. Good citizens don’t stand by while their nation is threatened, and evangelical political activity has accomplished much good. Although the rising tide of moral disorder has not been reversed, its progress has been halted in many respects, and forces of renewal are gathering. All of this was made possible largely by evangelical efforts.

From the start, however, most evangelical leaders have had an insufficient understanding both of the problems that they were trying to solve and of their own cultural situation. As a result, while much that they have done has been good, their overall model for how to engage in politics has been inadequate, and its limits have become increasingly clear over time.

They were right that the Protestant schism struck a dire blow to the American social order. Before the schism, America had a longstanding social consensus on how to reconcile religious freedom with public morals: the state would legislate based on the moral consensus of society, but keep its hands off directly confessional issues and try to steer clear of inhibiting diverse religious exercise. Meanwhile, beyond the bounds of state power, America’s leading institutions would be predominantly defined by and loyal to the Protestant view of the world. This strong yet informal Protestant cultural authority would keep the citizenry moral, so the coercive power of the state could be mostly kept out of moral formation in the interests of religious freedom.

The Protestant schism was the decisive factor that ended the old social order. To be sure, a variety of other factors were already weakening it; for example, the injustices imposed upon Catholics and Jews were becoming steadily harder to ignore. However, the schism destroyed the framework of the social order from within. Protestantism could no longer serve as a moral center of society once no one could say with any confidence what “Protestantism” was.

But evangelical leaders misunderstood the nature of the threat. They didn’t seem to grasp that the schism had destroyed America’s Protestant cultural consensus. They spoke and acted as though it was still basically sound in the country at large, and was only being challenged by a cabal of liberal secularists who were hijacking America’s culturally leading institutions (especially denominational bodies and universities). In short, they thought of the crisis more in terms of apostasy by a relatively narrow set of leaders than a true schism of the church.

Because of this misunderstanding, evangelicals turned to politics as a tool for mobilizing social power and cultural influence to wage their battle against the liberal secularists. They expected that politics would give them the power they needed, because elections are based on majority rule and America was still basically a Protestant country.

In fact, the Protestant social consensus wasn’t really hijacked; it had dissolved from within, and the liberal secularists were just rushing in to fill the void. The old consensus had been fragmented by centuries of accumulated theological and philosophical divisions. By 1952, the old order was so hollow that Eisenhower raised few eyebrows when he remarked that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Evangelicals were trying to prop up a structure that no longer had enough integrity to stand.

Moreover, evangelicals misunderstood their own place in the social order. Because they were faithful to classical Protestant theology, they saw themselves as the rightful heirs of the old Protestant cultural authority. At the founding convocation of Fuller Seminary in 1947, cofounder Harold Ockenga declared that because western civilization was built on Protestant premises, only evangelicals could “rebuild the foundations of society” and rescue America from destruction at the hands of secularism and “Romanism.” Such comments were typical. Indeed, Fuller was founded with the involvement of many leading evangelical public voices of the day, to serve as a national brain trust for increased evangelical engagement in the civic order. Ockenga’s comments were not just representative; they were formative.

Evangelicals were indeed the theological heirs of the old Protestantism. But they never inherited its social position in American civilization. They were not outsiders to America, but they were outsiders to the institutions and networks that were recognized in American culture as the legitimate moral guardians of the social order. They had no cultural standing to claim a leadership role in American civilization.

Unfortunately, they too often spoke and acted as though their theology entitled them to serve as America’s moral guardians. This attitude can be seen most clearly in the way they so often implied that voting for a given candidate or party was a moral duty. From Graham’s assumption that all good and decent Christians would naturally vote “as a bloc” for Eisenhower; to Jerry Falwell’s warning that politicians would have to meet the demands of “the moral majority” or lose elections; to Pat Robertson’s efforts to create a “Christian coalition” whose votes could be brokered in Washington, evangelical leaders have frequently identified voting for their preferred candidate with being a good Christian (or a good person).

The issue here is not whether the American social order presupposes a religious people whose votes are influenced by their beliefs. It does. But after the great schism, there was no longer any set of churches or religious leaders who could rightfully claim to be accepted by the American people as moral guardians of the social order, the way Protestant churches and leaders were before the schism. Few of the evangelical leaders involved in political activism in the twentieth century fully came to terms with this fact.

This is one reason so many citizens resent evangelical political participation, viewing it as illegitimate and a threat to their freedom. They perceive evangelicals as thinking that they have a right to rule them. That perception is not always unreasonable in light of the way evangelical leaders generally spoke and acted throughout the twentieth century.

This problem is starting to get attention in evangelical circles, but its deepest historic origins are not yet sufficiently explored. In his new book Indivisible, co-written with my friend Jay Richards, James Robison reflects: “The Moral Majority struck the wrong chord. It sounded as if we were claiming to be the moral compass for everyone else.” He blames that on “anger and big egos.” While it’s big of him to say so, deeper forces were at work—an inadequate model of politics handed down more or less unchanged from the great Protestant schism.

This model is also one reason American politics is becoming more ideologically polarized. The assumption that all good, decent people vote one way has gradually undermined everyone’s ability (on all political sides) to believe that America has a shared culture or a public moral consensus. Politics has come to be viewed as a clash between radically divergent moralities.

Moreover, this dynamic explains why American politics is becoming more immoral. Actual lawbreaking (graft, vote rigging, etc.) is more rare now than it was in midcentury; yet these days, the real crime is what’s legal. Every year, more and more irresponsible behavior is destigmatized and accepted as normal, especially in the mobilization of group grievances and resentments. That’s because we no longer believe in moral consensus. If politics is a competition between groups that have no shared morality, the political competition itself can have no moral basis, and thus no firm moral boundaries. The incentives tend to favor irresponsibility.

The predominant model of political activism in the evangelical world has done little to challenge this dynamic, and it has often reinforced it. Not all evangelical activism has followed this pattern, of course, and it ought to be repeated that much good has been accomplished. But America, like every civilization, needs politics based on moral consensus. In the past century, evangelicals have, on balance, done more to undermine moral consensus across religious divisions than to build it.

This history throws new light on the Religious Right movement of the last generation, and it suggests a different way forward for the coming generation. I’ll discuss those topics in two subsequent articles.