The Dangers of White Evangelical Nostalgia

Illustration by ArtsyBee /

By Todd Lake

What is it about white evangelicals that makes us long for an earlier Golden Age? The problem is not new. Over two millennia ago, the author of Ecclesiastes had to admonish, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’”

A dangerous nostalgia is washing over much of the white evangelical world, and the election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States is one of the consequences. Some want to chalk up his election, at least in part, to a racist reaction to the new multicultural reality that is the United States. But in district after district that Mr. Trump won, we are learning that those who voted for him, previously voted for Barack Obama—not once, but twice. It was not necessarily racism that led them to vote for Donald Trump, but more likely nostalgia for an earlier era of good-paying manufacturing jobs and rising wages. These individuals voted for Barack Obama because they wanted future hope and change; they voted for Donald Trump because of nostalgia. His motto was not “Make America Great” but “Make America Great Again.”

Unfortunately, when white American evangelicals exalt the past, too often the Fall is placed during the 1960s—and these evangelicals believe one of the roots of our problems is the increasing multi-ethnicity of the U.S. Even evangelical scholars as thoughtful as David F. Wells can fall into the nostalgia trap by decrying “the fact that through the changed immigration law of 1965, America has become a truly multiethnic society and perhaps the most religiously diverse one in the world.” In contrast, Wells writes warmly of the earlier era of white immigration, which was allegedly “a people without its own particular ethnic memory, one with no inherited ideas or beliefs, and one in which immigrants were expected to shed the particularities of their past in order to become Americans.” Yet in actuality these earlier waves of white immigrants preserved their language and culture by founding schools, daily newspapers, and churches where they lived in happy isolation from the wider culture. Slowly, ever so slowly, the Germans and Swedes and Italians became mainstreamed, but it took many decades. They had no more desire to be deracinated than do immigrants coming to America today. Likewise, modern immigrants will shape and become part of mainstream culture in God’s good time, and xenophobia most assuredly won’t move things along faster.

Modern immigrants will shape and become part of mainstream culture in God’s good time, and xenophobia most assuredly won’t move things along faster.

Despite white evangelical fears to the contrary, the fact is that the majority of African and Latino immigrants, a great number of Asians and—perhaps most surprisingly—almost half of Arab immigrants historically have been Christians. The primary impact of these modern immigrants has been to bring a new diversity and vibrancy to American Christianity. In Nashville, Tennessee, the buckle of the Bible Belt, a former white megachurch declined in the past two decades to the point where they had to sell their building. In its place is now a congregation of many thousands that fills the sanctuary to overflowing for Sunday worship—in Spanish.

But even if modern immigrants from, say, the Middle East are overwhelmingly Muslim, it seems counterintuitive that any evangelical would mourn that God is bringing non-believers right to our doorstep. Evangelicals are supposed to evangelize! How odd to spend millions of dollars sending missionaries overseas, and yet bemoan the providential arrival of hundreds of thousands of non-Christians in a land where Christians have more money and influence than in any other nation on earth. If we cannot reach them for Christ when they are on our home turf, we might as well just give up. Fortunately, the churches springing up across the land for speakers of Mandarin and Portuguese and Spanish show just how open these immigrants are to the good news of the Gospel.

How odd to spend millions of dollars sending missionaries overseas, and yet bemoan the providential arrival of hundreds of thousands of non-Christians in a land where Christians have more money and influence than in any other nation on earth.

While the 1960s is seen by many white evangelical nostalgists as the Fall, those who know more about history realize that the supposed “decline” began in the 1930s with the New Deal. During the Great Depression,with a 25 percent unemployment rate and malnourishment stalking children and the elderly, the government stepped in to help feed the hungry, provide assistance to the unemployed and elderly, and take a direct role in creating jobs. David Wells, whom I am using as an example of the problem precisely because he is not a fringe thinker or incendiary author, writes, “after the Depression, the state felt obliged to take a more active role in social relief, now an enormous part of its budget, and this has happened often at the cost of the church’s involvement.” But of course the church can and does have the freedom to serve those in need anytime it wants! What changed in the 1930s—and in the 1960s—is that the government—“we the people”—realized that we cannot stand idly by and watch our most vulnerable citizens sink into ruin.

We currently have millions of uninsured people in our country, our infant mortality rate is the worst in the industrialized world, and our underfunded urban schools have dropout rates approaching 50 percent. If the church wants to serve the poor, they are ready and willing to be served! Jesus commanded us to help those in need, and in a democracy, we can do that not only through the church but also through the state. Thank God for the undeniable impact of bipartisan programs such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and food stamps.

Such expenditures are often looked at skeptically by white evangelicals who long for the “rugged individualism” of pre-New Deal America. Yet there is little concern expressed about government subsidies for agribusiness, the financial services industry, the oil and timber industries, and a hundred other programs that benefit the wealthy. Towering above all this is the United States military budget, which is larger than the military budgets of the next seven countries of the world combined. How sad it is that white evangelical Christians decry money spent by “Big Government” to aid the poor but do not say a word about money spent to arm ourselves beyond any rational need for self-defense. Sadly, there is no evangelical nostalgia for a pre-New Deal era of no standing armies and a small military budget, but there is abundant nostalgia for small government when it comes to helping the poor among us. White evangelical nostalgia also believes that the Section 8 housing program is a threat to the Republic. But in the Old Testament there was detailed, God-given legislation that redistributed wealth at a rate that would make a Swedish tax collector blush.

In the New Testament, with Christians on the run from persecution, believers had no chance to influence governmental policy. But whenever Christians do have their hands on the levers of power—as we do in America—we are called to use our influence to serve those in need, and to welcome “the alien and the stranger.”

This is not secular policymaking. This is discipleship in a democracy.

Todd Lake is vice-president for spiritual development at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of CSA’s PRISM magazine.

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