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Faith and Politics in America, What came First?

—David E. Settje

The question first struck me during my research into the responses of American Christian entities to the Vietnam War: did these individuals or institutions most commonly study the war in the context of their faith and then determine their stance on it, or did they generally hold strong political opinions about the war and subsequently shape their faith response to match? At times the records indicated an answer, but in other instances they were inconclusive. But one thing became clear: during the 1970s Christians held strong faith opinions and used them to craft their politics.

In my books Faith and War: How Christians Debated the Cold and Vietnam Wars and Lutherans and the Longest War: Adrift on a Sea of Doubt about the Cold and Vietnam Wars, 1964-1975, editors and writers of Christian periodicals, denominations, leaders, and lay people grappled with global conflict in the context of their religious beliefs. Some applied Just War theory to both wars before determining their positions. Others concerned themselves with how communism thwarted global mission efforts and therefore undermined a principal calling of their faith to evangelize. Across the spectrum of opinions about the Vietnam War, Christian Americans sought to apply their faith convictions to their support for or fight against the war.  While I felt that some of my subjects arrived at strong secular opinions about Vietnam and then adapted their theology to fit the preconceived notion, a majority wanted their belief systems to inform their convictions.

The question reemerged when I moved into an analysis of Christian reactions to Watergate in Evil Deeds in High Places: Christian America’s Moral Struggle with Watergate. By 1973, the predominant alignment of conservative/evangelical Christians with the Republican Party and more moderate to liberal Christians leaning toward the Democratic Party was established. Consequently, throughout Richard Nixon’s presidency, conservatives tended to back the president while their counterparts to the left questioned the president’s morality and policies. But again in both cases, Christians tended to employ their faith life first and then determine their politics second.

The liberal critique of Nixon focused on two concerns. They questioned his personal morality, especially his win at any cost attitude, and so felt that he utilized religion for partisan ends, not as a genuine expression of his faith. In addition, liberals rejected the president’s policies on a number of issues, including race, women’s rights, and the economy, as contrary to their principles of Christian compassion and social justice. In contrast, conservatives believed his religious sincerity and felt his policies supported their faith sensibilities regarding the preservation of religious freedom, resisting communism abroad, and allowing for local control on many issues at home.

The most compelling sign for how these Christians applied faith first and politics second came in the last months of Nixon’s presidency. When evidence proved Nixon’s participation in the Watergate cover up and other misdeeds, conservatives by and large pivoted away from the president. They prayed for him. They respected his public service. But they also stated how his actions and, quite shocking to them, his foul language as revealed in the White House tapes defied their religious principles. Conservative empathy for the man stopped when it came to defending his presidency. Their conservative platform both theologically and politically remained intact but the individual who they had hoped would champion them fell out of favor.

In addition to teaching us something about the Watergate moment and the history of Christianity in America, I hope the primacy of faith will guide Christians in today’s divided United States. Religion, politics, and ideology have blended together without discernible boundaries. This blend makes political compromise impossible and transforms the opposition from being a fellow citizen and believer with a differing political point of view into a dangerous foe and heretic. Disentangling religion, politics, and ideology and placing faith first once again promises to heal our divisions.

David E. Settje is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Concordia University Chicago. He is the author of Lutherans and the Longest War: Adrift of a Sea of Doubt about the Cold and Vietnam Wars, 1964-1975 and Faith and War: How Christians Debated the Cold and Vietnam Wars.


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