Vail Daily column: Campaign to ‘take back America’ falters
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump often wears a cap with a bold inscription. It announces his campaign theme: “Make America Great Again.” This credo stirs memories of the Reagan era, when a majority of Americans endorsed the GOP social agenda in order to take back America.
President Reagan charmed listeners with promises he couldn’t deliver. He vowed to bring back prayer in public school classrooms. The president assured constituents he would curb the IRS from allegedly harassing Christian schools. Reagan endorsed teaching Creationism in public schools. He cavalierly rejected godless evolution as “only a theory.”
The president seemed willing to sign an oath in blood to stop abortions by overturning Roe v. Wade. Reagan confessed his sin of supporting pro-choice earlier in his political career. He also vowed to preserve personal liberties by closing the gap between church and state. He declared, “The First Amendment was written not to protect the people and their laws from religious values, but to protect those values from government tyranny.” This sounded right to Reaganites, even if it was off the constitutional mark.
Reagan invited prominent evangelical leaders to the Oval Office for photo ops. He spoke of America as a Christian nation whose identity was wrapped around godly right-wing conduct.
Now, three decades later, this religious identity coupled with the GOP’s social agenda, is weakened. They are on the wrong side of immigration reform, climate change and appealing to a diverse American public.
Many conservative Christians believe the “natural order of things,” which preserved their political power during the Reagan era, is topsy-turvy. For instance, traditional marriage is under attack, they believe. That the Supreme Court would have endorsed same-sex unions during the Reagan administration defies common sense.
Republican evangelicals believe power shifts, such as the Supreme Court’s approval of same-sex marriage, have robbed the U.S. of its identity as God’s exceptional people. They vow to preserve traditional morality, recruiting others to “fight the good fight of faith” (I Timothy 6:12). But Republicans end up fighting more and more over less and less they formerly controlled.
Essayist Joseph Epstein describes societal shifts conservatives abhor. In Epstein’s youth, drugstores sold cigarettes in the open on shelves but hid condoms behind the counter. Now, drugstores sell condoms in the open and banish cigarettes to shelves far in the back.
Such a switch unnerves conservative Christians. It’s a metaphor of how the white Protestant majority has lost its power. Remnants of this once-almighty coalition pack local school boards. There they engineer curricula that hype America’s preferential status as God’s exceptional nation. They promote for-profit charter schools in which Christian values seep into the curriculum. They fund charter education by vouchers. Such schools don’t have to offer classes for a diverse student body, as public schools do.
Such an educational identity thrives on traditional mores. It protects an identity and a religious ethos reserved for white Protestants since our nation’s birth. What does such a culture look like? Why do conservatives want to retrieve it?
Illinois State University historian Andrew Hartman describes the way of life that has formed the GOP’s identity and preserved political power until its recent collapse. “Normative Americans (upholders of traditional values) prized hard, personal responsibility, individual merit, delayed gratification, social mobility and other values that middle-class whites recognized as their own. Normative Americans lived according to stringent sexual expectations: sex, whether for procreation or recreation, was constrained within the parameters of heterosexual marriage.
“… Normative Americans believed their nation was the best in human history: these aspects of American history that shined unfavorable light on the nation, such as slavery, were ignored or explained away as aberrations. Normative Americans often assumed that the nation’s Christian heritage illumined its unique character: the United States of America really was a (bright and shining) ‘city on a hill’” (A War for the Soul of America: a History of the Culture Wars, p. 5, 2015, University of Chicago Press).
GOP evangelical Christians have retrenched after losing the traditional marriage fight, opting to control local school boards instead. Here they fight to preserve their Christian identity.
These battles go deeper than preference over educational policy. Often unspoken but real, a religious atmosphere energizes combatants. They blend free-market economics with faith in traditional Christian norms. Their sacred cause is taking back America. This stultified identity is tethered to a past era when the white majority prevailed.
Life moves on, however. It’s not static. Such a dynamic shapes our national identity, too.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries.