President Trump Must Resist his Base’s Push to Prioritize Faith over Science

tags: evangelicals, coronavirus, COVID-19

Dr. Erica Ramirez is Director of Applied Research at Auburn Seminary, whose "Faithful Distance" campaign aims to keep churches online during the spread of coronavirus.

Pentecostals’ preoccupation with cultural authority has roots in the revolutionary era. During the 18th century, many American Christians (like most colonists in general) rejected monarchical claims to divine authority and those of the clergy too, for a variety of reasons including clergy’s elite status, relative wealth, impact on free thinking and some clergy’s support for the monarchy. During this period, evangelicalism developed a potent populist strain that placed God on the side of the people and their war of independence from the monarchy.

During the 19th century, America’s radical evangelicals guarded the populist character of the nation as sacred, perceiving unbelief and elitism to be dangerous to the nation’s welfare.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the nation was transforming. Older traditions of broad anti-elitism were making way for a burgeoning professional class. The Progressive Era saw engineers, doctors and even clergy becoming increasingly professionalized and oriented around an emerging middle class. Rising urban centers put new professional hierarchies at a physical and cultural distance from the rural, small-town life most Americans of the period were still leading. The resulting religious landscape concentrated denominational power in cities, where preaching newly reflected seminary training, including a denial of miracles, like Jesus’ virgin birth.

By the 1890s, even ordained Methodist leaders — the faith tradition that best represented the anticlerical, emotion-centered and populist strain of Christianity — were beginning to demand their congregants desist from public displays of revivalistic emotion and adopt, instead, the controlled manners of the rising middle-class. Radical evangelicals, however, revolted. They saw the rise of a clergy class with centralized leadership as too close to tyranny. Populist evangelicals decried the urbanization of U.S. politics, while they also flooded into campgrounds to stir up the kinds of revivals that the new class of professional clergy were attempting to stamp out. There, rough-hewed preachers, men and women decried the rise of liturgical, clergy-led religion.


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