Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics

I was on the Embrace the Void podcast earlier this month to talk about the state of the secular movement. As I discussed the concept of “mission drift”, I realized a problem with the idea. Rather, I realized another problem with the idea. It came up again this weekend, which means it’s time to write about it.

If you’re not familiar with arguments about “mission drift” in the secular movement, it’s a term often invoked by the same people who complain about identity politics. The basic idea is that U.S. secular groups who organize around or work on social and economic justice-related political issues are moving away from the core mission of the movement: maintaining and increasing the separation of church and state.

Those of us who do this activism have spoken at length about why it’s absurd to consider something like good education in science and critical thinking part of the core mission of the secular movement but to leave out feminism and anti-racism. Greta Christina ran an excellent series taking the arguments apart and drilling down to people’s actual objections. However, we haven’t talked in any depth about how ahistorical the argument is.

Organized religious interference in U.S. politics has always been about economic and social justice. That is its entire point. The story of building the religious right is a story that starts with religion being offered as a solution when more honest politicking had failed.

Over the preceding decade, as America first descended into and then crawled its way out of the Great Depression, these titans of industry had been told, time and time again, that they were to blame for the nation’s downfall. Fifield, in contrast, insisted that they were the source of its salvation.

They just needed to do one thing: Get religion.

Fifield told the industrialists that clergymen would be crucial in regaining the upper hand in their war with Roosevelt. As men of God, ministers could voice the same conservative complaints as business leaders, but without any suspicion that they were motivated solely by self-interest. They could push back against claims, made often by Roosevelt and his allies, that business had somehow sinned and the welfare state was doing God’s work. The assembled industrialists gave a rousing amen.

Photo of brass plaque against a white stone wall. Plaque contains seal of the United States and the words "In God We Trust".
Plaque placed 1961; photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol

Conservative business leaders lined up to support Reverend James W. Fifield Jr, and he, in turn, recruited clergymen to their cause in a way that they couldn’t. If you’ve ever wondered when social safety nets became firmly associated with godlessness rather than, oh, the New Testament, this is it. Yes, the Soviet Union was officially atheist, but much of the New Deal was passed to decrease the popularity of state socialism, and FDR argued for it in explicitly religious language.

The shifts in organization that would bring the religious right their greatest political triumphs also came in response to a political issue better not stated outright: the demand for continued racial segregation.

The Green v. Connally ruling provided a necessary first step: It captured the attention of evangelical leaders especially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related “segregation academies,” including Falwell’s own Lynchburg Christian School, inquiring about their racial policies. Falwell was furious. “In some states,” he famously complained, “It’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.”

One such school, Bob Jones University—a fundamentalist college in Greenville, South Carolina—was especially obdurate. The IRS had sent its first letter to Bob Jones University in November 1970 to ascertain whether or not it discriminated on the basis of race. The school responded defiantly: It did not admit African Americans.

Although Bob Jones Jr., the school’s founder, argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible, Falwell and Weyrich quickly sought to shift the grounds of the debate, framing their opposition in terms of religious freedom rather than in defense of racial segregation.

Then, as now, attempts to frame discrimination as “religious freedom” didn’t fool many people.

But Falwell and Weyrich, having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders, were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge. It had worked to rally the leaders, but they needed a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.

That issue ended up being legal abortion. We know this happened not only through the correspondence of the conservatives involved, but also because many of the sects involved had to change their theological positions in order to make the issue central to their activism.

But back in the day, Dudley notes, Geisler “argued for the permissibility of abortion in a 1971 book, stating ‘The embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.’” That was in Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, published by Zondervan. It’s still in print, kind of, as Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options. And now it says something different. Now it’s unambiguously anti-abortion.

I don’t mean to pick on Geisler. He’s no different from Packer or Graham or any other leading evangelical figure who’s been around as long as those guys have. They all now believe that the Bible teaches that life begins at conception. They believe this absolutely, unambiguously, firmly, resolutely and loudly. That’s what they believed 10 years ago, and that’s what they believed 20 years ago.

But it wasn’t what they believed 30 years ago. Thirty years ago they all believed quite the opposite.

Around the same time, something similar happened in response to feminism. As women created, used, and publicized opportunities to demonstrate equality to men, theological arguments used to keep women out of power shifted.

Change was equally difficult for evangelicals with their high view of Scripture. It seemed plain to them that the apostles exhorted women to be subordinate, and yet they could no longer argue that women were inferior to men, as they had been taught. They now found themselves in the midst of a culture in which women could match men in education, employment, and social settings. In response to this new dilemma, one of the most significant and innovative conservative evangelical and Reformed theologians of the twentieth century proposed a solution. George Knight III, in his highly influential book, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women, published in 1977,6 argued that men and women are created equal, but they are differentiated by the fact that God has assigned to each differing roles. Their differing roles are based on the order of creation, a hierarchical social order given by God before sin entered the world that applies only in the home and the church. For this reason, male leadership and female subordination is the God-given ideal. Thus the exhortations to women to be subordinate in the New Testament, unlike those to slaves, are transcultural and unchangeable.

The political position wasn’t subject to change, so the scriptural arguments had to.

Although its conclusion maintains the subordinationist status quo, this interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on gender is completely novel in conception and wording. Never in the history of the church has anyone suggested this is what the Bible teaches. It directly contradicts the historical or traditional view that considered men to be “superior” and women to be “inferior” and more prone to sin and deception.

Further novelties include the interpretation of the Fall (Gen. 3) in terms of role reversal (i.e., the woman taking the lead when she should have deferred to her “head,” Adam), the understanding of gender differentiation solely on the basis of fixed differing roles, and the assumption that the chronological order in which the man and the women were created in Genesis chapter 2 entails a permanently binding social order that gives preeminence to men.

(It’s worth noting that, on the secular side of things, this is also the period in which sociobiology, now rebranded “evolutionary psychology”, came into public awareness and popularity. The argument is much the same, even if the underlying texts are different.)

Today we see the unlikely alignment people who identify as feminists with the religious right in an attempt to deny civil rights to trans people. So far, it seems to be mostly the “feminists” giving in by decreasing their work on feminist issues, with religious groups like Focus on the Family still leaning hard into complementarianism. It remains to be seen whether that will change, particularly given the failure of complementarianism to stop same-sex marriage.

Either way, we can expect conservative sects to shape their religion and their theology into whatever they need to be to support conservative politics. The right has a long history of turning to religion when it loses an argument on the merits and shaping religion into a shield against reasoned criticism.

If we care about freeing people from religious indoctrination, critically examining these positions is not mission drift. If we care about reason-based decision-making, fighting back on these issues is not mission drift. If we care about disassembling the cozy relationship between government and religion in the U.S., making sure that these tactics fail to be productive is certainly not mission drift.

None of this is mission drift. The right has made these religious issues. That makes them our issues too.

Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics