What’s the future of white evangelicals in politics?

When I’m up in Kentucky for the holidays with family, I frequently end up reading the Lexington Herald-Leader, including the paper’s faith and values columnist Paul Prather, pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling.

His weekend column is pretty interesting: My prediction about white evangelicals and politics; Expect repeat of the withdrawal of 1920s

I don’t know enough about evangelical movements to assess either the broad sweep of history that Prather describes or the prediction that white evangelicals will largely withdraw from politics as they did more than 80 years ago. Part of Prather’s support:

I started thinking about this in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat. The reaction of his evangelical supporters really struck me.

Several articles I read documented these Christians’ utter shock and dread, not to mention their sense that an errant nation had rejected them personally.

To cite just one example, a Nov. 11 Washington Post article followed Beth Cox, a Tennessee pastor’s wife and Republican activist, as she dejectedly helped dismantle Romney’s campaign headquarters in Hendersonville.

In the words of reporter Eli Saslow, “Cox and many others spent last week grieving not only for themselves and their candidate but also for a country they now believe has gone wildly off track. The days after Barack Obama’s reelection gave birth to a saying in Central Tennessee: Once was a slip, but twice is a sign.”

A sign to evangelicals that the United States is damned beyond redemption.

I’ve repeatedly noted the remarkable insularity of Romney supporters for whom a loss was literally unimaginable, and I almost even cited that same Washington Post article: GOP’s Red America forced to rethink what it knows about the country

I agree with Prather that there’s something worth paying close attention to here. Republicans like Cox were not only reading the election from within a seemingly fact-free echo chamber, but they also seemed to believe that Obama is an affront to their vision of America and that a strong majority agreed with them.

Prather’s column takes a walk through the history of evangelicals in politics, noting especially that the movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was progressive and well to the left of the rest of the country:

According to historian and journalist Garry Wills in Under God: Religion and American Politics, [William Jennings] Bryan’s presidential campaigns still rank as “the most leftist mounted by a major party’s candidate in our entire history.”

However, the same theological system — a strict reading of the Bible — that led Bryan and others to struggle on behalf of the poor and dispossessed also motivated them to a nearly obsessive opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which they believed devalued individual human lives and would lead to the oppression of society’s weakest members.

This wasn’t as cockeyed as you might assume. In Bryan’s day, biological Darwinism had given rise to social Darwinism, a movement that claimed natural selection meant some people were more fit than others to rule or even to live. Social Darwinism was, even then, birthing such philosophies as Nazism.

But the opposition to evolution ended in a rather ugly fashion for political evangelicals, who were mocked mercilessly in the aftermath of the Scopes Monkey Trial (in which the anti-Darwinists won a nominal victory).

Prather draws a parallel to the focus on evolution almost a century ago:

In any case, current evangelicals have, over a few decades, managed to do almost exactly what evangelicals a century ago did: in a world abundant with causes to champion, they’ve hitched their wagons to just two, opposing abortion and gay marriage. These are practically their only issues.

Societal trends being what they appear to be, evangelicals are certain to lose on both. Whether you find this outcome good or bad is largely irrelevant; it simply is. Evangelicals will lose. Both those trains have left the station.

And as white evangelicals become gradually more aware they’ve lost, my guess is that, like their forebears, they’ll throw up their hands and walk away, praying for God’s wrath to consume those whose opinions differ from theirs.

Given Prather’s profession and his location in east central Kentucky — a state in which only 4 of 120 counties voted for Obama — I’m inclined to pay pretty close attention to what he has to say, even if he begins the column by disavowing his ability as a political prognosticator.