restricted access The Wealthiest Man in the Empire: Ben-Hur as Model of Evangelical Political Engagement
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The Wealthiest Man in the Empire:
Ben-Hur as Model of Evangelical Political Engagement

The introduction to the 2003 Signet edition of Lew Wallace's 1880 epic novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, is written by none other than Tim LaHaye, a leader of the conservative evangelical movement and co-author of the best-selling Left Behind series. LaHaye begins this rapturous essay by declaring, "You are about to read one of the finest novels ever written," and goes on to describe it as both a spiritual and literary inspiration: "I am going to make a confession. This is the book that made me realize that fiction could be used to send a message that is even more important than the story" (v, x). In a 2008 essay on the Ben-Hur tradition, Howard Miller suggests that LaHaye's introduction is part of a renewed effort to market this novel to a specifically evangelical audience. In 2000, Focus on the Family, then under the leadership of James Dobson, released a radio dramatization. In 2003, Ben-Hur was reproduced as an animated feature, starring the vocal talents of Charlton Heston. Of this evangelical rediscovery of Ben-Hur, Miller says, "In Ben-Hur's Christ narrative they [evangelicals] found affirmation and identity in a culture from which they felt increasingly alienated" (173). The fervent efforts of evangelical leaders to encourage lay readers to pick up this novel indicate that they see in this Union general's work a relevant expression of the values promoted by their movement.

The continuing relevance of Ben-Hur (the novel that surpassed Uncle Tom's Cabin to become the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century) to American popular culture and religion speaks to a need [End Page 23] for scholarly engagement, but thus far, Miller's article represents the only comprehensive treatment of its legacy outside of the two major biographies of Lew Wallace. In her influential essay, "Nation, Region, Empire," published in the 1991 Columbia History of the American Novel, Amy Kaplan declared Ben-Hur "in need of the kind of critical attention paid to Stowe's novel in its cultural context," yet since then, more articles and books have been written on Left Behind than on the novel that arguably launched evangelical popular literature as a financially viable modern enterprise (258).1 The ongoing influence of Ben-Hur among twenty-first century evangelicals suggests that its appeal extends beyond its Biblical subject matter. I argue that evangelicals find in this novel an interpretation of the Scriptures that articulates their historically ambivalent relationship to authority and dramatizes a model of political and social engagement consistent with the desires of evangelicals at the turn of the twenty-first century. Formed as the populist answer to the more authoritarian models of Protestant practice—namely Anglicanism and Puritanism—evangelicalism from the eighteenth century on has emphasized the importance of the everyday individual's relationship with the divine, their immediate access to the truths of Scripture, and their ability to experience immediate, direct revelations. Yet in times of social and political upheaval, when the truths of Scripture and the power of conventional authorities have been called into question, evangelicals have consistently stood behind those conventional authorities and sought to increase their influence through their alignment with political and economic elites, producing what W. Bradford Wilcox calls the "paradoxical mix of moral individualism and authority-mindedness" in evangelical thought (Soft Patriarchs 27). Wallace's novel, which was supposedly written as an answer to the skeptical atheism of Robert Ingersoll, was just such a challenge to the forces of scientific skepticism, theological liberalism, and moral backsliding.2 Furthermore, it was written as the United States began to extend its influence both across the continent and into other parts of the world, rhetorically positioning this expansion as the advancement of a Christian empire. Thus it is perhaps not so surprising that evangelical elites saw fit to revive this 120-year-old novel as the Clinton era—a symbol for evangelicals of moral license and liberal antagonism—came to a close and George W. Bush, the great evangelical hope ascended to power. Less surprising is the fact...