From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. By D.G. Hart.
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, MI, Cambridge, UK. 2011.
Dr. Daryl G. Hart has published an excellent book that bears explicitly on the purpose of this blog: to discuss issues of libertarianism and conservatism. From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism sets out to demonstrate how American evangelicals never really adopted specifically conservative ways of viewing the world, even while in the last few decades of the twentieth century evangelicals self-identified and voted as conservatives. He details the history of evangelicalism in America, its differences in outlook from conservatism, the crack up of the Religious Right, and closes by discussing whether evangelicals should be politically conservative.
This post will come in three parts. Unfortunately, it was more difficult than I first imagined to do justice to the breadth of Hart’s points, which are important for understanding the past and future of evangelical political thought and whether it will continue to embrace or ultimately reject a more activist government. This post will review Hart’s discussion of evangelical political thought up through the Religious Right. The second post will discuss Hart’s explanation the relationship between “compassionate conservatism” and the Religious Left. The third and final post will reflect on Hart’s answer to the question, should evangelicals be conservative?
Since 1980, evangelicals have been considered a reliable Republican constituency, voting as one of several groups in the tenuous alliance that composes American political conservatism. However, this was not always so and we have seen this stereotype fall apart in the last few election cycles. In the early twentieth century, evangelicals believed that the church was responsible for society and for establishing a national agenda and purpose. The Social Gospel grew out of this impulse. The split between theological liberals and fundamentalists did not annihilate this underlying thrust in evangelical political thought, even if it would take different forms in actual political action. Both groups believed in America as a Christian nation and in the legislation of Christian morals. Neither group could be described as conservative. Hart writes,
[E]vangelical political thought developed independently from the debates that shaped modern conservatism. Instead of relying on conservative insights about order, liberty, and the health of civil society, evangelicals habitually resorted to their Bibles…[F]or evangelicals, Scripture was a better guide to the affairs of the United States than the demands of republicanism, constitutionalism, federalism, or the balance of powers. (16)
Today, evangelicals who predominantly write books and teach in universities are politically leftist. Rather than an odd development, Hart argues that this makes sense given the manifestation of American evangelicalism’s particular assumptions. While Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory exerted enormous influence on the political views of American evangelicals in an ostensibly conservative direction, it demonstrates the inherently un-conservative way evangelicals have historically viewed politics. Rather than understanding every political order as inherently flawed, Marshall argued for an America that is providentially chosen to advance God’s will in the world. The timing of its publication, 1978, allowed it to take on enormous significance for American evangelicals and rally them to the conservative Republican party which offered the most strident opposition to another superpower that made similar “providential” claims—minus God, of course.
The most impressive intellectual luminary among evangelicals of this period was Francis Schaeffer. His book How Should We Then Live? provided an argument that more or less amounted to an assertion that a free and stable society would emerge from a truly Protestant society. The influence of Marshall and Schaeffer on the Religious Right currently coalescing around several key figures pushed them in an activist rather than conservative direction. “[D]eep within the soul of the members of the emerging Religious Right beat the heart not of a Burkean conservative but of a Finneyite activist.” (89) Rather than breaking with the excesses of 19th century revivalism, which spurred efforts at wholesale social reform including the counterproductive temperance reforms, the Religious Right took their cue for social reform from such figures as Charles Finney and concerned themselves with targeting what they believed to be existential threats to political order.
Hart argues that evangelicals ended up in the “conservative” category because of similar issues of concern to American conservatism, but not a similarity in thinking. Like neo-conservatives and libertarians, evangelicals hated Communism. Jerry Falwell specifically cited its atheism as the real reason for its threat. While such a concern dovetailed nicely with the mostly religious traditionalism of conservatism, the similarity stopped there. Falwell and company were not concerned about government spending per se, but about government spending on welfare, which they considered socially corrosive. But government spending on national defense appealed to them as necessary for the defense of a Christian nation against the godless Communist threat posed by the Soviet Union.
Ralph Reed, the head of the Christian Coalition, articulated a “religious conservatism,” but, besides being religious, it was difficult to see how it was conservative. Reed’s political heroes included the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Social Gospel, and William Jennings Bryan (134). For Reed, being “religious” was all one needed to be “conservative.” Lacking was a deeper introspection into Christian doctrine and its implications for political activism.
In the next post, we’ll move to Hart’s discussion of “compassionate conservatism” and the Religious Left.