Near the close of the 1976 U.S. Presidential campaign, Newsweek magazine famously declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” In subsequent years, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” Pat Robertson’s “Christian Coalition,” and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” assumed leading roles on the stage of American political life. Each strongly identified with the Republican party and conservative public policy.
In the last decade, however, a new set of actors has appeared on this stage. Leaders such as Rick Warren, Jim Wallis, and Ron Sider – all bearing evangelical credentials – have bristled against evangelicalism’s longstanding identification with the Republican party. Promoting left-of-center public policies, these spokesmen do not appear to be speaking only for themselves. Polls suggest that a growing number of younger self-identified evangelicals have wearied of the policies and party affiliation of their elders. Forty years ago, Wallis and Sider were sideline figures in evangelicalism. Today, they are closer to the mainstream of evangelical sentiment than they have ever been.
What happened? In From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism, Hart offers an account of and an explanation for this recent turn of events. He charts a deep and longstanding current within American evangelicalism – one that has paradoxically embraced both right-leaning and left-leaning public policies. He also argues that the tradition of American political conservatism offers evangelicals a constructive model for civil engagement – if they are willing to listen and learn.
The majority of Hart’s book is a narrative of evangelicals’ engagement in American politics since the mid-twentieth century. He begins with the National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942. The NAE positioned itself between fundamentalism and the theological liberalism of the mainline, and soon began to address such issues of civil and political concern as the threat of communism; alcohol consumption; and religion and public education. In doing so, Hart argues, the NAE demonstrated that it was “simply heir to the politics that had sustained Protestants since the middle of the nineteenth century” – unabashed patriotism, moral crusading (often invoking the power of government as a means to this end), and direct appeal to the Bible as norm for American public policy (40, 39).
Even so, most evangelicals before the 1970s opted out of direct political engagement. This decade, however, ushered in “a variety of Supreme Court decisions, policy initiatives, and protest movements [that] challenged the Protestant character of the United States and threatened evangelical institutions” (40). This sea-change precipitated the rise of the Moral Majority, whose ascendancy among evangelicals in the political sphere was sealed by the electoral victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Hart offers exposition and analysis of the publications of several influential evangelicals in the last quarter of the twentieth-century – Peter Marshall, Jr., Francis Schaeffer, Donald Dayton, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Chuck Colson, Ralph Reed, Marvin Olasky, James Skillen, Jim Wallis, Randall Balmer, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and Michael Gerson. Many of the right-leaning authors in this group, Hart observes, often appeal to a Christian origin to the United States, from which Americans and their government are said to have precipitously declined. This historical conception has inspired crusading political efforts to stem the tide of personal immorality and what is perceived to be the social and political assault on the family. Left-leaning authors, on the other hand, often appeal to a comprehensive social vision that they believe derives from the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ teaching concerning the Kingdom of God. This vision prompts them to redress, through political means, racial inequity, injustice, poverty, and human rights. For all their differences, Hart concludes, these writers – right and left – often reflect an unbending and uncompromising moral idealism, appeal directly to the Bible as an authority in ordering the affairs of the United States, conceive the United States as playing a unique and divinely-assigned role in world affairs, demonstrate “theological naiveté about human depravity,” and fail “to see the links between political convictions and [the] legal and political forms” embedded in over two centuries of American “federalism, republicanism, and constitutionalism” (199).
We should therefore not be surprised at the political shift in evangelical sentiment over the last decade. Whereas evangelicals may have identified themselves with political conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, this union really represents a marriage of convenience. Evangelicals saw the Republican party and its policies as the best hope for stemming what they saw to be the widespread assault on the traditional family. Evangelicals, however, are not reliably conservative because they do not – and never have – self-consciously operated from conservative principles.
So what are these principles? Hart acknowledges the sheer difficulty of answering this question. For one thing, conservatism “is inherently opposed to ideology.” Why? “Thinking about how to be traditional, as opposed simply to living with received customs, is an indication that tradition has ended” (207). Furthermore, twentieth century political conservatism has proven something of a kaleidoscope. Hart references George H. Nash’s famous analysis of mid-century conservatism as a cord comprised of three diverse strands – traditionalism, libertarianism, and anti-communism. These strands have not always co-existed harmoniously. Even so, conservatism is not altogether porous. Conservatism’s paterfamilias, William F. Buckley, Jr., after all, famously and unambiguously expelled both Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society from the household. Conservatism, then, has admitted and does admit of some definition.
For Hart, the traditionalist Russell Kirk provides as good a definition of conservatism as one will find. Kirk proposes six “canons” of conservatism – 1) “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience” 2) “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems” 3) the “conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes” 4) “freedom and property are closely linked” 5) “faith in prescription, or ‘custom and convention, coupled with a distrust of’ sophisters, calculators, and economists” 6) hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress” (186-7).
Hart prescriptively concludes the book by arguing that “evangelicals should be conservative” (207). What might this look like? Evangelicals should first “reconsider the source of American greatness” (216). American greatness rests not in what is said to be the United States’ Christian origins, but in her heritage of limited government, religious freedom, and of the prioritization of “culture and character formation” to “political solutions” (219). Evangelicals should also “reconsider the source of Christian greatness” (220). The “true mark of faithfulness is not evident in outward displays of power [but] in simple, ordinary, and spiritual ways, such as saints gathered for prayer and worship, catechumens learning the church’s creed, or the care of widows, orphans, and the otherwise dispossessed” (ibid.). If the church takes this standard to heart, then she will value “spiritual warfare” more than “the culture wars,” and understand herself to be a “pilgrim” and not a “crusader” (222,3).
Hart’s book rightly stresses that evangelicals, as citizens, ought not to withdraw from civic and political participation. His prescription is decidedly not quietistic. Evangelicals should, however, engage in more reflection and self-criticism when it comes to participating in public affairs. Conservatism offers a largely untested means by which evangelicals may contribute to the public good in ways that will not contravene but complement their most basic beliefs and commitments. Even if Hart does not detail a comprehensive overview of the diversity of the resources of American conservatism (Hart, for instance, mentions but does not explore the natural law tradition), he has sufficiently whet the reader’s appetite to pursue a promising way forward.
Hart’s book is also a timely reminder to the church not to seek worldly ends by worldly means. The Scripture has given to the church not only a mission all her own, but also the means to carry out that mission. There is no question or doubt about the outcome of that mission – even the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the church. The question is whether evangelicals will summon the nerve and will to resist the siren calls of worldly power and goals, and invest her energies in an enterprise in which divine power is made evident in human weakness.