Yarbrough, Thomas, Brown, Snyder: In light of D.G. Hart’s recent book, what future do evangelicals and conservatives have with each other–if any?
For at least two decades, evangelicalism was associated with the politics of the Right–to the point where for most evangelicals, being pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-military was synonymous with conservatism. More recently, a revitalized evangelical Left has arguably held far more sway with evangelical youth. In “From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism,” D.G. Hart recently argued that this counterswing was inevitable. Except for the 1980s-90s, evangelicalism has been politically liberal for most of its existence in America–and because of its theological values, it has always been temperamentally liberal.
In this brief symposium, we consider the value of Hart’s contribution to the discussion about evangelicalism and conservatism, and the future of the erstwhile bedfellows.
Hart Nails the Problem, Not the Solution
If I had read From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin four years ago, I would have come away very surprised. “What? Evangelicals aren’t really conservatives? Nonsense.” Since then I’ve been introduced to Edmond Burke and have tried (unsuccessfully) to convince my family that being a Southern Baptist is a rather liberal thing to do. D.G. Hart’s book argues the same point by providing a brief history of the relationship between evangelical thought and conservatism in America.
Hart’s work posits that in the past, intellectual leaders of the born-again crowd tend to shun conservatism. Evangelicalism is primarily concerned with the salvation of the person; it likes arguing from natural, God-given rights; and, when push comes to shove, it trusts only the Bible. So instead of being suspicious of large-scale change and jealous for the common good, it embraces revolution (given the right goals) while focusing on individual holiness.
My experience with other Generation Y evangelicals—for most of whom “radical” is anything but a four letter word—coincides with one of Hart’s main contentions: after three decades of being “conservatives” evangelicals haven’t changed much. We make political decisions based mainly on immediate, moral issues instead of working upstream. That’s why a number of my very godly and devout evangelical acquaintances are unabashedly supporters of our current president. It’s not that they don’t care about families or the unborn, but that they approach politics by picking a set of issues. This time they picked his.
The final chapter of Hart’s book is an attempt to facilitate a continuing coalition between evangelicals and the right. But strangely enough, many of his recommendations are a combination of natural rights talk and pre-1970s evangelical apathy towards all things political. To me they sounded something like, “Other religions deserve legal protection too, and besides, petty politics aren’t that important anyway.” Let’s hope this book isn’t part of the last chapter of the history it captures well.
Jace Yarbrough, an officer in the U.S. Air Force, is a staff writer for Humane Pursuits. More by Jace Yarbrough.
Someone Buy This Man A Copy Of Centesimus Annus
The bulk of my previous interactions with D. G. Hart had all been in person–he lectured at, and facilitated, several ISI conferences in which I participated as an undergraduate. My familiarity with his written work extended to one FPR post about pushing cases of beer through the streets of Center City Philadelphia with a shopping cart. Accordingly, the context in which I encountered From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism was a tenuous one. I suspected I would be disinclined to agree with several of his fundamental premises, but I wanted to give the book a fair shot, so I went in with limited expectations. I was unsurprised.
Why the Kids of the Religious Right Aren’t Conservative
D.G. Hart’s book is methodologically weak and often unfair to its subjects. Evangelicals aren’t as homogenous as Hart sometimes makes them out to be, and the solution isn’t to act like Christianity has no implications for culture. But Hart’s history is generally accurate, and he is right about one important thing: evangelicalism has contributed little if anything to the conservative mind. The leaders of the Religious Right might have had some values in common with conservatives, but even they didn’t think like conservatives.
Evangelicals were pretty solidly Republican for a couple decades, mainly because of what they thought. Roe v. Wade, radical sexual politics, militant secularism, and incompetent foreign policy from the Dems were too much of a direct assault on their values and their common sense.
But evangelicals and conservatives have never had much in common in terms of how they think. Evangelicals Left and Right throughout American history have been taught to value the Bible, but not tradition; to understand universal truths, but not the crucial contexts of time and place; to oppose radical change by the bad guys, but not radical change by the good guys.
This has tremendous importance for anyone thinking about what relationship today’s evangelical college kids will have with conservatism, or the Republican Party (not the same thing, of course). At the end of the day, for the evangelical, it tends to boil down to the Bible and Me, and when my professor is busy teaching me how to think, he can shape what conclusions I draw about social justice and greedy Republicans without ever bringing up those Marxist arguments Summit Ministries prepped me to counter. Next thing I know, I have to choose between my parents’ religion and my parents’ politics, because they don’t seem to jive.
And because they taught me so well to love Jesus and read my Bible, I go vote for Obama.
A Translation Problem
Conservatism as this blog knows it was foreign to me four years ago. Well, foreign as conservatism. The conclusions I had drawn from various life experiences, upbringing, and a more recent explosion of Christian thought knew conservatism, they just never would have claimed that address. I pretty much equated the c-word with overalls, unoriginality and the GOP, and so I chose political homelessness over partisan claustrophobia.
Then a job and the other minds it attracted exposed me to Oakeshott, Burke, Kirk and others, and I found myself in kindred company. Some of these folks were Christians, some weren’t. Their thought didn’t touch every truth I had glimpsed, nor did it illicit the sort of sacred longing a C.S. Lewis discussion could. But what attracted me then and now was a shared appreciation for beauty, modesty, and bounded time and place. Eternal gifts meeting finite world, working out the tensions from there.
I share something personal because I don’t think I’m unique here. My cherished Christianity was faith nurtured loosely in the evangelical tradition, but it took landing at a Washington think tank to discover a political philosophy that could provide a vocabulary for the texture of Christian freedom to find ordered, robust life within defined social structures. I had somehow misunderstood what conservatism meant! But who’s to blame?
When D.G. Hart laments the “untold” disconnect between evangelicals and conservatism he tells a true story, even if it is a political rehashing of Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. But he’s too one-sided in condemnation, almost uppity. Evangelicals may get hung up on a “hyper-Biblicized political theory,” and their defining experience of individual transformation certainly encourages a questioning of time-tested social structures, but conservatives need to recognize a messaging problem.
I’m not referring to Fox News’s inability to branch beyond beach blonds and patriotic colors. It goes deeper. Why aren’t there Burkean conservatives out there translating their beloved fabric into language the everyday citizen can digest? Why do so many seem cocooned between the think tank and the bourbon book club? Humility aside for a second, why do conservatism’s greatest proponents allow it to become so badly caricatured? Is it because conservatism is being, not telling (I actually kind of believe this, but then evangelicals and conservatives should have much more in common than Hart allows). Remaining a student (not a card-carrier) of the conservative tradition, I don’t know if Hart’s hope is worth pursuing. The world’s too big to say. But if he really wants evangelicals to restore conservatism’s intent, he’s going to have to begin by re-educating the masses, among whom evangelicals assume a hefty slice. A Mumford & Sons concert isn’t a bad place to begin. Just try explaining their conservative lilt on the way home. That’ll spark something.
Anne Snyder works to keep levity and gravitas see-sawing from her window along the columnist corridor at The New York Times in Washington, DC. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and International Relations from Wheaton College (IL).