Symposium: Evangelicals and Conservatism

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?

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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

Jace Yarbrough

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

Miriel Thomas

Miriel Thomas

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.

Hart’s central argument–that the American religious right is not, in fact, all that conservative–does not seem to me to be all that radical. I agree with his assessment that evangelicals ought to think carefully about the connection between their social values and the political institutions and practices that are more (or less) likely to uphold those values. As Brian Brown notes, Hart’s point that evangelicals have contributed little to the conservative intellectual tradition seems to stand scrutiny–evangelical political figures tend to embody activism and movement more than thoughtful preservation and gradual change.
But the solution Hart suggests for the, ahem, Reformation of evangelical political life in America is unsatisfactory to me. Hart, a stiffly starched Orthodox Presbyterian, offers Two Kingdoms theology as an antidote to the hyper-Biblicized political theory of American evangelicals. He seems to overlook the possibility of a body of social and political thought that takes into account both the temporal and eternal ends of man without appealing exclusively to Scripture for its authority. Hart may be right that American evangelicalism is not sufficiently conservative; he does not seem to realize that Calvinism (which, one might note, was anything but conservative in its day) is not the only alternative.
Miriel Thomas, a graduate student in political science, is a staff writer for Humane Pursuits. More by Miriel Thomas.

Why the Kids of the Religious Right Aren’t Conservative

Brian Brown

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.

Brian Brown, editor of Humane Pursuits, is CEO of Narrator. More by Brian Brown.

A Translation Problem

Anne Snyder

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).

7 Comments

  • Avatar
    January 11, 2012

    Joe Carter (@joecarter)

    Great job on this symposium. I especially appreciated the contributions by Ms. Snyder and Ms. Thomas.

  • Brian Brown
    January 11, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Thanks!

  • Avatar
    January 29, 2012

    dghart

    Brian Brown, I am curious why you think this book is “methodogically weak” and “often unfair.” I am especially interested to know because you go on to say that “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.”

    Since my book was meant to be historical (the method) and since its conclusion is the same as yours about evangelicalism’s lack of a contribution to conservatism, I’m scratching my head on your point about methodology.

    And that leads to the point about fairness. Do you need to take your own medicine?

  • Avatar
    January 29, 2012

    dghart

    Miriel, do millennials not drink beer? Why would a post about doing something eco-friendly, like walking beer home instead of taking a cab, put you off from this book?

    I’m also curious though where you get the idea that the book advocates 2k theology. I do hold that but I self-consciously left it out of the book. As for “the possibility of a body of social and political thought that takes into account both the temporal and eternal ends of man without appealing exclusively to Scripture for its authority,” do you think that Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton are evangelicals, or Mark Henrie or Patrick Deneen? Those were the interlocutors I put into play in the conclusion, not theologians, biblical scholars, or even believers necessarily.

  • Brian Brown
    January 29, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Dr. Hart, thanks for weighing in.

    Perhaps I’ve spent too much time with my friends who have Ph.D.s in history, and all their talk about historiography, but I found the book’s stated purpose methodologically different from what you actually did. The book is framed as a history of a group of people (even the title, evangelicals as opposed to evangelicalism), which seems to imply it falls into a category like social history (or, if we want to get really technical, maybe even New Political History). But you actually focus on what I believe you describe as “thought leaders” (mainly a mix of writers and politicians). You do what is pretty normal for conservative historians, which is to focus on the idea shapers (perhaps implying, in contrast to trendy social historians from the last century, that it is men who shape history and not the other way around).

    So expecting to read a book about evangelicals, I found myself reading a book about evangelical-ISM, as shaped by the elites within it. This isn’t by any means a bad thing to focus on, but since you hold up the leaders and the movement as more or less synonymous, you make generalizations about the opinions and beliefs of the group based on a fairly small (if logically chosen) sampling of its leaders at any given point. This leads you, I think, to be harder on the group than it sometimes deserves (“unfair”). When you get into later chapters talking about the /effects/ of the evangelical political mindset, you sometimes describe things that were true of high-profile evangelicals but not necessarily a movement as a whole, or of conservative evangelicals but not liberal ones (sadly I returned the book to the library or I’d have examples to cite).

    Like you, I’m critical of much of what we’ve seen from evangelical politics. But having grown up in the evangelical tradition (oxymoron alert!) myself, I’m hesitant to be quite as glib in lumping evangelicals at particular points together into a homogenous mass.

    Bottom line, I thought some of the earlier parts of your book (especially the first chapter) tended to be uncharitable, and not always fairly so due to the mixed methodologies I mentioned. The further I got into the book, the more I found to like (some exceptions of course), and the chapter on Burke and evangelicals was excellent. But then, I was predisposed to agree with your argument in the first place, so I was an easy sell. Thank you for writing the book, and for contributing to this conversation about it.

  • Avatar
    January 31, 2012

    dghart

    Brian, I’m glad you weren’t my editor. You put a lot of weight on a word — evangelicals, as opposed to evangelicalism. No matter how much you’ve talked about historiography, all history is selective. And all historians make judgments about what evidence permits a generalization or not. People talk about Americans a lot. Is that illegitimate?

    But I think your reading faults me for something I did not do — lumping. I discuss evangelicals (if I may use that word) from both sides of the political spectrum, from Jim Wallis to Ralph Reed. What is more, I take as exemplary evangelicals who are thoughtful. I did not resort to using folks like David Barton or Pat Robertson (though you could argue that with their followings they are pretty representative). I actually tried to look at the best representatives of evangelical political reflection. I don’t understand how that is unfair.

    As for mischaracterizing them, you seem to agree that evangelicals are not conservative. That was the point of the book — to look at sixty years of evangelical political reflection and see how much it interacted and overlapped with the various schools of conservatism. What I found was that evangelicals have spent little time with the arguments of conservatives and I tried to explain why that is (a heavy emphasis on the Bible as the main source of truth). But since you wind up with the same characterization of evangelicals as I, I still wonder about your characterization of my book.

  • Avatar
    May 26, 2012

    Sergey

    I’m with you — though I’m conimg from the other direction. I’m a lifelong Democrat, disturbed by my party’s dogmatism on abortion. Though, the events of the past 4 years made me unable to vote for too many Republicans in good conscience, this time ’round.I’m trying to develop a primarily around the issue of how faith informs politics. Sorry to self-promote, but I think you might be interested. Hope you’ll stop by.