A review of From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism, by D. G. Hart

A reliable Republican constituency in recent decades, evangelical Christian voters have been crucial contributors to GOP presidential victories since the Reagan Administration. In his provocative new book on the past century of evangelical engagement with American politics, D.G. Hart asks whether that will continue to be the case—and whether evangelicals are even politically conservative.

Part of his argument follows from his understanding of conservatism and part from his account of evangelicalism. Hart, an adjunct professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California, largely identifies conservatism not with the American Founders or with natural rights but with Russell Kirk’s “granddaddy of all definitions,” which emphasized, among other things, transcendence, localism or particularity, order, and prescription, along with a distaste for ideological abstraction and systematizing. Hart makes some gestures in the direction of the “fusionism” that marked National Review‘s early history, even as he recognizes that market-oriented libertarianism and anti-Communism are in tension with Kirk’s traditionalism.

What seems to loom largest here is that, when the original members of the conservative coalition were having their conversations and working out a modus vivendi, evangelicals were not at the table. The “born-again faith,” Hart tells us, “added nothing to the conservative mind.” Their concerns, and the language in which they expressed them, were not represented in the pages of National Review or Modern Age.

To be sure, the “unreflective” (as he puts it) evangelical positions lined up nicely with conservatism. Evangelicals favored “liberty, democracy, and small government” and opposed Communism, but these positions were less the consequence of their serious, distinctive engagement with the challenges and opportunities of American life, and more the expression of the larger culture in which they were raised. In other words, conservatism was an accidental, not an essential, consequence or component of evangelicalism.

In fact, as Hart argues, some distinctively evangelical commitments and habits of mind are, for the most part, inimical to conservatism. For example, like their mainline cousins, American evangelicals are attracted to political activism to restrain or abolish vice. This Bible-based moralism tends to make them impatient with the limited, localized government that is for Hart the hallmark of conservatism. They readily fall prey to the temptation to use the levers of government—at any and every level—to promote their favored moral objectives. Although this is not precisely the result of evangelical Biblicism—the Gospels, after all, distinguish between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God—it does suggest a failure to engage seriously with the traditions of conservatism and American constitutionalism.

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Nonetheless, Hart argues, there is still time for evangelicals to “kick the tires of conservatism and give it a test drive.” After all, “the very instincts that drew evangelicals into the political fray were fundamentally conservative,” above all, the desire “to protect institutions for passing on their faith to their children—families, churches, and religious schools.” To that end, he offers a number of suggestions that would help evangelicals and conservatives make their peace with one another. For example, he would have evangelicals recognize that what makes America great—to the extent that it is—is not its character as a Christian nation, but rather its adherence (often honored in the breach nowadays) to conservative political insights.

Connected with this appreciation of the limits of politics and government is the recognition that “political solutions do not solve the problems of culture and character formation.” If, as traditionalist conservatives believe, “politics is merely a reflection of culture,” then public policy can neither save nor restore the culture, a role for civil society’s local institutions: family, church, and neighborhood. Finally, Hart enjoins evangelicals to “acknowledge that spiritual warfare is of greater significance than the culture wars” and “understand that Christians are called to be not crusaders but pilgrims.” For Hart, the comfortable accommodation of evangelicalism and conservatism requires most of the movement to come from the side of the former—some in the direction of the “secular” insights of the latter and some in a return to a more “Augustinian” appreciation of the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man.

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There is much to admire in this book, and much that readers—both conservative and evangelical—can learn from it. Above all, everyone can profit from the author’s thoughtful and pointed summaries of some of the high points of evangelical political commentary in the past half-century, from Carl F.H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer to James Skillen, Jim Wallis, and Michael Gerson.

Still, his argument is not without its problems. For one thing, he overcorrects the common impression—perpetuated by pundits—that evangelicals are conservative. On the contrary, Hart believes they’re moving leftward. His evidence is unpersuasive. True, there was a modest six-point decline in evangelical support for John McCain in 2008 (as opposed to George W. Bush in 2004), but there are plenty of explanations for this other than a leftward drift among evangelicals. Although there are self-described evangelical intellectuals who identify largely with the political Left, there always have been. Are their voices louder or more prominent than their conservative evangelical counterparts? Perhaps if you pay attention only to the mainstream media, which has long been predicting an evangelical crack-up (to accompany the conservative crack-up), it might seem so. In any event, Hart doesn’t offer any evidence on which to form a balanced assessment. Indeed, a book that has little to say about Sarah Palin (except in its title), makes no mention of Pete Wehner, Dinesh D’Souza, or Mike Huckabee, and refers only in passing to the Tea Party (where evangelicals play a prominent role) cannot claim to treat comprehensively the contemporary evangelical engagement in politics.

Of course, Hart could point to prominent evangelicals who have broadened their political agendas to include poverty, the African AIDS crisis, and environmental policy, among other things. But it is quite possible to arrive at these issues from a recognizably conservative point of view. For example, to the degree that the most intimate communities are grounded in love and charity, wouldn’t conservatives who care about community care also about the plight of their impoverished or dying neighbors? And wouldn’t anyone who appreciates the limits of human power also appreciate the way in which human beings can try to find their place in harmony with nature? Rod Dreher, editor of The American Conservative, tried to make that case in his book, Crunchy Cons (2006). Perhaps a 21st-century conservative fusionism might join slightly different sets of concerns. In any case, sophisticated evangelicals—who for the record are as well versed in natural law and Catholic social teaching as anyone at National Review—deserve a place in any contemporary conservative conversation.

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Conservatives of all stripes might have something to learn from the conversation—for starters, it’s a conversation, not a monologue to which evangelicals must dutifully listen. The local and anti-theoretical aspects of traditionalist conservatism exist in some tension with its attachment to a transcendent order, a tension that can be minimized if the transcendent order manifests itself in a particular story. Stated this way, it would seem that traditionalists and evangelicals might have something in common. Perhaps conservatives might benefit from the long tradition of Christian reflection on the relationship between the universal revelation and the particular lives of those who receive it. I would be the first to admit that too many American evangelicals—not just in the pews but also in the pulpits—have acted as if there isn’t a problem here, that God’s will is clear to everyone who has faith and that America is unquestionably and simply a “Christian nation.” But Hart’s response—a simple invocation of the “separation of church and state” formula and a reminder that the U.S. is increasingly diverse—is neither more sophisticated nor more satisfying. Whether America’s founders fashioned their political thought on a Christian foundation or simply presumed a largely Christian culture in which their institutions would operate, would it not make sense to have a serious conversation with those most intent on preserving that heritage?

D.G. Hart’s new book quite reasonably argues that evangelicals have a lot to learn from conservatives. Evangelicals could quite reasonably respond that conservatives have a lot to learn from them, if conservatism is to remain both vital and true to its authentically American roots.