Thomas Kidd’s recent blog post about a relatively little-known political demographic—”paleo-evangelicals”—has sparked an interesting conversation about how Christians approach politics and how a generation gap contributes to those differences.
In Kidd’s definition on the Anxious Bench blog, paleo-evangelicals are Evangelicals who hold the GOP at arm’s length because they’re suspicious of American civil religion, they do not expect any political party to do much good, and they disagree with the party position on certain issues (such as war and immigration). Yet they tend to vote Republican because that party is less hostile, at least, to their convictions and priorities than the Democratic Party is.
Bart Gingerich, writing on Juicy Ecumenism, accepts the label and reflects:
Civil religion exists everywhere and at all times, but my generation works hard to differentiate between true Christianity and the American civil religion. Also, when civil religion comes under attack, my generation has little-to-no desire to defend it. . . .
Political skepticism, which Kidd envisions as a characteristic of the paleo-evangelicals, is a venerable habit of conservatives and Christians alike. . . . Our nation—whether it be the Roman Empire or the American republic—is doomed to mortality and corruption since it is the City of Man. We look after her and seek her good, but we really don’t expect too much out of human leaders. No, America is not the hope of the world, and we better not be claiming that it is such. That office belongs to the Christ.
He adds that his conservative political views spring from prudence, not faith, and that as a paleo-evangelical he believes that “movement conservatism is an ideology, not an inclination or the principled application of prudence.”
Luke Moon, also on Juicy Ecumenism, argues that some criticisms of Evangelicals for their alleged political sins rely on straw men and points out that the gap between paleo-evangelicals and “movement conservatives” is in part a generational one. On the question of civil religion he writes:
While I agree that American civil religion differs in many areas from Christianity, and defending civil religion is not our calling, the swampy part is that it is not always easy to differentiate. Part [of] the reason it is hard is because quite a few of the tenets of civil religion are in fact tenets of Christianity. In many of the issues where civil religion and Christianity merge, what we in fact are witnessing is the impact of light-filled Christians living and working in their communities and the light of Christ is a blessing to the community. . . .
[Yet] American civil religion and Christianity are quickly drifting apart. Those who see the value of both seek to hold them together because they see it as good for society overall. Those who see American civil religion as getting in the way of true Christian faith are fine with the separation. The latter is more reflective of establishment conservatives, while the former is more reflective of paleo-evangelicals.
I’m Catholic, but Kidd’s description of the political views of paleo-evangelicals fits me pretty well, and I can relate to everything Bart Gingerich wrote about young Christians’ suspicion of politics.
Even at my alma mater, a college known nationwide for its political conservatism, you’ll find students of every denomination deeply suspicious of civil religion, fed up with the Republican Party, and disenchanted with the entire political system, often for the exact reasons Kidd and Gingerich note.
Young Christians may feel a duty to be active in the public sphere, but we’re wary of conflating our identity as Americans with our identity as Christians. We’re reluctant to call ourselves Republicans because we don’t support the whole party platform. We’re less likely than older generations to see America as the world’s greatest country, much less as a nation with a divine mission to spread our own political system worldwide. And I have a hard time seeing such changes as a bad thing.