Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin:
Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism

by D. G. Hart
?Eerdmans, 252 pages, $25

The title of historian D. G. Hart’s new book, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism , is somewhat misleading. Hart doesn’t actually think that evangelicals have betrayed conservatism but rather that they were never very conservative in the first place. The marriage was an uneasy match from the start, and the recent distancing of the younger generation from the religious right is precisely what history should lead us to expect.

As Hart explains, evangelicals began in the nineteenth century as zealous reformers and social gospellers, and today they are only reverting to type. They believe in conversion, unexpected revival, and the timeless truth of the Bible. And so, more often than not, they tend to sit crossways to traditions and established institutions, to get impatient with gradualism and compromise, and to trouble the status quo with sweeping, radical reforms drawn directly from the pages of Scripture.

While “high church” believers such as Catholics and ethnic Lutherans tended to focus their energies on building parishes, schools, and neighborhoods, “low church” evangelicals tended to look past the Church to America, their own “city on a hill,” inspiring countless moral crusades to create a righteous empire and a redeemer nation. National moral crusades seemed only natural to evangelicals influenced by the optimistic, revivalist perfectionism of Charles Finney and Henry Ward Beecher but were looked on with skepticism by those who followed the more somber Augustine, Luther, or Calvin.

In other words, evangelicals may well be better understood not as conservatives but as radical reformers. The era of Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson was the exception to the rule, a truth difficult to see in the Christian Coalition’s heyday but now becoming clear.

How did evangelicals come to be thought of as conservatives when they were not so to begin with? The commonsensical biblicism of nineteenth-century evangelical politics drew upon religious language that most Americans shared. But in the early-twentieth-century split between fundamentalists and modernists, modernists kept the Social Gospel and fundamentalists kept the rest of the traditional biblical storehouse, and that could no longer sustain their political witness.

The public reaction to the Scopes Monkey Trial, and H. L. Mencken’s ruthless skewering of William Jennings Bryan, showed that the proprietary relationship between evangelicalism and America no longer made sense. Public opinion laughed at Bryan’s reliance on traditional biblical language to make public political arguments, and evangelicals effectively went into political hiding for the next fifty years.

When, provoked by the cultural turmoil of the 1970s, evangelicals came back into active public life, they did so with many of the flaws that had left them so vulnerable to Mencken’s withering attack. As Richard John Neuhaus argued in his influential 1984 book The Naked Public Square, evangelicals had still not learned how to translate their biblically formed convictions into public political arguments.

And as Hart shows, their tendency to replace the Church with America led many evangelicals, like best-selling writer Peter Marshall Jr., to embark on a quixotic historical quest for America’s origins as a “Christian nation.” Evangelicals began to churn out an endless stream of books purporting to set forth “God’s plan for America” and a blueprint for “biblical” politics, with precious little attention to the finer points of the American experience or to political theory in general. Their historic optimism and impatience led them to embrace various ill-considered political ventures, like the Moral Majority, that tended to function better as target practice for liberals than as viable political movements.

Yet despite this, and despite their alliance with the Republican party, they remained the radical reformers that they had been all along. 1976, Newsweek’s “Year of the Evangelical,” was thusly christened in large part owing to Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate for president.

The prevailing political wind quickly swept evangelicals into the Reagan coalition, but, Hart argues, this does not necessarily mean they became conservative. Michael Gerson, for example, is an evangelical “conservative” who is actually anything but. Hart points to his book Heroic Conservatism , as well as to the Bush administration that Gerson worked for, as showing all the hallmarks of evangelicalism’s idealistic reforming zeal and precious little of conservatism’s traditional concerns for prudence, limits, order, and original sin.

One possible evangelical response to this would be: So what? Evangelicals are rightly more concerned about betraying their Lord than about betraying American conservatism, and many of them will conclude from Hart’s history lesson that they would be better off to leave conservatism behind as a failed experiment and to re-embrace instead their radical, progressive roots.

But although many already have, Hart thinks that evangelicals would do well to take another look at their oddly matched conservative bride. Although the marriage has been rocky, he argues that neither movement has reason to file for divorce. In fact, conservatism stands ready to give evangelicals the public political arguments they’ve always needed to defend what they care about.

Evangelicals were drawn to the Republican party in the 1970s out of concern for the little platoons of society they wanted to protect from the onslaughts of liberalism: their own churches, schools, and families, along with the values that they saw as necessary to the proper flourishing of these institutions. These are genuinely conservative insights, Hart thinks, and well worth fighting for.

But, ironically, their embrace of the power of the liberal state to further their conservative concerns has worked against them. Evangelicals, in keeping with their penchant for sweeping reform and their tendency to look past the Church to America, took naturally to the grand political strategies of the nascent religious right.

This was, Hart insists, in large part a devil’s bargain. The expansion of the modern liberal state and the free market has come at the expense of mediating institutions, communities, and distinctive traditions and values. Instead of pouring much of their energy into federal politics and too quickly signing on to the GOP’s embrace of libertarian economics, evangelicals should have been more wary of the unintended consequences of wielding the forces of modernity to advance “conservative” ends.

Much better, to Hart’s mind, would have been more sustained attention to the particular cultural goods and traditions that conservatives value, much of which has little to do with national politics. Concern for the health of these little platoons got evangelicals back into politics in the first place, and it’s at this level that Christians’ public and political mission itself should be focused.

For conservatives, what makes America great is not its supposed origin as a “Christian nation” but the wisdom of its founders in restraining the power of the nation-state and allowing states, local communities, schools, churches, and families to flourish in all their particularity. Evangelicals should put down their Bibles long enough to learn what the Federalist Papers , Edmund Burke, and Russell Kirk have to teach them, precisely out of concern for what the Bible would have them do.

At bottom, Hart’s deepest argument is theological. Evangelicals need to embrace not only conservatism but the Augustinian anthropology and ecclesiology that undergird it: its realistic view of original sin and of human limits and its awareness that the city of man will never become the city of God through our efforts. For Hart, as for Augustine, there is no redeemer nation, only a Redeemer’s church.

He may not, as evangelical conservatives like Michael Gerson would argue, say enough about how conservatism without evangelical conviction and hope can all too easily devolve into quietism and local prejudice. But particularly for our present moment, when evidence of the limits of the modern state and economy seem to be on the front page of every morning’s newspaper, a counsel of prudence and a reminder of original sin is probably just what we need”evangelicals and other Americans alike.

Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School.