For over the last twenty five years evangelicals (a form of Protestantism distinct from mainline or liberal denominations) were known to be politically conservative and politically passive.
The rallying voices of the last twenty five years (Robertson, Dobson, Falwell, etc.) are aging and dying. A transition is underway. Tensions are surfacing between evangelicals and the Right. Evangelical baby boomers are drifting to the left. (Rick Warren is given as an example.) There is an evangelicalism discomfort with conservatism. (9)
With this introduction, Hart gives a historical account of evangelical politics since WW II. Evangelicals saw the Bible as a better guide to the affairs of the U. S. than the constitution or the tenets of federalism. The evangelical intelligentsia is moving to the political left and they are the ones teaching in Christian colleges, writing books, and training future pastors.
Born again Protestants claim to be conservative but their assumptions and aims are at odds with conservatism. If evangelicals want to be classically conservative, they need to reconsider the way faith relates to politics. “This reconsideration will involve the recovery of an older Augustinian view of the relationship between the City of God and the City of Man, in which the ultimate purposes of history are not located in the rise and fall of empires or republics but in the church of Jesus Christ.” (17-18) “Rather than looking at the American nation as the divinely instituted polity to make straight the way of the Lord,” they must see the relatively unimportance of the nation-state for such ends. (18) “If evangelicals can come to the realization that the United States is the far more superior the less it is a religious juggernaut or a military hyperpower, they may actually become truly conservative.” (18)
Fundamentalists emerged in the early 1900s as distinct from the established denominations. It was regarded as anti-intellectual. Some Protestants saw a way out of this by forming a new group, coined evangelicals (1942, National Association of Evangelicals). This group was somewhere between theological liberals and fundamentalists (who had become somewhat militant). The new Evangelicals wanted to Christianize the social order. They assumed America was a Christian (Protestant) nation and Christians should do all in their power to preserve that heritage. They generally remained politically silent, concentrating on soul-winning. The health of the nation depended upon the spirituality of its individuals.
As the twentieth century unfolded, evangelicals concentrated on opposing new ideas like Darwinism and Marxism, and concentrated on personal evangelism, rather than advancing social justice. Evangelicals began to call for a smaller government with fewer social services. For some, “...conservatism was simply a function of middle-class interests, individualism and personal liberty, indifference to the poor, and opposition to the welfare state.” (54-55) Evangelicals began to promote the providential role of America in history, that God had a unique plan for America, a covenant relationship with God similar to that with Israel. (68) Peter Marshall's claim, in The Light and the Glory, was “that the United States had been established by providential control and had entered into a national covenant in which the country would enjoy God's blessings if faithful and suffer curses if disobedient.” (72)
Francis Schaeffer emerged in the mid 1960s with the message that “political problems were essentially religious and moral problems,” and, “political and cultural disorder is nothing less than a manifestation of spiritual malaise.” (76-77) Schaeffer wrote of the necessity of recovering the nation's Christian basis and the dangers of secular humanism. “The founding of the United States was the embodiment of Reformation politics.” (78) Other evangelical historians countered by writing that the founding and early history of the nation did not fulfill the criteria for a “Christian nation.”
Mainstream media and academics were hostile to the fundamentalists becoming politically active. Richard Neuhaus suggested that was because of the presumption the more advanced a society became, the less influential religion would be. That was proving not to be the case. (94-95)
Jimmy Carter was the fist president elected who openly identified himself as “born again.” His politics, however, did not satisfy many Protestant leaders. Carter did not have the right answers at a breakfast for prominent evangelical preachers and afterward they decided to active in politics and wake up Christians. (97) Falwell formed the Moral Majority in 1979. He wrote on the biblical value placed on free enterprise, criticized the money spent on welfare programs, and communist threat. (100-102)
But this influence was short lived as the Moral Majority was shut down in 1985, as was the work of LaHaye, the American Coalition. By 1986 polls showed widely held negative views of Falwell and the Religious Right. (115) Leadership passed to Pat Robertson. He ran for president and had some decent early showings until Bush gained control.
Hart continues his historical review with the influences of Ralph Reed and Marvin Olasky.
Hart spends quite some time on the difficulties of evangelicals being politically conservative. If evangelicals truly want to be conservative, he gives several concepts that must be considered. First is the source of American greatness (is it from its religious identity or its political order). Acknowledge that “liberty for all” means legal protection and status for groups non Christian and even opposed to Christianity. Acknowledge that political solutions do not solve cultural and character problems. Those are a few – he has more.
It would seem that there is a need for a different understanding than Christians thinking they can make a better world through politics. Change in culture generally does not come through politics.
Nonetheless, Hart suggests, “Evangelicals should kick the tires of conservatism and give it a test drive.” (226)
Hart himself is not always objective. When reviewing the work of Randall Balmer (an egalitarian), Hart writes, “Despite the New Testament's clear instruction about male ordination...” (165) That is an intimidating statement! The instruction on ordination is by no means “clear” as many denominations and authors have differing views on women and ministry attest. This is a reminder that one must always read with discrimination and not be intimidated by statements such as this one of Hart's.
Hart's book reads like a college textbook. It is not easy reading. And don't let the mention of Palin in the title influence you. She's not mentioned. If you seriously want to know the history and relationship of evangelicalism and conservatism, this is the book for you.
Eerdmans, 226 pages.