From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism, D.G. Hart, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 252 pages

By Doug Wead and Charity Campbell | November 16, 2011

Darryl Hart’s new book on the role of evangelicals and the conservative movement offers a critical missing piece in understanding the ongoing role of evangelical Christians in American politics. You will not fully understand the 2012 election cycle without it at your side.

As an account of history, Hart’s work plows no new ground. For example, he misses entirely the role of Congressman John Conlan, who actually recruited D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ed McAteer, and the others whose conservative politics shaped the emerging so-called, “Religious Right.” Instead, Hart relies on a rehashed version of the story provided by the mainstream media, a more Catholic, Paul Weyrich-influenced account. Hart follows the trail by reviewing the roles of evangelical leaders of influence such as Billy Graham, Carl McIntire, Marvin Olasky, Chuck Colson, Ron Sider, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, and James Dobson and Focus on the Family.

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The power in Hart’s work comes from his convincing analysis of what has happened in recent years, how the movement has evolved, and where it is now likely to go. Hart shows convincingly that there is a major disconnect between the Evangelical movement and American conservatives in general, with their demands of a limited role for government.

Hart looks at the major evangelical political figures and their motivations for electoral involvement. He describes the transition from Robertson and Falwell to new leaders like Rick Warren, Jim Wallis, and Ron Sider, concluding that these new faces of American evangelicalism are less than the perfect picture of a traditional conservative. Some are promoting left-of-center policies, and it seems as if a younger generation of evangelicals identifies with them.

The reason? Hart argues that at the core of evangelical values is religious and moral idealism. Evangelicals do not push for limited government but instead ask for government answers to moral or social problems. Because of this, the American evangelical is not anchored to classical conservatism, nor do they understand the heart of conservative values. This, Hart predicts, will likely lead evangelicals to shift to the left, unless they can understand and accept the idea of a lesser role for government in sparking social and moral change. Hart suggests that the left’s ambitions of progress, change, and social improvement may be more appealing to the new generation of evangelicals.

Hart’s book gives a history of the involvement of evangelicals in politics from World War II to the present. This involvement began with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942. This group’s motivation for political action was based on a strong moral conviction. They addressed current issues such as alcohol consumption, religion and education, and the threat of communism. The NAE quickly became known for standing for shameless patriotism, moral crusading, and referring to the Bible as the foundation for American public policy.

But the NAE was an historical anomaly, Hart reminds his readers that most evangelicals before the 1970s were politically passive. The evangelical world was focused on its spiritual mission, oblivious to the world around it. It was a flurry of decisions by the Supreme Court, including Roe v. Wade, that changed everything. Now government was intruding on their way of life. This threat gave rise to the Moral Majority in 1979, which intended to mobilize Christians by invoking biblical principles in defense of the free-enterprise system, criticizing the money spent on welfare programs, and emphasizing the threat of communism.

In 1980, the swing of evangelical voters from Democrat Jimmy Carter to Republican Ronald Reagan was twice the size of the non-evangelical swing vote. For the first time, evangelical voters and their ability to move en masse was measured on a grand scale. In 1986, after the dissolution of the Moral Majority, leadership of the political evangelicals passed to Pat Robertson, who ran for president two years later. Hart also discusses the subsequent leadership roles of Ralph Reed and Marvin Olasky in the 1990s.

The author spends some time on the difficulties of evangelicals being politically conservative. If evangelicals truly want to be conservative, he writes, a number of basic concepts must be considered. First is the source of American greatness. Does it spring from the country’s religious identity or its political order? One must acknowledge that “liberty for all” means legal protection and status for non-Christian groups and even those opposed to Christianity. And one must acknowledge that political solutions do not solve cultural and character problems.

Hart analyzes the publications of several influential evangelicals in the last quarter of the 20thh-century, including Peter Marshall, Jr., Francis Schaeffer, Donald Dayton, Tim LaHaye, Chuck Colson, James Skillen, Randall Balmer, Tony Campolo and Michael Gerson. Many of the right-leaning authors in this group, Hart observes, appeal to a Christian origin for the United States, a foundation from which Americans and their government are said to have precipitously declined. This historical conception has inspired crusading political efforts to stem the tide of personal immorality and what is perceived to be the social and political assault on the family.

Left-leaning authors, on the other hand, often appeal to a comprehensive social vision that they believe derives from the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ teaching concerning the Kingdom of God. This vision prompts them to attempt to redress, through political means, racial inequity, injustice, poverty, and human rights. For all their differences, Hart concludes, these writers — right and left – tend to reflect an unbending and uncompromising moral idealism, appeal directly to the Bible as an authority in ordering the affairs of the United States, conceive of the United States as playing a unique and divinely-assigned role in world affairs, demonstrate “theological naiveté about human depravity,” and fail “to see the links between political convictions and [the] legal and political forms” embedded in over two centuries of American “federalism, republicanism, and constitutionalism.”

We should not be surprised at the political shift in evangelical sentiment over the last decade. Whereas evangelicals may have identified themselves with conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, this union really represents a marriage of convenience. Evangelicals saw the Republican Party and its policies as the best hope for stemming what they considered to be the widespread assault on the traditional family. Evangelicals, however, are not reliably conservative because they do not — and never have — self-consciously operated from conservative principles.

What are these principles? Hart acknowledges the difficulty of answering this question. For one thing, conservatism “is inherently opposed to ideology.” Why? “Thinking about how to be traditional, as opposed simply to living with received customs, is an indication that tradition has ended.” Furthermore, 20th-century political conservatism has proven something of a kaleidoscope. Hart references George H. Nash’s famous analysis of mid-century conservatism as a cord comprised of three diverse strands: traditionalism, libertarianism, and anti-communism. These strands have not always co-existed harmoniously. Conservatism’s paterfamilias, William F. Buckley Jr., after all, famously and unambiguously expelled both Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society from the household.

For Hart, the traditionalist Russell Kirk provides as good a definition of conservatism as one will find. Kirk proposes six “canons” of conservatism. 1) “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.” 2) “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.” 3) The “conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.” 4) “Freedom and property are closely linked.” 5) “Faith in prescription, or ‘custom and convention, coupled with a distrust of sophisters, calculators, and economists.” 6) The idea that “hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.”

Hart concludes the book by arguing that “evangelicals should be conservative.” What might this look like? Evangelicals should first “reconsider the source of American greatness,” which rests not in what is said to be America’s Christian origins but in her heritage of limited government, religious freedom, and the prioritization of “culture and character formation” to “political solutions.” Evangelicals should also “reconsider the source of Christian greatness.” The “true mark of faithfulness is not evident in outward displays of power [but] in simple, ordinary, and spiritual ways, such as saints gathered for prayer and worship, catechumens learning the church’s creed, or the care of widows, orphans, and the otherwise dispossessed.” If the church takes this standard to heart, then she will value “spiritual warfare” more than “the culture wars” and understand herself to be a “pilgrim” and not a “crusader.”

Hart’s book rightly stresses that evangelicals, as citizens, ought not to withdraw from civic and political participation. His prescription is decidedly not quietist. Evangelicals should, however, engage in more reflection and self-criticism when it comes to participating in public affairs. Conservatism offers a largely untested means by which evangelicals may contribute to the public good in ways that will not contravene but complement their most basic beliefs and commitments. Even if Hart does not detail a comprehensive overview of the diversity of the resources of American conservatism — for instance, he mentions but does not explore the natural law tradition — he has sufficiently whetted the reader’s appetite to pursue a promising way forward.

Hart’s book is also a timely reminder to the church not to seek godly ends by worldly means. The Scripture has given to the church not only a mission all her own but also the means to carry it out. There is no question or doubt about the outcome of that mission—even the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church. The question is whether evangelicals will summon the nerve to resist the siren calls of worldly power and invest their energies in an enterprise in which divine power is made evident in human weakness.

Doug Wead is author of All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families. He blogs at dougwead.wordpress.com. Charity Campbell is the coalitions coordinator for the Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign. The views expressed in this review are their own.