The coming crackup? Evangelicals and the GOP

“Does anyone have a grip on the G.O.P.?” Matt Bai explores that question in today’s New York Times, and his answer is: it’s complicated. A fragile coalition exists between Republican establishment types and tea party upstarts, each a little suspicious of the other. What he finds uncomplicated, however, is that evangelicals have become part of the G.O.P. establishment, even calling them “movement conservatives.”

But are evangelicals really movement conservatives? Historian D.G. Hart doesn’t necessarily think so, and sees a crackup between evangelicals and the G.O.P. as more than an outside possibility.

In his new book, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism, Hart takes a look back at evangelical politics and finds few similarities with the ideas of William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review and the standard-bearer of American conservatism.

Using Buckley as a benchmark, along with Russell Kirk and others, evangelicals don’t look so conservative after all. Rather, their place in the conservative movement over the past several decades may be more of an historical anomaly than anything else.

Starting in the early decades of the twentieth century, Hart traces out how Protestant evangelicals suffered a major internal breakup, splitting them into two major camps: fundamentalist soul-winners and mainline social justice activists — with the former seeing politics as a job for someone else and the latter seeing it as one of the church’s top priorities.

Over time, however, both camps saw the allure of politics for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Fundamentalists lamented the breakup of the family as a source of decline, and concentrated on taking back the culture for Christ. Mainliners saw race, class, and gender inequalities as problems to be solved, and concentrated on policies aimed at social justice.

And so while they may have had different ideas about what needed to be done, the wheels were set in motion for increased evangelical political activism. Competing organizations were created, policies announced and before long evangelicals were a bona fide voting bloc. But to call their activism conservative, Hart argues, is to stretch the bounds of how American conservatism has been defined since the middle of the last century.

To frame the contrast, Hart draws from Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) and his “six canons” of conservative thought. Kirk’s conservatives were those holding a belief in natural law, opposition to uniformity, resistance to equality of outcomes, support for the link between property and freedom, faith in custom, and resistance to significant change. Hence, a strong attachment to limited government, constitutionalism, and tradition.

Evangelicals have impulses that are quite different, Hart argues, impulses that lead to activism and reform. First, evangelicals tend to believe that even in politics the Bible is the only reliable authority. This creates “rival authorities” between the Bible and the Constitution. Second, the appeal to the Bible blurs the distinction between public and private spheres. Third, evangelicals view the United States as a nation favored by God to redeem the world.

Already, it becomes apparent that conservatives and evangelicals do not necessarily see things the same way. Conservatives are skeptical of wide-ranging plans for social change while evangelicals are optimistic that they can work.

But Hart lays out two additional traits of the evangelical mind: optimism about Christian holiness (which he calls a “naiveté about human depravity”) and a resistance to formalism. These aspects of evangelical idealism do not seem to have all that much in common with the fundamental realism of American conservatism.