From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism.
By D. G. Hart.
Eerdmans, 2011. 237 pages. $25.

With this book and his earlier A Secular Faith, Daryl Hart has put his force of persuasion strongly behind the idea of a secular politics. What makes Hart somewhat unique in this regard is that those who argue for divorcing faith from politics are usually leftists horrified by the specter of Bible-thumping Christians both strengthening and radicalizing the right. Hart is very much a traditionalist and a Christian, but argues against his co-religionists trying to develop a politics derived from the lordship of Christ.

In the course of making his argument, Hart takes time to highlight ideas from many of the Americans who have sought to embody their faith commitments in political thinking and action. Examples include William Jennings Bryan, Carl F. H. Henry, Jim Wallis, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo. All of the individuals listed could, indeed, be considered evangelicals by one reckoning or the other and that is part of Hart’s point. How can it be said that the evangelical faith gives comprehensible guidance to politics if we can produce a gallery of individuals with such disparate views?

The criticism is a stinging one but sprays out like a shotgun rather than hitting the target with laser accuracy. Christians formulate various views of life and how to live it by reading the Bible alone and in groups and using their reason to draw lessons and guidelines from it. It is certainly true that some different views result, even within the pale of orthodoxy. But isn’t the same basic problem evident in human thinking about politics generally?

Hart says that conservatives achieve their constrained vision of what is possible through sober consideration of the nature of the world and human beings. Yes, but don’t others (who likewise think themselves to be “reality-based”) do the same and come to different conclusions? The lack of consensus doesn’t cause anyone, really, to give up the quest for meaning and prescription. We usually take the disagreement to mean that someone is right and someone is wrong and then to try to argue to a successful conclusion. We may be in a MacIntyrean standoff as our different premises produce incommensurate views which fly hopelessly past each other. On the other hand, we can take the long view to see that some views ultimately triumph over others. The arguments mattered. So, too, for neo-evangelicals who have been contesting these matters regarding the modern state for a relatively short period of time. Perhaps a stronger consensus on the merits of statism (or lack thereof, one hopes) will emerge. But Hart is not optimistic. He thinks the Bible offers little guidance. Worse, he foresees evangelical energy growing behind state power in the same way it once added fuel to the forces against it.

Whether or not the Bible provides much valuable aid for engaging the political process is not really Hart’s primary thrust, though. Whether discussing the work or ideas of Ron Sider, Ralph Reed, Tony Campolo, or Michael Gerson, Hart generally disapproves of the evangelical conquest of politics from right and left. The reason for his disapproval is his Burkean/Kirkean conservatism, which resists change and extols localism and custom. Although conservatives of Hart’s type coexist with the broad outlines of the American right, he is eager to point out the very substantial tension between the two.

Hart makes himself most clear in his useful engagement with Michael Gerson’s book Heroic Conservatism. In that volume, Gerson has made out a case for a Christian flavor of the brand of conservatism that has sometimes been called “national greatness conservatism” or (more pejoratively) “big government conservatism.” Seen through Hart’s eyes, Gerson’s view comes down to a willingness to exercise great power to achieve worthy ends. Such a vision amounts to modern liberalism baptized in Christian intent. Thus, conservative Christians (at least of Gerson’s stripe) are Republicans rather than Democrats primarily because of the “resolutely secular” nature of the party of the left.

So, has the increasing involvement of Christians in modern politics as Christians led to a betrayal of conservatism as Hart alleges? Hart approvingly cites James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World to the extent that Hunter calls for “faithful presence” rather than self-conscious attempts at transforming America into a Christian republic of some sort. Interestingly, Hunter would likely affirm Gerson’s approach to politics as being less specifically Christian and more in line with bringing about “shalom,” as he puts it. President Bush’s work on AIDS in Africa, for example, would surely qualify as Gersonian heroic conservatism.

Nevertheless, one of the primary ways Hunter (and Hart) would have Christians modify much of their political participation would be by decoupling the public from the political. In other words, don’t rely on government power to achieve good ends. That is a laudable message from both Hunter and Hart. But it is unclear whether conservative Christians are as badly in need of this lesson as either of them think. As I wrote in Touchstone several months ago:

It needs to be remembered that Christian conservatives have not been a force for the enactment of the various new restrictions visited upon us in the last half-century so much as they have been engaged in a defensive battle against the advance of a cultural vanguard. Viewed one way, for example, Christian conservatives appear to be foisting their view of marriage on the populace. Considered more realistically, though, one might realize that they are simply protecting one of the most widely assumed social facts and wholesome social institutions in the history of the world. Outside of this sort of action on behalf of basic ideas such as the meaning of marriage or the sanctity of life, many within the Christian right believe passionately in voluntary social cooperation and in the notions of decentralization and subsidiarity.

Hart is absolutely right to point to the substantial tension between Michael Gerson’s heroic conservatism and the conservatism he loves. But it should be noted that Gerson’s book aimed to effect change among Christian conservatives rather than to announce their view to the world. The dominant strain among Christian conservatives is still generally anti-statist, pro-subsidiarity, pro-tradition, and pro-localism.

As a professor at a Christian college, I must cede to Hart and his argument in this excellent and provocative book that many of us do live and work inside a movement aimed at extending the lordship of Jesus Christ to politics and every other endeavor of human life. Certainly, I can understand how many Christian political ideas and efforts add up to a “betrayal” of conservatism as Hart sees it. But the call to evangelicals to give up this task of developing a Christian politics and attempting to bring it into being through persuasion, office-seeking, and other work is unlikely to succeed.

The first major barrier is the immense effort (specifically of the last quarter century) that has gone into encouraging Christians to “think Christianly” about every area of their lives, including politics. The second barrier is the related lack of desire that evangelicals have to return to something like the early Falwellian position that the church has no business encouraging activism with regard to matters of domestic (such as race) or international policy (such as the Cold War). That form of church-state separation looks in the rear-view mirror very much like the pitiable refuge of those who were more concerned about intra-congregation conflict than with calling for righteous action.

While Hart likely does not intend toframe exactly this message, in some ways the very civil and erudite complaint against overly ambitious Christian politics comes across as a call for Christians to subordinate their faith (or at least a prominent interpretation thereof) to conservatism. He seems to be encouraging a political secularism of the right at exactly the time when Christians have been working vigorously to do away with it as an excuse for not bringing ideas from the church into the public square. Still, his secularism is undertaken with an eye toward protecting the exercise of both faith and freedom.

As usual, however, Professor Hart has done an excellent job of exploring the intellectual and political history. Further, and more important, he has written the kind of book which forces the reader to grapple with his thesis and to be left more thoughtful in the process. Such works are much needed when it comes to the thorny (and all too often superficially handled) matter of faith and politics.  

Hunter Baker is associate professor of political science at Union University and the author of The End of Secularism.