The troubled alliance of evangelicals and conservatism
Evangelical Protestants have been a seemingly solid segment of American conservatism since Ronald Reagan’s defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1980. “Apparent” is important because conservatives often scratch their heads over Protestant mental habits. For example, some of the experts who had the biggest platforms in the Trump years are Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner and David French. Most of them have criticized Donald Trump. Your objections are almost always moral.
For example, in August 2018, Gerson wrote in The Atlantic on Trump’s many moral failings, from supporting partial abortion to boasting about his genitals to ask evangelicals not to support but to “exorcise” the president. French assessed Trump’s malice in a public debate with Eric Metaxas at a Q summit (not to be confused with QAnon) in spring 2020. In good part, he called Trump “malicious, cruel, corrupt, incompetent” attributes that are not exactly identical to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, Wehner’s reason to write his book The death of politics (2019) should show other evangelicals that “Trump is exactly the kind of person our system of government should avoid.”
The pretty obvious point they are all making – along with the vast majority of opinion writers and cable television commentators – is that Trump is not a great Christian. The point that inevitably follows is that evangelicals are hypocrites to support such an evil man. It’s hard not to agree with these estimates given that Donald Trump is not a Boy Scout. However, it is just as difficult to find out what value these assessments have for American politics.
Evangelical critics of Trump can serve a spiritual function by reminding Christians of the demands of God’s law. They might even help in the seemingly Jesuit calculation of supporting a lesser evil for a greater good, though evangelical ethics seldom enters these halls of moral calculation. These critics might even be useful in assessing the Christian norms from which the United States emerged and what the country’s contemporary religious diversity means for current politics. But usually evangelical analysis of political affairs and politicians involves moral judgment, with violations of sex, conjugal infidelity, and abortion rising to the level of unforgivable sins.
This obsession with sex and family seems to have changed over the past 15 years. As Frances FitzGerald was preparing for her great book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (2017) she wrote a story about progressive evangelicals for The New Yorker. She noted a shift from the evangelicality of family values, strong defense, and small government that characterized Jerry Falwell the Elder and James Dobson to one that saw government as a force to make the world a better place. One indication of this shift was the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement, “For the Health of the Nation,” which contained proposals on climate change set on fire by Reagan-era leaders like Dobson.
A pastor who helped make this statement was Joel C. Hunter, who prayed for Barack Obama at a 2009 service. His book Right wing, wrong bird (2006) heralded the coming Protestant criticism. He accused religious law leaders of being negative, narrow and moral and called on Christians to support policies that extend the faith beyond their homeland to the national and international community. Hunter believed he spoke on behalf of a younger generation of evangelicals who were still conservative in their private morals, but who “did not come to terms with a government that deprives the needy by cutting taxes for the rich and whose foreign policy is only aimed at strengthening American power. “This political assessment was in itself remarkably moral, as it was based on the distinction between selfish and loving politics.
Although change among evangelicals during the Bush years emerged from frustrations with the Iraq war and the 2008 banking crisis, the difficult relationship between evangelicalism and conservatism was much older and more fundamental. In a review of Michael Gerson’s book Heroic conservatism (2007) Ross Douthat couldn’t resist quoting the previous Bush speechwriters Washington Post Column in which Gerson accused conservative opponents of immigration reform of betraying Jesus and not recognizing that “our common humanity is more important than our nationality”. That led Douthat to wonder what qualified Gerson as a conservative, since his “heroic” conservatism was indistinguishable from LBJ or Jimmy Carter. Douthat wrote that it was based on a moral zeal in which “noble, high-minded elites like him use government levers for” the poor, addicts and children at risk. “
It remains to be determined whether the Bush era is “evangelical crackdown” New York Times Calling it David Kirkpatrick, reporter predicted (and felt superior) the gap between the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Trump and the 19 percent who didn’t. Whatever statistical models may reveal, leaders in the evangelical world show signs of discomfort or ignorance of American conservatism.
A major source of the evangelicals’ uncomfortable relationship with the right is the lower-church Protestant habit of viewing politics as an extension of personal devotion, which means that these believers must first write as Christians before accepting any other affiliation or membership. This tendency could spawn the approach of 19th-century resuscitator Charles Finney, who viewed any number of social reforms from slavery to moderation as the fruit of conversion. The demands of personal holiness reject a compromise with sin in society or its political structures.
Not many Reagan-era evangelicals read Finney. But they read Francis Schaeffer, an apologist with a small educational community in Switzerland who emerged as an intellectual guru in the 1960s before becoming what Garry Wills called “the father of Christian law.” Jerry Falwell made Schaeffer’s reading books for freshmen at Liberty University. Part of what made Schaeffer so attractive was the idea that belief shaped a person’s entire outlook. In Europe, Schaeffer had become familiar with the Dutch Reformed Protestant term Worldview made popular by pastor and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, who founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands in 1879, saw European politics as a Manichaean competition between God and the ungodliness of the French Revolution. For Schaeffer, American politics (along with all human endeavors) made sense in the face of the gap between belief and disbelief. When America deviated from its Christian heritage, it implemented laws or tolerated immorality that reflected a rejection of God.
The drive to integrate belief and understanding made American conservatism a failure for the more educated sections of evangelical conservative Protestantism. A current example of this is the political theorist David Koyzis, a long-time professor at Redeemer University College, a Dutch Reformed institution in Ontario. His book Political visions and illusions (2003), who is very much committed to a Kuyperian point of view, finds political conservatism inadequate. “As a possible Christian political theory,” writes Koyzis, “conservatism fails in two ways. First, there is nothing inherently Christian about it. … Second, it offers nothing that provides a coherent view of the state as a specialized, differentiated community within human society The second reason points to a level of argumentation worth listening to. The first is a surefire indication of what evangelical elites had to make of a political figure like Donald Trump.
The demand for Christianity-based policies popularized by neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands and the United States probably explains the reactions to Rod Dreher’s Don’t live by lies (2020) by the likes of Presbyterian Pastor Gregory Thompson. in the commentThompson, a publication of Dutch Reformed origin, calls Dreher’s warning of gentle tyranny in America “outrageous” and “dangerous”. Dreher’s book, he says, “does not reflect the theological imagination of the Christian Church” but “the self-protective imagination of the American cold warrior”. The book is “histrionic, misleading and vengeful”, driven by “Dreher’s central theme: fear”.
Whatever the merits of Thompson’s major commentary, he is someone who learned the ropes of Christian reflection at the Covenant Seminary (PCA) in St. Louis, which is home to the Francis Schaeffer Institute. Thompson has also pastored a PCA congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia, with close ties to the Center for Christian Study. Founded in 1975, the Parachurch Ministry works for students at the University of Virginia (where Thompson received his doctorate in religion), which Schaeffer did in Switzerland for baby boomers in search of meaning in the 1950s and 1960s.
Charles E. Cotherman’s new book on the phenomenon of the study center, Thinking Christian: A Story of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movementends with a strange remark. Although Schaeffer’s version of Neo-Calvinism gave intellectual ammunition to the evangelical culture warriors who became part of the Moral Majority, the apologist’s heirs have increasingly found a home to support social justice. Cotherman writes that being Christian is not only about learning how to think Christian, but also “working more proactively. . . address the social, racial and gender differences that mark a movement whose leadership has always been heavily distorted masculine and white. ”
A commitment to political engagement that is shaped by faith has been linked to the temptation for four years to gain favor and praise for criticizing Trump. If you have heard the talking points of NPR and The Washington PostAdding a Christian twist and parting with the Trump-supporting evangelical rabble can increase your visibility in the mainstream press and academy.
What you may not realize is that your prophetic slurs on a crude and sometimes malicious president puts you in the same camp as Jerry Falwell Sr. Because character is important, religious rights like Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson were among the religious groups during the Lewinsky scandal, responding to Ken Starr’s investigation into President Bill Clinton. The press and the professorship were not as impressed as they are today. In one piece for The New York Times MagazineAndrew Sullivan denounced the moral standards that had brought evangelicals (with the help of others) into mainstream republican politics. “The new moralism,” he complained, “was a massive attack on the beliefs and practices of an entire settlement after the 1960s.”
If evangelical pastors and professors have faced criticism like Sullivan’s today, if opposition to Trump was risky on biblical grounds, if their appeal to Christian moral standards for civil servants raised objections to “Christian nationalism,” these Protestant writers might be more reluctant to talking about religious opinions norms for good rulers.
With no serious opposition in their field of Christian activity, evangelicals who oppose Trump have done what is easy for believers who grow up with the song “I’ll make it shine”. They refused to hide their disgust for Trump under a bushel. They have convinced themselves that they are simply letting the light shine. They have forgotten that dying of sin and living before Jesus, also known as sanctification, should never be easy.
D.G. Hard teaches at Hillsdale College and is the last author of American Catholic: The Politics of Faith during the Cold War.