Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are Evangelicals Truly Conservatives?

I just finished a book by D.G. Hart called From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. It is definitely an interesting read as Hart, a Church Historian at Hillsdale College, first explores what American Conservatism is and then goes on to challenge the general confusion American Evangelicals since the Reagan years have had, thinking of themselves as conservatives. Hart's book opens with these words:

For over twenty-five years an axiom of American politics has been that evangelical Protestantism is politically conservative. This notion involves the assumption that conservative religion and conservative politics go hand in hand. Prior to the 1970s, of course, evangelicals were known more for an other-worldly faith that made them more concerned with saving souls for the world to come than with turning out voters to decide on matters of the here and now. That is why evangelicals prior to the Reagan revolution had the reputation for being politically passive.

The word reputation needs to be emphasized because most evangelicals, like my parents, who did not have a television and so carted my brother and me over to our uncle’s to see a Goldwater-Johnson debate during the 1964 presidential campaign, cared about their nation and voted in ways that students of American religion and politics back then rarely noticed. During the 1960s no one really knew about the “God vote” except when Protestants pulled levers and punched chads for candidates who were not Roman Catholic. What is accurate to say of twentieth-century-evangelicalism is that from World War II until the rise of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family, born-again Protestants lacked notable religious or political leaders or institutions that could rally them as an electoral bloc. Since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, however, evangelicalism has been a vocal and visible member of the political coalition as conservative.

In point of fact, this axiom of American electoral politics is looking less certain as the years pass. Figures such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson still preside over their parachurch fiefdoms and are capable of marshalling supporters to call congressional delegates or vote for specific candidates. But these evangelical leaders are old (since I began work on this book, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have died) and the ones who are filling the void are not inclined to identify themselves as conservative. Indeed, a transition is underway in which the born-again Greatest Generation is giving way to a generation of evangelical baby-boomers every bit as unpredictable as their secular, Roman Catholic, or mainline Protestant counterparts. This generational succession suggests that the days of goodwill and harmonious relations between evangelicals and conservatives may be coming to an end. Whether the final break will be on the order of an ugly divorce or simply a mutually-agreed-upon decision just to be friends, the tensions surfacing between evangelicals and the Right are reaching the threshold of irreconciliable differences.  From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, pp. 1-2  

Hart's basic thesis, an interesting one at that, is that Evangelical/"Born-Again" Protestant peoples and their alignment with political conservatism has been somewhat of a confused marriage partnership beginning with Reagan until recently, but that after 25-30 years, the marriage is now on the verge of a significant break-up (citing "irreconciliable differences"), a break-up because the beginnings/foundation of the partnership was questionable in the first place.

No comments: