American Enthusiasts At The Gates: A Review of D.G. Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin

D. G. Hart, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011). ISB: 978-0-8028-6628-8. 252 Pages. Cost: $25.00

Darryl Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of  American Conservatism is less about how Evangelical Protestants have betrayed American Conservatism than it is about how they never really fit within the post -World War II Conservative Movement. As a former Evangelical Protestant, reading this book profoundly confirmed many of my traditionalist intuitions and greatly expanded my understanding of the challenges for Evangelical Protestants who desire to identify themselves as being Conservative–of the Burkean or traditional variety.

Hart explores the history of Evangelical Protestants and their intellectual engagement in politics, especially their relationship with the American Right (but also, to a notable extent,  with the Left) after World War II. Although he includes a fascinating chapter about the politics of American Protestants before this period, most of the book is detailed intellectual history of politically influential Evangelical leaders (e.g., Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Mark Hatfield) and thinkers (e.g., Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer, Peter Marshall, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Marvin Olasky, and Michael Gerson). In this examination, Hart marshals significant evidence for the conclusion that American Evangelicals have historically, culturally, and epistemologically been at cross-purposes with the traditional Conservative wariness  of ideology, revolution, nationalization, and economic centralization. The so-called “Religious Right” has displayed  the most systemic political and philosophical similarity with various Left-leaning ideologies, those that aim  at social-political perfection by realizing (via coercion) favored ideological principles through politics.

One weakness of the book is Hart’s failure to emphasize that American Evangelicals on the Right actually fit hand-in-glove with many of the key tenets and aims of so-called Neoconservatives. Both groups tend to focus, albeit with different arguments, on (1) using national governmental institutions and policies to strengthen the moral culture; (2) expanding America’s international greatness; and (3) American loyalty toward Israel with respect to foreign policy in the Middle East. Hart misses an opportunity to develop these similarities as well as the historical correlations (that are probably causal) between Right-leaning Evangelical political involvement and the success of Neoconservatives at infiltrating the apparatuses and institutions of power on the political Right since Reagan’s presidency.

Temporarily placing this quibble to the side, Hart develops a powerful and highly-recommended case for why the American Evangelicals have been constantly at odds with the traditionally-defined Conservative thought. His detailed consideration of texts written by the above mentioned leaders and thinkers are not only persuasive with respect to his overall thesis; his research also serves as a fascinating review of literature that would be overlooked by a non-Evangelical audience. Of the many interesting examples, I was particularly taken (or, more accurately, disturbed) by the intellectually-sophisticated theory of Heroic Conservatism that Hart shows Michael Gerson to advocate. Unlike other Evangelicals, whom Hart implies may be less aware of the insights of traditional conservatism, Gerson seems to have fully consumed, expunged, and rejected such wisdom.  Hart summarizes this and other facets of Gerson’s non-traditionalist views as follows:

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