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

Gerson was unconvinced by traditionalist affirmations of small government, neo-conservative critiques of the welfare state, or even Roman Catholic teaching on subsidiarity, and still found room to insist on national government as the institution with responsibility to preserve human dignity and implement the freedom of individuals of both in the United States and on planet earth—these elements of Gerson’s conservatism suggested an inability to grasp the fundamental tensions between his own idealism and the realism that undergirds any position that qualifies as conservative. One the chief reasons for Gerson’s willingness to identify with conservatism, which was at the same time the source of his discomfort with the Right, was his faith. Unlike the skepticism about idealism that characterizes conservatism, firm religious and moral convictions, he believed, inspire and motivate. “Without a belief in right and wrong,” Gerson asserted, “without a firm conception of better or worse…without a vision of how things ought to be… we do not even know what progress might look like.” “Muscular action,” however, “based on conservative principles, has led to progress, sometimes dramatic progress.” In other words, Gerson’s faith and moralism could not find a resting place within the many rooms of the Right’s intellectual mansion (184).

Here Hart suggests a contrast between Gerson’s views and the entirety of the Conservative intellectual movement—Neoconservatism included. Although Hart’s description of this position is effective, I am  drawn back to my prior criticism that Hart overplays this contrast and misses how such variants of Protestant Evangelicalism are actually quite similar to the idealist and very powerful ideological manifestations within the intellectual Right. In particular, I doubt that there is much daylight (aside from Gerson’s explicit appeal to religious motivations for his public policy preferences) between the above summary of Gerson’s views and many of the contemporary idealist Conservatives (e.g., West Coast descendents of Leo Strauss’s student Harry Jaffa and/or neo-Kantian natural law adherents like Robert George and Hadley Arkes) whom are often willing to expand the reach of the federal government for the sake of realizing their favored cultural objectives. Such idealist Conservatives exert a  powerful, leveraged position within the apparatuses of the Republican Party, major Right-leaning funding sources, and the so-called Conservative think tanks.

Another virtue of Hart’s book is the loving hand that he extends to his Christian brethren via his multi-step counsel for how Evangelicals can become more traditionalist minded. He demonstrates that some Evangelical beliefs about the importance of family and the problems of socialism actually overlap well with traditionalist concerns about the importance of local, human-scale institutions, or what Burke called “little platoons.” Furthermore, Hart counsels Evangelicals to strive for the following objectives: (1) abandon their flirtations with ideologically narrow views of social reality; (2) refrain from trying to establish a Christian civil religion; (3) avoid attempts to impose nationally monolithic morals legislation; (4) stop de-emphasizing spiritual evil over social-political evils; (5) avoid undue focus on political solutions for problems that are largely cultural; (6) refrain from wrong-headed emphasis on being crusaders who fight to win a culture war; and (7) and, very importantly, focus  on being City-of-God-pilgrims who travel within the City of Man.

Hart’s book both confirmed and expanded my own thinking about the problems of Evangelical Protestantism’s social-political theology, and I am wiser for having read his work. For those seeking to understand such themes, I highly recommend Darryl Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin.

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9 comments on this post.
  1. Corey:

    As with many of the characterizations of evangelicals and the politics of evangelicals on this website (and in nearly all media), I can’t help but think Hart’s treatment will be a caricature. Of course, evangelicals like Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed have made it too easy on critics of evangelical Christianity, but they’re hardly who any evangelical would think of as “leaders of evangelical Christianity” (especially LaHaye, who writes science fiction novels about ‘the end times,’ and Hatfield, who most would have to google to learn he was a Senator). Further, one wonders what was guiding Hart in selecting Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and Peter Marshall as representative of “evangelical thinkers” when he could, just as easily, have found others more compatible with a traditionalist conservative view of the world. He could also, probably much more easily, have found “politically influential Catholic leaders” who were at odds with conservative traditionalism (and the conservative movement, in general), or thinkers calling themselves Catholic who have done much damage to tradition, place, and limits- and this despite the advantage of a magisterium.

  2. j. blum:

    For what it’s worth, Mr. Haworth’s area of quibbling, on the neocon-”Christian Right” relationship, was dealt with extensively in Sara Diamond’s book Roads to Dominion, albeit from a leftist perspective, some seventeen years ago.

  3. ck:

    “Unlike the skepticism about idealism that characterizes conservatism, firm religious and moral convictions, he believed, inspire and motivate. . . In other words, Gerson’s faith and moralism could not find a resting place within the many rooms of the Right’s intellectual mansion.”

    The problem here is that there seems to be no room for a both/and understanding. One can be leary and skeptical of certain idealisms and yet at the same time hold very firm religious and moral convictions that can inspire and motivate. The problem is that most folks, particularly Americans whether Evangelical or otherwise, have a difficult time seeing that we can have both/and. We Americans have a difficult time understanding that the Leviathan is a mechanism which seeks to dichotomize such important issues into competing concepts (i.e. false dilemmas).

    I think Chesterton was able to understand how one could both be skeptical of certain idealisms leading to “progress” and yet hold a child-like faith that could inspire and motivate.

    “What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”

  4. Peter Daniel Haworth:

    Corey makes a few good points about wider segments of the American population also being at odds with traditionalism. This is not a problem that only plagues Evangelicals. It is also true for many Roman Catholics and many types of so-called “conservatives.” Dr. Hart, however, chose to focus his energy on the Protestant-Evangelical problem. Since he is a Protestant, himself, his selectiveness probably makes sense.

    Furthermore, with respect to the issue of sympathy for traditionalism, I wonder whether this also corresponds with generational differences. It might be true that younger cohorts (regardless of sectarian differences) are more sympathetic towards the traditionalist perspective. Hart was primarily writing a book about prominent Evangelical leaders after WWII, and most of those gentlemen grew up in an age dominated by highly charged ideologies. In the midst of the Cold War, the option of being anti-ideological was, perhaps, quite difficult and impractical for many to contemplate except for those few like Eric Voegelin whose independence, particular historical experience, and greatness of intellect propelled them forward against the currents of their zeitgeist. Whereas, today’s younger adults have been raised in a world that is far different than that of their predecessors. For them, America has been a place where noticeable problems- like questionable wars and unsustainable statism- have largely been created by ideologues who attempt the fit the facts of reality into a certain limited paradigm. Thus, traditionalist antipathy for such an ideological approach makes a great deal of sense to many of today’s 20′s, 30′s, and even younger 40′s somethings. My guess is that Hart could, indeed, find more traditionalist Evangelicals for his study, if he looked to these younger generations. On the other hand, this is a developing history that probably needs to be chronicled by a future historian of the coming decades.

  5. robert m. peters:

    The Christian is not motivated by optimism but by hope. Wide is indeed the gulf between those two.

    The conservative understands culture to be the set of principles, institutions and traditions, including taboos, which restrain the barbaric impulses of the individual so that he is therefrom emancipated and freed to do his duty, fulfill his obligations and carry out his responsibilities to God, to Church, to family and to that community with which he shares affections and affinities. In a culture, one cultivates character which is the acquiring, internalizing and the living out of the great virtues: cardinal, capital and Christian. At the heart of a culture is that which we have come to call religion which is the human creatures attempt to respond to that Something pushing through to him through the created order. Living conservatively is living creaturely and beyond that Christianly.

    The anticulture of which liberalism in all of its forms, including its late phase Jacobin Marxism masquerading as something benign, is a part, deconstructs, marginalizes and denigrates the principles, institutions and traditions which restrain the impulses and desires of the individual with the goal of emancipating him from their tutelage so that he can be free to pursue without restrain his individual agenda. The anti-culture abjures character which is internalized and practiced restrain and extols personality and the would-be Promethean self associated with it, a self which is actually an estranged, alienated and shriveled self bereft of fellowship like Cain and Grendel. Their only communion is the counterfeit communion of the collective coerced by the Hobbesian state with it monopoly on coercion and its ability to define the limits of its own power. Values, which are mere opinions, informed or uninformed, supersede virtues.

    The difficult of modern Protestant evangelical fundamentalism is that while it attempts to harbor and protect “Christian” virtues, the gnosticism which drives it defers to the liberal notion of the individual on the one hand and the necessary antithesis thereof, namely the Hobbesian state. That is why U.S. flags can be found in churches, the Jacobin pledge echoes across the sanctuary and the blasphemous “hymn” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is sung with full throat by the congregations. We evangelical Protestants have become so confused that we are like Israel: we are worshiping Baal in the groves thinking all the while that we are worshiping Yahweh.

  6. E. Johnston:

    Mr. Haworth makes a good point about younger evangelicals becoming disillusioned with some aspects of the Religious Right. I’m under 30 and consider myself an evangelical, and yet I also consider myself very much a traditionalist. From talking with other young evangelicals, I’ve found that, although some of them may not be willing to break with the Religious Right altogether, they are less likely to attack those of us who question Republican politics. Most are beginning to realize that the “culture wars” may be unwinnable, and that the only way to reach the culture is through what the old evangelicals–as in, 19th century non-statists–emphasized. That is, reaching people with the gospel, one by one.

  7. Martin Snigg:

    I’m with the Orthosphere on this one

  8. Luther Perez:

    Of course, evangelicals like Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed have made it too easy on critics of evangelical Christianity, but they’re hardly who any evangelical would think of as “leaders of evangelical Christianity” (especially LaHaye, who writes science fiction novels about ‘the end times,’ and Hatfield, who most would have to google to learn he was a Senator).

    I think this is the problem with the e/Evangelical label. Charismatics and Pentecostals get lumped in with conservatives of the mainline traditions and fundamentalists of the mainline traditions.

    In addition, many folks in the pre-trib traditions do not treat LaHaye’s books as science fiction. They are viewed as futurist truths….of an inevitable future, based on scripture. And LaHaye’s support of Republican politicians, seems to suggest, at least to his readers, that he is a traditional Bible believing conservative.

    And one more thing, non-denominational charismatic and born-again Protestant congregations in my neck of the woods (Southern CA), preach a radically individualistic theology (totally pro-capitalism) melded with a pro-militaristic nationalism, and see this as traditional conservatism. It seems, for many of them, what makes someone a conservative is support for the Republican Party.

    I think the desire to maintain political power through ecumenicalism (even if it is a conservative type) has produced a watered down theology. Which is ironic, since this was the criticism leveled at liberal ecumenicalism.

  9. Art Deco:

    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.

    1. Elements of the national government, most particularly the appellate judiciary, are agents of aggression against a decent moral culture. Political mobilization of this sort is re-active.

    2. Israel receives about $2 bn in assistance annually from the United States. In treasure, it is not important to the donor. As to the recipient, it represents shy of 1% of the country’s gross national income. An abrupt withdrawal of this sum would likely induce a modest recession with fiscal deficits to be worked out over about one business cycle. Its importance to the recipient. Perhaps you or Dr. Hart or some other true conservative [tm] would care to sketch an alternative to ‘loyalty to Israel’. Would it include refusing to share intelligence data with Israel? How ’bout standing pat while a regime of lunatics drops an atom bomb on metropolitan Tel Aviv?

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