If You Don’t Have A Life . . .


you happen to live in western Michigan, and don’t have any plans for this Saturday, you may be interested in coming to Grand Rapids to hear me give a talk based on my new book, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. The time is 10:00 am and the place is the Eerdmans bookstore, located at 2140 Oak Industrial Dr. NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49505.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction:

The faith and piety of evangelical Protestantism has no direct or obvious tie to political conservatism. To insist upon a conversion experience or new birth, to regard the Bible as the sole source of truth, to emphasize the personal nature of Christ’s saving work, and to look for evidence of true faith in a life devoted to godly or holy living – these evangelical attributes are hardly foundational for an account of a good, ordered, and free society. Actually, political historians from the ethno-cultural school have detected parallels between the revivals and reforms of the Second Great Awakening (1810-1850) and the understanding of the United States that first the Whig and then the Republican parties embraced. Unlike Democrats who advocated a limited, populist government that did not legislate social behavior but rather gave room for the expression of self-interest and local autonomy, Republicans trusted government to enact laws based on eternal truths that would nurture virtuous citizens and build a righteous society. Generally speaking, since 1830 Anglo-American Protestants who supported revivals have been more comfortable with a state that promotes Christian norms as national standards than with a political order that cultivates religious diversity and the integrity of mediating institutions.

At bottom, evangelical moral idealism is at odds with political conservatism, as odd as that may sound. If conservatism were simply about public morality and virtues, then the habit of pundits and scholars referring to born-again Protestants as “social conservatives” would make sense. But such conservatism did not characterize the Right prior to the Reagan coalition. Indeed, a plausible perspective on post-1950 conservatism is that evangelicals were interlopers within the American Right because they knew so little of the concerns of conservatives. To be sure, evangelicals spoke the language of limited government and free markets not only to gain a hearing but also because such ideas are part of the fabric of American politics. Nevertheless, evangelicals’ moral idealism was alien to American conservatism. In fact, a moral conservatism divorced from either prior political or philosophical considerations leads inevitably to the kind of radicalism and social engineering that conservatives have historically opposed. Yet, the rub for evangelicals is that to insist that public morality needs to be grounded in philosophical or political considerations is to deny the priority of faith to all aspects of human existence; it is to suggest that Christ or the prophet Amos needs to take notes from lectures by Aristotle, John Locke, or James Madison.

I’d be glad for the presence of other FroPo’s and I apologize for this act of shameless self-promotion. Hope to see you Saturday in Grand Rapids.

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).


  1. American conservatism is such a fascinating thing.

    Yet, the rub for evangelicals is that to insist that public morality needs to be grounded in philosophical or political considerations is to deny the priority of faith to all aspects of human existence

    This seems true only to the extent that faith does not imply or consist in philosophical or political considerations, which is a position that follows from a particular understanding of what faith is which is necessarily religious.

    Anyway, hope the talk makes for some good discussion.

  2. I agree, except there’s no longer a Democratic Party. We now have a Republican Party and a Progressive Party. Both want to mandate how you live. You’ve touched on Republicans. The Progressive Party wants to eliminate your ability to provide for your family, eliminate the parents’ roles in raising their children, mandate participation in charity giving (but to their organizations, not the truly poor).
    While I agree that social conservatism does not always align itself with Christian principals, the Democrat (Progressive) Party is too often directly opposed to Christian principals.
    What do we then do? Create a third party? The Christian party? I’m asking honestly here, and I’m trying to avoid getting into the theories of Party Politics, but while I agree with you in point of fact, I still come to the conclusion that there is at least a type of social conservatism (I prefer to call it Christian conservatism), that lines up with Christian principals.
    But then we must ask, if the “faith and piety of evangelical Protestantism” have no direct tie to the current political conservative movement, why exactly is that? And how can I still come to the same conclusion as before, given the arguments you presented? Perhaps Christianity has nothing to say on certain issues? The killing of a child? Homosexuality? Parental responsibility? No, Christianity does speak to these. So it must be that Christianity speaks to these as principals for individuals, not for the state. Since Christianity does not directly speak to the role of the state in these issues, how should a Christian fall politically? The social conservatives, as you have defined them, seem to be wanting to mandate against abortion, against homosexual marriage, and for parental rights. Those in the socially liberal–as I cannot accept the use of the Democratic Party to represent the traditional views of the socially liberal, sans progressivism–want to accept the freedom of all members of the society to pursue their own religious believes, be they Muslim, Hari Krishna, or Atheist.
    However, we’ve missed something. Since scripture does not mandate the state to uphold these principals, what does it say? Well, there are several interpretations of different passages describing the role of the state, some seeming to indicate that the state should participate in certain Christian principals and that not in others. However, we have taken the stance that it does not mandate the principals mentioned above. Since we have taken this stance, then we must logically deny that it directs the state to forbid any one of these issues, for that would admit an interpretation of the state having to take a stance on the Christian principles–I use Christian principals in the strictest sense, as in those evangelical principles you described in your opening paragraphs.
    Therefore we have come to the conclusion that the state is not told to participate, either mandating or forbidding, these Christian principles.
    How is the state supposed to act then? By natural law. Is natural law mandated in scripture? No. However, it was created by God, and exists the direct result of his Creation. To argue that Christianity does not directly align with social conservatism, a movement the basis of which is natural law, is correct. However, it is incorrect to then draw the conclusion that Christians must more closely align with the socially liberal party, which does not respect natural law, in fact, refuses to accept it. The socially liberal party accepts how God’s plan for salvation, but refuses to accept how God created the world. If all you are attempting to argue is that God’s plan for salvation does not directly tie to social conservatism, then that is correct. However, you seem to draw the conclusion that it does directly tie with social liberalism. If that is not your conclusion, my apologies. Yet, my conclusion is that while social conservatism is not tied to salvation, it is tied to the order of God’s creation. Social liberalism, which is also not tied to the salvation doctrines, is similar to the Bible in its silence on moral mandates with regard to salvation doctrines. However, it runs head on against the order of God’s creation. This is why I agree with your premises, but draw the same conclusion that I have drawn before. Being like the Bible is not equivalent to being in line with the Bible.

  3. Albert, I’d agree that Christianity may imply certain philosophical positions but I’m not sure it requires any one. I think we can all name notable Christian thinkers who were, for instance, either realists or idealists.

  4. Bryant, are the protection of the unborn, sexual fidelity, or heterosexual marriage only the convictions of Christians? Don’t Jews and Muslims (not to mention Mormons) also have a fight in these issues? So why should we associate morality only with Christianity (or evangelicalism)?

  5. Bryant,

    You began good but failed to realize that social conservatism and progressivism are tied to salvation doctrines. They both want to save you!

    My question is how is an “ordered society” any different from the above two?

  6. Is it the magical incantations of a pope that determine an ordered society?…


    What hath Grand Rapids to do with Rome?

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