D. G. Hart
Has the Religious Right been good for American conservatism? One way to answer that question might involve looking at the success of the Republican Party since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since the votes of white Protestants who identify themselves as “born again” have been crucial to the GOP’s dominance of the White House for the last three decades, students of American politics would have trouble looking at the Religious Right’s influence as anything but positive, at least for Republican leaders and candidates.
But the answer to questions about the Religious Right’s relationship to American conservatism becomes complicated if it is possible to distinguish between American conservatism and the Republican Party. Of course, American citizens who hold conservative convictions vote overwhelmingly for Republican candidates. But the reasons sometimes have less to do with the party’s platform than with the limited candidates that a two-party system provides. What conservatives believe about government and the health and welfare of the United States is not necessarily the same as that for which the Republican Party stands.
For instance, in 1964 GOP officials believed that Barry Goldwater was “too conservative” to be elected, and they hoped for a moderate candidate who would not be so libertarian and anticommunist in order to appeal to independent voters. The same was true in 1980, when Ronald Reagan gained the Republican nomination and adopted a platform similar to Goldwater’s—strongly anticommunist and antiliberal. But by then Reagan’s advisors and some Republican officials recognized that the Democratic Party was vulnerable with Protestants in the South and white working-class Roman Catholics—two groups that belonged uncomfortably to the Democrat’s New Deal coalition. By 1980, being a conservative looked much more appealing than being a big-government, socially tolerant liberal.
Many of the evangelicals who voted for Reagan were new, both to the Republican Party and to the world of American conservatism more generally. The most important figures in the Religious Right were Southern Protestants who had been Democrats prior to the era of Civil Rights. They included Jerry Falwell, who in 1979 founded the Moral Majority, and Pat Robertson, who in 1988 would run for the presidency in the Republican primaries and later found the Christian Coalition.
Although they formed one flank in Reagan’s coalition, these evangelicals had little knowledge of American conservatism as a distinct wing within the nation’s political traditions. In fact, since the mid-1950s, political conservatives had been forging a set of ideas and establishing institutions that alerted many Americans to important differences between the United States’ original federal and republican structures of government and the post–World War II domestic and international realities that confronted the nation as the newly inaugurated leader of the free world.
Important among these conservatives were Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind (1953), a book that almost single-handedly put conservatism on the map of the American public, and William F. Buckley, Jr., a clever writer with incomparable energy who founded the magazine National Review as a popular and influential vehicle for conservative reflection. Kirk and Buckley were virtually foreign to the leaders of the Religious Right, even though both groups, American conservatives and the Religious Right, overwhelmingly supported Reagan and became foot soldiers in the president’s so-called revolution.
This historical perspective is important for considering whether the Religious Right has been good for American conservatism. Many contemporary evangelicals believe they are conservative because the politics of the American Right follow directly from biblical convictions. They are conservative precisely because they are born-again followers of Jesus Christ. That is, they came to political conservatism by way of faith, or so they think. In contrast, the figures who dominate the world of American conservatism, such as radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, are not evangelical. Limbaugh has no apparent religious preference, and Hannity is a Roman Catholic. Although many conservatives would say that these radio celebrities do not represent truly conservative views, even the more thoughtful op-ed writers, such as George Will and Ross Douthat, make no pretense of being born-again Christians. These conservatives came to their political convictions not by faith, but by reflection on the American system of government, the nation’s role in the world, and ideas about the best ways to balance human freedom and social order.
If so many important spokesmen for political conservatism are not born-again Christians, then being conservative is clearly not the same as being Christian. If the leading figures in the America Right—even Ronald Reagan—came to their political outlook not from believing in Jesus Christ or reading the Bible, but through studying the founding and political heritage of the United States and assessing the nation’s current strengths and weaknesses, it is possible to be a good conservative and not be a good Christian. But this is not the impression that many evangelicals create when they argue that their political views stem directly from their religious convictions. Although few members of the Religious Right would question the conservative credentials of a Limbaugh or Will on the basis of faith, they would likely take issue with evangelicals who are not politically conservative. Again, the reason stems from the identification of born-again Protestantism with political conservatism.
And yet, a growing number of evangelical pastors and scholars are abandoning the GOP and rejecting conservatism precisely because of their born-again faith. For instance, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo argue that the teachings of Jesus and love of neighbor require public policies much closer to the American Left or liberalism than to conservatism.
Conservative evangelicals may dispute Wallis’s or Campolo’s appropriation of Scripture. But the evangelical Left’s appeal to faith is not essentially any more irresponsible than the Religious Right’s effort to find a biblical warrant for federalism, republicanism, a strong military, or low taxes. As J. Gresham Machen argued in his day, any effort by the church or Christians to read into the Bible laws or policies about which Scripture is silent is a distortion of divine revelation. In other words, to try to find a biblical warrant for political positions is invariably a violation of Christian liberty. The reason is that in matters where Scripture is silent—which would include most aspects of domestic and foreign policy—Christians have liberty to act according to their consciences.
If someone were to conclude that the Religious Right has hurt American conservatism, then, they would have a point. This would be especially true if it were based on the evangelical habit of voting for Republicans as part of their duty as believers, not as citizens. Members of the Religious Right invariably distort their faith and misrepresent conservatism when they assume that born-again Protestantism necessarily leads to conservative political ideals.
This does not mean that evangelicals should not be conservative. It only means that evangelicals need to find reasons for being conservative that neither contort Scripture nor ignore the thoughtful and often wise writings of American conservatives whose religious views may be wrong.
The author, an OP elder, teaches history at Hillsdale College. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books on American religion, including From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin (Eerdmans, 2011). New Horizons, February 2012.