D. G. Hart is professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author or editor of more than twenty books on American religion, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State and the forthcoming From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. Here he gives American evangelicals some food for thought on this US Independence Day.
I have always thought of myself as conservative, even if I did vote for Walter Mondale in 1984. Don’t ask. The son of Bob Jones University graduates who even voted for George Wallace in 1968 — really, don’t ask — I grew up in conservative Protestant circles with a particular understanding about the United States and its importance in world and, especially, salvation history.
As often happens during graduate school, my outlook on Protestantism and my ideas about politics changed — hence the vote for a Democratic nominee during my second year of graduate school. But I came out with a doctorate in history and a political and theological position still right of center. Politically, I was and still am ambivalent about what appeared to me to be the sloganeering of the Republican Party, so I registered as a Libertarian — thus avoiding the cop out status of “independent” voter. I don’t believe I have ever voted Libertarian or even known its nominees. Theologically, anyone who knows about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in which I am a ruling elder might place me in the extreme right.
When I started to work for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2003 I became aware of a variety of conservatism that was generally foreign to many Protestants of conservative convictions. This “traditionalist” conservatism avoided the bumper sticker mantras of talk radio, read Russell Kirk instead of David Brooks, and took the United States’ form of government — constitutionalism, republicanism, and federalism — so seriously as to look unpatriotic in the eyes of Americans who regarded the United States not as a modest republic but as either the greatest nation or the greatest national villain on God’s green earth.
After comparing this form of conservatism to the one that religious historians like myself studied under the heading of the Religious Right, I began to wonder whether or not the differences between evangelicals and the American Right needed greater scrutiny. And when I began to explore the history of born-again Protestants alongside that of American conservatives after World War II, I came to two conclusions: first, evangelicals did not take much instruction from conservatives about what it meant to be conservative; and second, evangelicals were more idealistic, moralistic, and even utopian than they were conservative.
These findings, open for inspection in my book, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, will be a surprise to many evangelicals and to Republican strategists who want born-again votes. But they still reveal realities about the politics of evangelicals and an alternative conservatism that could well assist born-again Protestants to be better and wiser citizens and officials of the United States than they have as members of the Religious Right. The point of my book, which is to show the disparity between evangelicals and conservatives, will not necessarily turn evangelicals into conservatives. But it could help.