More than any other time in my life, the past two years have caused me to reflect on the relationship of my evangelical faith and my political conservatism. Two years ago, I turned forty. That birthday caused me to consider the future direction of my thinking and writing, and I realized that I wanted to devote my life’s energies to writing about topics at the intersection of Christianity, politics, and public life. Soon after that, the events of the 2016 election cycle caused me to reflect more deeply on the relationship between my long-time theological commitments and current political developments.
Recently, as I was reading George Nash’s analysis of the rise and development of American conservatism since 1945 (found in this book and this article), I realized that his categorization of “conservatism” into six or seven types is helpful for Christians who wish to evaluate the proper relationship between their theological conservatism and various types of political conservatism. For that reason, I will draw upon Nash’s analysis to articulate some varieties of “conservatism” in America before going on to describe what it means to be an “evangelical” and then, finally, provide a framework for evaluating the interface between evangelical Christianity and American political conservatism.
On Being a Political Conservative
Nash begins his analysis at the end of World War II, when various iterations of the Left (liberal progressivism, socialism, Communism) ruled the world. After WWII, however, three conservative groups rose to prominence, challenging the dominance of the left.
The Formation of Three Wings of Conservatism
The first group consists of classical liberals (e.g. William F. Buckley) and libertarians (e.g. Albert Jay Nock) who promoted free-market economics and devoted their energy to fighting against big government and its programs, such as the New Deal. The second group consists of traditionalists (e.g. Russell Kirk) who called for a return to religious orthodoxy, moral absolutes, and strong mediating institutions; they devoted their energies to fighting secular liberalism’s spiritual and moral infelicities. The third group consists of evangelistic anti-Communists (e.g. Whittaker Chambers) who promoted democratic capitalism and devoted their energies to fighting against Communism.
The three wings eventually coalesced around their common distaste for 20th century liberalism, with William Buckley’s National Review serving as the megaphone for that distaste. Libertarians detested the bloated bureaucratic welfare state and warned that it would eventually become so big as to encroach on liberty and meddle in private life. Traditionalists were most concerned that liberalism was an acid eating away not only at our religion, morality, and liberty. Anti-communists rejected liberalism because it shared with Communism so many leftist presuppositions that it could never fight off Communism.
The coalition held, even though there was significant tension between the libertarians and the traditionalists. Libertarians view liberty as the highest good, but traditionalists argue that liberty must be normed; for traditionalists, ordered liberty is the highest good. For the traditionalist, freedom is grounded in community and depends on the cultivation of virtue, and, for that reason, needs the help of mediating institutions (and sometimes also of the government). Eventually, libertarians and traditionalists were able to find a middle way in which both sides recognized that the main purpose of government is to protect individual liberty, but that liberated individuals should pursue lives of virtue.
The Emergence of Three New Wings of Conservatism
Soon, there emerged two more wings of conservatism. The fourth wing, neoconservatism, emerged during the 60s and 70s and was composed of liberals and social democrats who moved to the right. Irving Kristol famously defined the neoconservatives as former liberals who had been “been mugged by reality” and moved to the right politically. One of the most famous neo-conservatives was Richard John Neuhaus, who founded the Institute on Public Life and served as its Editor-in-Chief. Neuhaus has been a prominent liberal public intellectual, having pastored an inner city church populated by ethnic minorities and marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr., but turned to the right because of the moral travesty represented by Roe v. Wade’s judicial legislation.
Only a short while later, there emerged a fifth wing of conservatives, first known as the “religious right” and now often referred to as “social conservatives.” Their core commitment was to fight secular humanism (modern liberalism) because of its role in causing moral decline. Ronald Reagan was able to build a grand coalition that gave each of the five wings a seat at the table.
After these five wings coalesced to catapult Reagan into office, the Soviet Union fell and caused the conservative coalition to come under stress. Nash gives five reasons for this stress:
- Philosophical tensions. Libertarians and conservatives fought over issues such as drug legalization and same-sex marriage. Neoconservatives were criticized for their interventionism.
- Perils of Prosperity. In the midst of conservatism’s success, there has arisen sibling rivalry, tribalism, and a weakening of movement consciousness.
- Lack of a Commanding Figure. Today, there is no Buckley or Reagan.
- The Hyper-Democracy of Social Media. This is Charles Krauthammer’s term. There are no gates or gatekeepers anymore.
- The End of the Cold War. We no longer have a clearly-defined common foe.
Just as the five wings of conservatism came under duress, a sixth wing emerged to further shake up the coalition. This sixth wing, the paleoconservatives, arose in the 80s and 90s. As Nash describes them, the paleoconservatives (e.g. Patrick Buchanan) are “militant traditionalists” who were angry about the influence of the neoconservatives. They thought the neocons were really secular and were too friendly to the welfare state. They are defiantly nationalist and very skeptical of globalism, interventionism, immigration, and free trade.
Twenty-First Century Challenges
In a recent article in National Review, Nash explores ways in which the twenty-first century has brought new challenges for conservatism. With the twenty-first century world’s hyper-connectedness, crossing continents and borders is relatively easy, and in fact many of the world’s citizens are moving to America. The United States has three times the international students we had in 1980. Nearly a million of those are from China. We are admitting a million legal immigrants into our nation each year. Because of this, economies and cultures are intermingling. Many progressive elites are post-national and even anti-national.
In response to globalization and other challenges, there has been an insurgent populism on the Left and the Right. Nash defines populism as “the revolt by ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites.” Populism, he avers, has usually been left-wing and usually aimed at capitalists. But sometimes it has been conservative also. Reagan articulated a conservative-libertarian aversion to big government. So right-wing populism is usually aimed at big government.
But the 2016 election cycle has brought a new brand of populism—Trumpism. It is similar intellectually to paleoconservatism. Yet, it is unique also as it takes aim at Buckley-Reagan conservatives and seeks a break with post-Cold War conservative internationalism, free trade, and supply side economics. Nash thinks this is the birth of “an ideologically muddled, ‘nationalist-populist’ major party” combining elements from the Left and Right. It despises “elites” on the left and right, widens the rift between poor and the rich by encouraging the poor to view the rich and powerful as clueless, condescending, and even bad.
Complicating the narrative even further is the recent emergence of the “alt-right,” many of whom are white nationalists and espouse a white-identity politics (e.g. Jared Taylor, Richard Spencer).
Nash’s Prescription for our Ills
Nash concludes that he has never observed this much dissent on the right, but hopes we can come together to achieve what most conservatives have always wanted:
They want to be free, they want to live virtuous and meaningful lives, and they want to be secure from threats both beyond and within our borders. They want to live in a society whose government respects and encourages these aspirations while otherwise leaving people alone. Freedom, virtue, and safety: goals reflected in the libertarian, traditionalist, and national-security dimensions of the conservative movement as it has developed over the past 70 years. In other words, there is at least a little fusionism in nearly all of us. It might be something to build on.
In my opinion, Nash’s prescription has merit. I find it plausible that conservatives can coalesce once again around some basic principles of political conservatism. Yet, Nash’s prescription does not address some of my concerns as an evangelical conservative.
On Being a Faithful Evangelical
Nash’s framework clarifies what it has meant historically to be a political “conservative” in America, Yet, for the purposes of this essay—to reflect on the relationship of political conservatism and evangelical theological conservatism—it remains to clarify what it means to be an “evangelical” in America.
To be an evangelical is, first of all, to be a Christian—a person who trusts in Jesus Christ as Lord. Yet, beyond that, an evangelical Christian is a distinctive type of Christian, one whose life is characterized by a unique disposition and set of beliefs. Church historian David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” is a helpful, field standard framework for describing evangelicalism:
There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.
Given these characteristics, how could an evangelical’s faith commitments not affect his politics and public life? After all, an evangelical Christian is one who believes that Jesus Christ converts him in his heart—in the innermost recesses of who he is—so that he can live differently than he did before, shaped by Christ’s atonement and by the Bible’s teachings.
In addition to these distinctive characteristics, my own evangelical Christianity includes two further beliefs that, when incorporated, affect the interface of my political and theological conservatism. The first belief is that all human beings are deeply and inescapably religious, and “religion” cannot be defined restrictively as “the worship of a supernatural deity.” When the Bible teaches that all people are deeply and inescapably religious, it is not saying that all people worship a supernatural deity (Rom 1:25). Indeed, some people refuse to recognize or worship a supernatural deity. Instead, the essence of religion then is “worship,” or, “ultimate commitment.” For thousands of years, Judeo-Christian religion has taught that all people embrace Someone or Something as ultimate. That Someone or Something sits on the throne of a person’s heart, commanding his loyalties, shaping his life, and offering some sort of salvation. That Someone might be the God of Jesus Christ or the Allah of Muhammad. Alternatively, it could be sex, money, power, or success. But it is a god (an “idol”) and a functional savior nonetheless. In fact, most people combine two or more objects of worship. The human heart is a playground for the gods. Therefore, although the truest form of religion is the worship of the one true and living God, the essence of religion is “ultimate commitment.”
The second belief is that we cannot separate our private selves from our public selves. If religion were merely the mental and mystical acknowledgement of a supernatural deity, then we could easily relegate that belief to the confines of our private lives and to certain semi-public religious ceremonies. But religion is not that. As the Bible defines it, religion is the central organizer of a person’s thoughts and loves. If a person really and truly embraces the God of Jesus as the Creator and Lord of the universe, that embrace will have a cascade effect, pouring down and out into that person’s beliefs, feelings, values, and actions. Similarly, if a person absolutizes sex or money or power, that absolutization influences a person, not only in his private life but also in his public words and actions. We cannot dis-integrate the person by severing the public from the private.
An Evangelical Framework for Evaluating Varieties of Political Conservatism
By definition, therefore, religion and politics are inseparable. Religion represents our most heartfelt commitments and, therefore, radiates outward into our daily lives. Yet, religion can radiate outward in ways that are either good or bad, helpful or unhelpful. As Chris Pappalardo and I argued in One Nation Under God, we evangelicals sometimes apply our Christianity to public matters in a misguided or ham-fisted manner, and as a result our political posture is overbearing, oppressive, unkind, and tribalistic; conversely, if we employ our Christianity in an appropriate manner, we will approach politics with a keen eye toward the common good and by holding in unity certain binaries such as conviction and civility.
More specifically, however, American evangelicals need continually to assess and, when necessary, reform our political stances and postures so that we can serve effectively as the King’s emissaries in our given American political context. In my view, there are two mutually beneficial frameworks for such an assessment. The first approach evaluates conservative ideologies as a whole, while the second approach assesses the specific planks and policies associated with those ideological platforms.
Evaluating Political Ideologies
The first way for evangelicals to assess our political commitments is to undertake an “archaeological dig” in which we seek to unearth the idols that shape the various conservative ideologies. This type of assessment recognizes that any human political program will be affected to some extent or another by human sin and idolatry. In other words, just as individual persons have “ultimate commitments,” so do political ideologies; to the extent that an ideology elevates some aspect of God’s creation to a level of ultimacy, it will be bad for individuals, bad for society, bad for culture, and bad for politics.
As political scientist David Koyzis notes in Political Visions and Illusions, political ideologies are macro-level manifestations of idolatry. Every human is prone to seek out false salvation, but political ideologies operate as entire systems of false salvation. They overtly ascribe ultimacy to some aspect of the created order, thereby making an idol out of it, and subsequently try to “save” society by eradicating the “evils” threatening their idol.
For instance, traditionalism tends to idolize tradition and, in so doing, sometimes refuse to recognize certain aspects of our American heritage as evil. Classical liberals and libertarians tend to enthrone the individual and the individual’s liberty, so that all social institutions derive from the individual and are subject to his or her whims and desires. Nationalism tends to give divine status to a nation-state or to an ethnic community within the state and, in so doing, sometimes perpetrates injustice toward those who are not a part of the “in” group. Likewise, on the Left, progressivism ironically defies progress. Socialism idolizes common ownership or material equality. Even democracy, which is a good form of government, can lapse into idolatry if the people conflate their voice (vox populi) with the voice of God (vox Dei).
It is worth keeping in mind that the worst idols come from the best material. Thus, each political ideology begins by seeing especially clearly the beauty of one aspect of God’s creation. But ideologies never rest by pointing out something true; instead they assert that this partial truth is the entire truth, and therefore distort what they value by giving it an ultimacy it does not deserve. And that distortion has negative consequences for ideological proponents, spanning every aspect of the created order.
The great problem with a project like this, of course, is that we always have a keen eye to see the idolatry operative in other people’s pet ideologies. We’re quick to spot the idolatry operative in socialism or progressivism, but not so quick to identify it in our own branch of conservatism. Yet, as Christians, we must have the humility to recognize that we all are “prone to wander,” that our view of politics may be much more idolatrous than we realize. May God grant us the courage to discern and oppose idolatry wherever it is found, beginning in our own hearts, our own churches, and our own preferred political parties and ideologies.
Evaluating Planks and Policies
In combination with the sort of 30,000-foot-level assessment of conservative political ideologies, we will benefit from an evaluation of individual policy stances and planks in political platforms. This evaluation should involve asking two sets of questions: (1) Do I agree or disagree with the specific policy? (2) How direct of a line can I draw from Scripture and Christian tradition to the specific policy. The answers to those questions will cause us to consider the level of certainty we should have about a given issue, especially as that issue relates to my Christian faith.
On any given policy issue of an ideological platform, an evangelical might agree and be able to draw a fairly direct line from a biblical teaching to the policy issue at hand. For example, an evangelical may agree and have maximal biblical clarity on the value of certain moral norms (traditionalists, social conservatives) and mediating institutions (traditionalists, social conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives), and in my motivation to support causes such as a pro-life ethic (social conservatives) and robust protection for religious liberty (libertarians) and free speech (libertarians).
On other issues or planks, an evangelical might agree but recognize that his agreement is based on an indirect line of reasoning from Scripture to a particular policy. That doesn’t mean that he has less clarity or certainty about the issue, but it does mean that he should not portray his conclusions self-evidently biblical conclusions. For example, an evangelical may support a democratic form of government—and even do so with unwavering firmness—because democracy tends to foster liberty (libertarians, anti-Communists), or a small federal government paired with a free market because that combination tends to improve the economy and the individual’s liberty (libertarians, anti-Communists, paleoconservatives).
On yet other issues, an evangelical might disagree with a given branch of conservatism, but reach her conclusions based on a line of reasoning not drawn directly from Scripture. For example, an evangelical may conclude that our nation should keep out free trade agreements based on the expectation that those agreements will end up helping the working class and the financially-disadvantaged in the long run (vs. paleoconservatives, populists, ethno-nationalists).
Finally, on a given issue or plank, an evangelical might disagree with a particular branch of conservatism and do so with a line of reasoning drawn more directly from Scripture. For instance, an evangelical may take a strong stand against policies and platforms favoring one ethnic group over another because of the injustice that would be perpetrated (e.g. ethno-nationalism, populism, alt-right) or bigoted views toward any social or economic class in society, including not only the poor but also the “elite.”
If we are able to place policy issues in to categories (or, better yet, onto a spectrum), no matter how provisional those categories might be, we will find ourselves better prepared to be good representatives of the Lord in politics and public life. We will be less likely to treat every one of our policy stances as one that strikes at the heart of the historic Christian faith. We might be less demeaning toward other Christians who differ with us on issues that are not directly addressed in Scripture. We will be wiser in our evaluation of rising political candidates, new trends in politics, and recently-revealed social rifts.
Evaluating Dispositions and Demeanors
Our nation’s political discourse has become increasingly toxic over the past two decades. Consider the uncivil and even caustic demeanor displayed by many radio show hosts, cable TV pundits, and opinion writers over the past two decades. Think about the degrading and demeaning language used in the comment strings of media sites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages. Consider the bipartisan nature of the incivility, that people on the right and the left view persons on the other side of the aisle as morally reprehensible people in whom no good can be found, and leverage that negative assessment in order to justify degrading, demeaning, and misrepresenting those persons. Finally, consider that we—evangelical Christians—often engage in political discourse in ways that reflect the broader culture rather than the gospel.
In light of the degraded nature of our nation’s public discourse, therefore, evangelical Christians must model the “more excellent way” to which Paul refers (1 Cor 12:31). In order to find a more excellent way, we must go beyond evaluating political ideologies and policies; we must also practice convictional civility. Instead of degrading the people on the other side of the political aisle by demonizing them, questioning their motives, and caricaturing their arguments, the Bible instructs us to speak the truth in a way that communicates Christian concern and respect. We should represent our debate partners accurately rather than misrepresenting them. We should recognize the good in their lives and their arguments, rather than glorifying ourselves and demonizing them. In other words, we must cultivate a public demeanor that is worthy of the Lord whose name we carry (2 Cor 4:10).