Hart – Last Dance? The Future of the Religious Right and American Conservatism
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute
Last Dance? The Future of the Religious Right and American Conservatism
Speech to The Philadelphia Society
April 28, 2007
The future of
religion and conservatism in the United States depends largely on evangelical
Protestants. This may seem an
exaggeration but recent history suggests this assertion needs to be received
only with a half-grain of salt — a reduced-sodium axiom as it were.
First, prior to 1976, “the year of the evangelical” according to Newsweek
magazine, scholars and pundits did not pay much attention to religion and
The older and traditionalist conservatives of the 1950s were
certainly religious and concerned about first-order considerations in the
articulation of their arguments. But
they did not wear their faith on their sleeves the way evangelicals do, which
means that evangelical Protestantism has recast the relationship between
religion and politics in ways that the older arguments between traditionalists
and libertarians about virtue did not anticipate.
Second, the Republican strategy of tapping the values-voters linked
conservatives and evangelicals in a way that ironically made the former
dependent on the latter for electoral success.
If conservatism is going to prosper, at least numerically, the future of
the Religious Right, the subject of my remarks today, will likely be decisive.
I plan to confine
my remarks to two points. The first
is that the early returns on the future of born-again politics are not
encouraging from a conservative perspective, anyway.
The leaders about to succeed the generation of Falwell, Roberston and
Dobson are Ron Sider, Rick Warren and Jim Wallis.
If you do not recognize the latter three characters you may not
understand that the emerging spokesmen for evangelicals are men more easily
placed on the Left that the Right. My
second point is that the future of the Religious Right is not effectively
disconnected from evangelicalism’s pre-Cold War past.
In fact, the Religious Right’s embrace of conservatism could turn out
to be an anomaly. In other words,
have conservatives known more about evangelicalism prior to enlisting its
believers for the movement, they might have decided to pass on born-again
Protestants and go it alone.
As unthinkable as
it was fifty years ago that a prospective nominee from one of the major
political parties would consider Bob Jones University a significant campaign
stop, almost as unlikely a half-century ago was the idea that born-again
Protestants would consider the Democrats, the party of big-government, ethnic
diversity, and social engineering, a political option.
Of course, evangelical Protestants have never been an easy fit within the
post-World War II conservative movement. Even
so, evangelical leaders during the 1950s and 1960s shared enough of the concerns
of the emerging conservative wing of American politics that they constituted a
natural piece of the quilt Ronald Reagan patched together to secure the
electoral victory of 1980.
Yet, the addition
of family-values activism to the premises of Cold War conservatism that occurred
in 1980 did not strengthen the hand of American conservatism.
On the one hand, the effort to harness the federal government, especially
in presidential contests, to do battle in the emerging culture wars was an
invitation to the sort of political centralization that post-World War II
conservatives had always opposed. In
fact, the desire to force the government in Washington, D.C. to adopt a
religiously inspired conservative agenda that would restore the nation’s moral
integrity was at odds with a conservatism that had historically feared big
On the other hand, the Religious
Right inserted Christianity into American politics in a way that forced
evangelicals to flip flop on the separation of church and state.
Prior to the late 1970s, the eventual leaders of the Religious Right,
such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had been forceful critics of the
mainline churches for politicizing the faith.
They insisted that the church’s mission was not political but
spiritual. But once faith-based
electioneering and policy-making became more attractive, those older expressions
of the church’s inherently religious character turned mum.
In which case, the Religious Right has facilitated the rise of the
The emergence of
evangelical dissent from conservatism did not owe simply to the missteps of the
Religious Right’s leadership. As
early as 1973 a group of young evangelical academics convened in Chicago to
propose an alternative to the conservatism of their evangelical parents and
professors who seemed woefully stolid as members of the Silent Majority.
The fifty academics and students who gathered in the Windy City produced
a statement that indicated their frustration with the status quo. The Chicago
Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern was an explicit call for social
righteousness, a phrase that hearkened back to the Social Gospel sentiments of
liberal Protestantism between the Civil War and World War I.
The statement’s policy prescriptions were thin, but the
heart of the statement was its affirmation of the social justice that God
requires of righteous nations:
Although the Lord calls us to defend the
social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained
silent. We deplore the historic
involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous
responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal
attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ
along color lines. Further, we have
failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic
One of the Chicago
Declaration’s signers was Ron Sider, then a religion professor at Messiah
College, an evangelical Anabaptist school in Pennsylvania, who achieved a
measure of fame with his book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger
(1977). As the title suggested,
Sider was pointing out what the Chicago Declaration had noted, namely that
evangelicals were invariably middle-class and indifferent to pressing social
needs. Like most reform-minded
evangelicals, he tried for a middle course by arguing that individuals needed to
change behaviors that contributed to poverty and that social structures were
also in need of reform. But the
larger message of the book was that fighting such social ills as hunger and
poverty was a duty the Bible demanded of the church.
At roughly the same
time that Sider was trying to steer evangelicals in a more progressive tack, Jim
Wallis, having just been graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in
suburban Chicago, was challenging the evangelical status quo with Sojourners
magazine (originally The Post-American) and the formation of a Christian
community in inner-city Washington, D.C. Wallis’
intent was to reconcile blacks and whites, poor and middle-class, cities and
suburbs. For him it was
insufficient to provide simply for the poor and hungry.
Christians also needed to identify with people in need because God
himself exalted the humble over the proud.
Wallis also created a stir with his 1976 book, Agenda for a Biblical
People that was as far from Billy Graham as it was from Jimmy Carter.
Unlike Sider’s moderation, Wallis intentionally adopted a radical pose.
Wallis has remained
something of an acquired taste among born-again Protestants but Sider has moved
readily into the evangelical mainstream. One important instance of Sider’s
longevity was the recent policy statement adopted by the National Association of
Evangelicals (NAE), entitled, For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical
Call to Civic Responsibility.
This white paper drew upon the social-justice ideals evident
in the earlier Chicago Declaration and one important reason for the similarities
was the role that Sider played in both documents.
Prior to this
statement, the NAE was predictably right of center.
But with For the Health of the Nation the NAE occupied territory
to the left of its founders. It
combined conservative favorites such as religious liberty, families, the
sanctity of human life, and human rights, and humanitarian initiatives generally
associated with liberal politics — economic justice, the environment, and a
form of opposition to violence that bordered on pacifism.
By no means radical in its goals, the NAE’s embrace of liberal concerns
was decisively out of step with the laissez-faire, anti-communist strain of
Republicanism that appealed to evangelicals either as part of the Silent
Majority or the Religious Right. Sider’s
influence looked particularly strong in the statement’s stress on justice.
“Because we have been called to do justice to our neighbors,” For
the Health of the Nation affirms, “we foster a free press, participate in
open debate, vote, and hold public office.”
“When Christians do justice, it speaks loudly about God” and
demonstrates to non-believers “how the Christian vision can contribute to the
common good and help alleviate the ills of society.”
Achieving justice was especially important for the NAE’s
consideration of poverty. According
to the statement, economic justice required a restoration of wholeness in
community and called Christians to become involved in politics in order to
“shape wise laws pertaining to the creation of wealth, wages, education,
taxation, immigration, health care, and social welfare that will protect those
trapped in poverty and empower the poor to improve their circumstances.”
openness to liberal policy included family values and so attempted to bridge the
divide between religious conservatives and secular liberals.
Even so, the NAE’s declaration was not very different from the Social
Gospel reforms proposed a century earlier when the Federal Council of Churches
also tried to harmonize evangelism and social reform.
Arguably the closest resemblance between evangelical activism and the old
liberal Protestant Social Gospel was a re-definition of the church’s social
Unlike the post-World War II evangelical conviction that
placed the eternal destiny of people before their physical conditions, the NAE
had come around to an older liberal Protestant conception of the kingdom of God
that called upon the church to improve this world as a harbinger of the world to
come. The NAE declaration
concluded, “We know that we must wait for God to bring about the fullness of
the kingdom at Christ’s return. But in this interim, the Lord calls the church
to speak prophetically to society and work for the renewal and reform of its
Apparently, the NAE
is unprepared to move any farther left.
In 2005, when the Evangelical Climate Initiative released its
statement, Climate Change: A Call to Evangelical Action, the NAE declined
to add its formal support. But this has not deterred the head of the NAE’s
lobbying efforts in Washington, Richard Cizik, from seeking evangelical support
for “creation care.” According
to Cizik, “There are people who disagree with what I’m doing . . . within
the evangelical community of America.” But
he does not understand why it is controversial to stand up and say, “Climate
change is real, the science is solid, we have to care about this issue because
of the impact on the poor.” Cizik’s
position has prompted a number of evangelical leaders, such as Land and Dobson,
to call for his resignation.
Perhaps the best
indication of the leftward political drift of evangelicalism is the man in the
Hawaiian shirt, purpose-driven pastor, Rick Warren.
Fast on the heels of his enormously popular book, Warren has shifted his
attention from the cultivation of committed Christians to solving the world’s
problems. His recently launched
P.E.A.C.E. initiative may not have the official status of the NAE’s
declaration but given the Southern California pastor’s popularity it may be
more indicative of contemporary evangelicalism’s political soul.
Rather than using the profits from Purpose Driven Life (2002) to
add to his Tommy Bahama collection, Warren formed an organization to mobilize
one billion Christians around the world into an “outreach effort to attack the
five global, evil giants of our day. . . . spiritual emptiness, corrupt
leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy.”
According to Warren, no government “can effectively eradicate” these
afflictions. That leaves the church
to do it. His implicit distrust of
the state suggests that contemporary evangelicals’ sentimental left-of-center-
humanitarianism could find an outlet other than the sort of big government that
Democrats typically favor. But by
assigning to the church tasks typically reserved for the modern state Warren’s
initiative will likely prompt American evangelicals to demand that the United
States follow and support the church’s lead in fixing the world’s problems.
Whatever the effects of Warren’s efforts, the embrace of social
justice, the environment and AIDS as forms of political engagement suggest that
evangelicals are taking more cues from Jim Wallis than Jerry Falwell.
Conservatism of Modern Evangelicalism
The reasons for
this recent and generational shift among evangelicals are varied and complex.
Certainly, much of the current discomfort with the Religious Right stems
from opposition to the Iraq War. Randall
Balmer, a baby-boom evangelical who recently wrote, Thy Kingdom Come: How the
Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, indicates how
George W. Bush has turned evangelicals hostile to the GOP.
The torture of human beings, God’s
creatures–some guilty of crimes, others not–has been justified by the Bush
administration, which also believes that it is perfectly acceptable to conduct
surveillance on American citizens without putting itself to the trouble of
obtaining a court order. Indeed, the chicanery, the bullying, and the flouting
of the rule of law that emanates from the nation’s capital these days make
Richard Nixon look like a fraternity prankster.
Related to the
rejection of Bush is the flakiness that afflicts the generation which was spared
the hardships and sacrifices demanded of a generation that endured the Great
Depression and that fought totalitarianism.
Having grown up with little pride in America, its
institutions, and political traditions, and finding it difficult to accept the
realities that come with growing up, evangelical baby boomers have no compass
for discerning a way to stay on a politically sensible path while replacing
their father’s Oldsmobile with their own Land Rover.
consideration for understanding boomer evangelicals’ distaste for conservatism
is the defeat of Communism. During
the Cold War, the Soviet Union not only stood for an ideology at odds with
America’s unique blend of liberal democracy and Christianity.
It also convinced born-again Protestants of the necessity and virtues of
free institutions, market capitalism, and a strong national defense.
Just as anti-Communism held together the post-World War II patchwork of
libertarians and traditionalists, it also explained born-again Protestants’
relatively easy absorption into the conservative movement.
But with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the barrier to
social-justice sentiments like those of the Chicago Declaration also came down.
But the most
significant factor in the recent rise of an Evangelical Left may be evangelical
Protestantism itself. Wilfred
McClay identified a tension between evangelicalism and conservatism several
years ago when trying to account specifically for the thinness of George W.
Bush’s conservatism. According to
McClay, Bush’s faith “has broadened and softened [the president’s] younger
tendencies toward harder-edged oil-and-gas business conservatism, fired his
moral concerns, given him a sense of political mission, and given him the
energy, force, and staying power to pursue it.”
McClay goes so far as to admit that Bush’s “commitment to his
evangelical faith . . . has made him more liberal, . . . than many of his
party brethren.” This liberalism
is not that of the post-New Deal Democratic party.
It is instead one that promotes the individual and is suspicious of
hierarchy and tradition.
suggests an important aspect of evangelical devotion seldom noticed by its
political enablers. That is, the
temptation that Eric Voegelin described well when he spoke of immanentizing the
eschaton. Like mainline Protestants
before them, evangelicals believe in some way that they can establish heaven on
earth. They would never put it so
crudely if a pollster asked the question in just those words.
But their actions and social involvements betray a sense that what will
be true of the world to come should also characterize the world here and now.
Such millennial impulses, I believe, help to account for the recent
evangelical statements about violence, poverty, hunger, war and the environment.
This is not to say that non-evangelicals favor violence, poverty, hunger,
war and abuse of the environment. But
evangelicals live with a certain measure of surprise and indignation whenever
they encounter human suffering. Bill
McClay put this feature of evangelicalism well when he said:
There is not much of . . . original sin, or
any other form of Calvinist severity, in the current outlook of the Bush
administration. That too is a reflection of the optimistic character of American
evangelicalism, and therefore of evangelical conservatism. . . .
But conservatism will be like the salt that
has lost its savor, if it abandons its most fundamental mission — which is to
remind us of what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision” of human
existence, which sees life as a struggle, with invariably mixed outcomes, full
of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible
people, a world in which the legacy of the past is usually more reliable than
the projections of the future.
points could be made about the inherently unstable compound that evangelicalism
adds to American conservatism. But
putting together the emergence of an Evangelical Left with born-again
Protestantism’s social reform impulse leads plausibly to the conclusion that
the marriage between the Religious Right and the American Right will soon be
ending in divorce.
and the Future of American Conservatism
Let me conclude by
drawing attention to David Brooks’ reaction to Rick Warren at a conference
sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and which featured the Southern
California pastor as one of the keynote speakers.
Brooks was impressed by Warren’s humanitarianism and wrote a column in
which he asserted the following:
. . . when I look
at the evangelical community, I see a community in the midst of a transformation
— branching out beyond the traditional issues of abortion and gay marriage, and
getting more involved in programs to help the needy.
I see Rick Warren, who through his new Peace initiative is sending
thousands of people to Rwanda and other African nations to fight poverty and
disease. I see Chuck Colson deeply
involved in Sudan. I see Richard
Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals drawing up a service agenda
that goes way beyond the moral turf of Christian conservatives.
Millions of evangelicals are
embarrassed by the people held up by the news media as their spokesmen.
Millions of evangelicals feel less represented by the culture
war-centered parachurch organizations, and better represented by congregational
pastors, who have a broader range of interests and more passion for mobilizing
volunteers to perform service. Millions of evangelicals want leaders who live by
faith by serving the poor.
What Brooks sees in
Warren is likely the future of the Religious Right.
It involves millions of compassionate evangelicals, without much
consideration for limited government, legitimate authority, national
sovereignty, the conditions that generate financial or social capital, the
importance of strong mediating institutions, or the reality of unintended
consequences, supporting policies and voting for candidates who will use the
resources of the U.S. government to try to end human suffering not only in
America but around the world. That
may be an inspiring vision of the future, but it is unclear whether it has much
to do with American Right.