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Whither Political Conservatism and American Christianity

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president of the United States, Christians had an easy time identifying as political conservatives.  After all, Reagan checked all the boxes of movement conservatives while showing friendliness to families and churches.  He was firmly anti-Communist, a proponent of limited government and reduced spending (except for the Pentagon), and surprisingly thoughtful for a former actor about the value of mediating institutions in a free society—the role that non-governmental agencies like schools, families, churches, neighborhood associations, and small businesses play in a healthy social order.  Reagan even promised to make America great again, though he and his handlers did it through the hazy promise of “morning in America.”  The late Jerry Falwell, founding executive of the Moral Majority, produced a book during the same year as Reagan’s inauguration, Listen America, that revealed evangelical Protestants to be on the same policy page as the Republican Party.  A Christian understanding of national life resulted in support for a strong military, free markets, reductions in welfare spending, and removing anti-religious biases in federal policies and funding.  For Falwell, what made America great was the liberty its government protected, especially in contrast to the tyranny that Soviet Communism embodied.  The way to making America great again for the Baptist pastor was to restore God as the basis for the nation’s liberties.  “God is the author of our liberty,” Falwell wrote, “and we will remain free only as long as we remember this and seek to live by God’s laws.”

Fast forward to 2018.  Donald Trump makes Ronald Reagan look like Mother Theresa. Most people know Trump more for his brash persona (some say it is typically outer-borough New York City) and scandalous behavior.  He is the opposite of presidential, which is why some in the electorate who want a straight-talking politician (remember John McCain?) support the president and overlook his unsavory character.  This is the same reason why many, both Republican and Democrat, detest Trump and deem him to be beneath the office he holds.  Beyond the matter of his character, Trump’s policies are generally friendly to the older convictions of conservatives who supported Reagan—pro-business, pro-military, pro-American greatness.  Many in the mainstream media have interpreted the president’s statements and proposals on immigration and refugees as racist and xenophobic, though Republicans have traditionally been the party of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who feared the effects of ethnic diversity on national identity, which in turn made the Democrats the party most congenial to racial and ethnic minorities.  In sum, Trump’s politics look familiar to people with some awareness of Republican history while the President’s presence on social media and journalists highlight his personal vices in ways that previous presidents, no saints themselves, could hardly imagine.  Although the foibles and exploits of a Warren G. Harding or John F. Kennedy might have embarrassed previous presidents, Trump apparently knows no shame.

Whether Trump has caused or merely revealed the break-up of social conservatism (e.g., the coalition of voters who supported candidates and policies in line with a set of moral convictions, usually grounded in religious beliefs), the alliance of values-voters evident in elections from Reagan to Barack Obama now seems to have ended.  Evangelicals have received the most attention (no one seems to remember that only fifty years ago mainline Protestantism was THE Protestant brand) thanks to the support born-again Protestants showed in voting for Trump (the much-cited statistic of eighty-one percent).  Although elite evangelicals in respectable outlets like the Southern Baptist Convention (Al Mohler and Russell Moore) and The Gospel Coalition (Tim Keller and John Piper) gave not a whimper of consideration to supporting Trump, evangelicals in the pews turned out in record numbers for apparently the least virtuous candidate in memory.  Since the election, evangelical academics (John Fea) and op-ed writers (Michael Gerson) have produced a steady stream of disgust over the hypocrisy of evangelical support for Trump.  The election has revealed, consequently, a gap between the alleged leaders of evangelicalism (anti-Trump) and the rank-and-file (pro-Trump), and raises the question of how truly representative the leadership is.  If Russell Moore’s opinions are simply his own, should reporters be using his quotations as emblematic of evangelical attitudes?  At the same time, a cast of evangelical celebrities has emerged, such as Paula White and Robert Jeffress, who may appear as rivals to the mainstream evangelicals at The Gospel Coalition.  Also in the Trump camp are familiar names of evangelical leaders, like Billy Graham and, following their father, Franklin Falwell and Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Wherever you look in the world of evangelicalism, the analysis of Trump reduces to morality and character with almost no attention to domestic or foreign policy, the viability of national institutions, or the rule of law and representative government.  For many evangelicals who write about Trump, the angle of vision is the president’s depravity (along with his administration’s policies) and the hypocrisy of any Christian support for him.  An observer might be tempted to conclude that evangelicals, who are supposed to be winsome and less sectarian than fundamentalists, have reverted to the black-and-white categories of anti-modernists.  At the same time, said observer might also notice that the leading news outlets cover Trump in ways that mirror evangelical moralism, a harmonic convergence that suggests the answer to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” is an overwhelming affirmative.

Aside from the acrimony among evangelicals, the Trump presidency has put an exclamation mark on the end of an era in Protestant history, which coincides with the death of Billy Graham’s.  For almost seventy-five years after World War II, evangelicals established institutions that provided gate keeping services for an amorphous set of Protestants that refused to participate in the common projects concocted by mainline Protestants (through the National Council of Churches).  The magazine, Christianity Today, the interdenominational organization, The National Association of Evangelicals, and seminaries like Fuller and Gordon-Conwell functioned as the points of reference for understanding this phase of born-again Protestantism.  In some ways, the glue holding these institutions together was Billy Graham and his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  In addition to his own crusades, radio shows, magazine, movies, and syndicated columns, Graham served on the boards of many of these evangelical agencies.  But these organizations and outlets no longer control the message of evangelicalism the way they once did.  Some of that owes to the rise of social media and its unfiltered character.  At the same time, a generation of evangelical leaders has passed away since 2000 – from Jerry Falwell to Graham – and no set of figures has emerged to assume responsibility for evangelicalism’s message and identity.  The Trump election has made that vacuum glaringly obvious.

On the other side of U.S. Christianity, Roman Catholics are experiencing Trump in a way decidedly different from Protestants and it too involves another passing of an era.  From the mid-1960s, when the Second Vatican Council convened to update Roman Catholicism for the modern world, until the inauguration of Pope Francis (2013), Roman Catholics in the U.S. were generally comfortable with the hallmarks of the nation’s political ideals and aspirations – separation of church and state, representative democracy, limited government, the leader of the free world.  In fact, since 2012 the U.S. bishops have been sponsoring annually The Fortnight for Freedom (the two weeks before Independence Day) to celebrate national liberties and to gin up support for religious freedom (and the protection of Roman Catholic social services that go with such liberty).  This was an era launched partly by John Courtney Murray’s defense of the American founding on natural law grounds and an approval of classical liberalism (in some ways) at Vatican II.  Such support for American ideals removed some barriers between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  Indeed, Richard John Neuhaus, the Lutheran pastor who converted to Rome and founded First Things, followed Murray on American politics and established a forum for cooperation with evangelicals, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”  Although ecumenical and theological in nature, this effort also included a consensus on certain political and social issues (such as abortion and gay marriage).

Sometimes branded an Americanist (a Roman Catholics who blended American national and religious in ways that compromised the latter), Neuhaus and the writers with which he collaborated began to receive criticism from Roman Catholics who wanted to follow Rome more than the Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln on social teaching.  These critiques often were on the periphery of the American church.  But in the last two years or so, the magazine that Neuhaus founded (he died in 2009), First Things, has become a formidable outlet for critiques of political liberalism, not so much New Deal liberalism as the classical liberalism (think John Locke) that inspired the United States.  The most visible of these critiques has come from Patrick Deneen, a conservative political philosopher at the University of Notre Dame.  His recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, argues that America’s political ideals stem from an erroneous anthropology and that both the Left (pro-government programs) and Right (small government and free markets) are not so different because each side values individual freedom over self-restraint and the state over small institutions and associations crucial to a good life (families, schools, neighborhood associations).  Some of the critics of liberalism featured at First Things even argue for integralism, the idea that the church should inform and collaborate with the state to insure a good society – which was basically Rome’s political position before the Second Vatican Council.  This negative estimate of the nation’s political forms is by no means large, nor does it have any significant traction with the bishops.  But it has a following among Roman Catholic intellectuals at both religious and secular institutions.  Perhaps the biggest indication of its influence is that First Things is no longer the vehicle for the kind of harmonization of religion and politics that Neuhaus had practiced.  Instead, it is increasingly on the other side of the debates in which Neuhaus had participated.

The Trump Effect

Even before the election of Donald Trump, Christians in the United States were re-thinking their place in national life.  President Obama was a model husband and father but his administration’s policies had increasingly put Christian institutions on the defensive – from the Affordable Care Act which required employers to cover access to contraception and abortion in health insurance to the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage.  Most conservative Christians expected that they would have to assume an adversarial role with Hillary Clinton as president, which was a given in the 2016 election for most people.  The Trump victory out of the blue changed the dynamic between Christians and the federal government.  No longer would believers have to get ahead of federal policies that could compromise religious organizations.  Trump’s administration might not roll back Obama’s designs but it would also not further or deepen the Democrats’ progressivism.

At the same time, the polarizing nature of Trump’s character has prevented Christians from welcoming the president and his policies.  To do so is to seem to be selling the believer’s birthright for a mess of pottage.  For that reason, American Christians are arguably more divided than ever about how to conceive of and relate to the federal government.  Add to the potentially damaging associations with the president the lack of a widely recognized body of religious leaders who can speak for and to Christians about the public square and you have uncertainty and transition.  If political conservatives are divided on what to do with and make of Donald Trump, evangelicals and Roman Catholics can hardly be expected to clarify the matter.  The 2020 presidential election will likely bring alliances and leadership into focus, but if Trump runs again and especially if he is re-elected, Christians will need another election cycle or two to find equilibrium after the Trump chaos.

Dr. D. G. Hart is the Distinguished Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College and the Novakovic Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  He is the author of several books, including From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservativism (Eerdmans, 2011).  

This article was originally published by Modern Reformation on September 10, 2018.