The Alliance of Evangelicals and Conservatives

by Matthew Raley

Evangelicals and political conservatives  have been allies for decades, an alliance many evangelicals now question.

Evangelicals certainly constitute a large part of the Republican base. But the alliance I’m talking about is more specific. The conservative movement is distinct from the GOP, and the two have long had a strained relationship. Conservatives embraced most of the GOP’s presidential nominees since Ronald Reagan only reluctantly. Neither of the George Bushes were “movement” conservatives, and Bob Dole and John McCain were frequent antagonists.

So my focus is on the evangelical relationship with the conservative movement ideologically and organizationally. Does this alliance serve the cause of Christ? Has the increasing orientation of church life toward political issues harmed churches? Has the politicization of churches harmed conservatism itself?

Let’s start with definition and analysis.

Most people professing to be conservatives today do not know what conservatism is. It is not Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin. Indeed, conservatism is not historically or essentially a political philosophy, but a philosophy of culture that expresses itself politically. The logic of its policies cannot be understood without a grasp of the ideas about culture on which the policies are grounded.

There are three basic strains that came together mid-20th century to form what we know as conservatism today.

First, there were libertarians. Thinkers such as Albert Jay Nock and Friedrich Hayek constructed seminal arguments for the free market against state control, arguments that were further developed by economists such as Milton Friedman and political philosophers such as Willmoore Kendall. The supply-side tax policies of Arthur Laffer also came from this strain. For a libertarian, a value that must be preserved is economic liberty vested in private property.

Evangelicals have not felt much kinship with this faction. Socially, evangelicals were small business and agrarian people, not financiers. They were (and remain) based in the southeast and the west, not in the northeast. Furthermore, evangelicals have a long history of economic populism (back to William Jennings Bryan) that continues to this day pitting Wall Street against Main Street.

One question I want to ponder, then, is the significance of private property biblically.

A second strain of conservatism is traditionalism. The thinker here is Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, which surveyed cultural and political thinkers from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot. Conservatives of this faction drew their inspiration from Britain, and from such continental figures as Alexis de Tocqueville. They emphasized the respect for folkways and local hierarchies that informed the American founders as they wrote our Constitution. For a traditionalist, the value that must be preserved is the inherited way of life.

This is the faction in which evangelicals feel most at home. But there is still tension. Most traditionalists are Roman Catholic, leading many on the religious right (e.g. Chuck Colson) to seek theological rapprochement for the sake of cultural alliance.

So I also want to consider the significance of inherited ways of life biblically.

A third strain that went into today’s conservatism consisted of anti-communists — the most socially complex faction.

Most of these conservatives started out on the left and joined one of several migrations to the right. An intellectually powerful migration occurred in the 1930s and 40s in reaction against Stalinism. This group of ex-communists and fellow travelers was represented most prominently by Whittaker Chambers, John dos Passos, and James Burnham. Another migration came when New Deal liberals and internationalists like Ronald Reagan perceived that Democrats were not committed to defeating the Soviet Union. A still later group, consisting of Irving Kristol, John Podhoretz, and Midge Decter, et al., reacted against the counterculture in the 1960s.

For anti-communist conservatives,  free society was the primary thing to preserve against communist dictatorship. These conservatives had experienced radical leftism from the inside, or in direct contact, and regarded it not as mistaken but evil. They were intellectuals — journalists, novelists, social scientists, policy analysts.

Evangelicals were certainly anti-communist, but had little affinity for the academic orientation of many conservatives from this faction.

I want to ponder whether loyalty to one’s culture and patriotism for one’s country have significance in the biblical scheme of things.

The man who, more than anyone else, fused the three strains into one movement was William F. Buckley, Jr. He was able to fuse them partly because he personally embodied all of them. He was reared on Nockian anti-statism and on Catholic traditionalism, and was driven politically by the mandate to defeat the Soviet Union. The instrument he founded for articulating the fusion and gathering the factions under one roof was National Review. (The term fusionism and its intellectual formulations were the construct of fellow editor Frank Meyer.)

The fusion worked because all of the factions shared the principle that localities are strongest when free to govern themselves. The localities need to be strong in order to keep people strong. Communism was the ultimate offense against this philosophy because it violently leveled all local authority.

To consider whether evangelicals should keep thinking of themselves as conservatives, the first question is not whether Palin is a hot political commodity, or whether Rush is a liability, but whether the Bible agrees with what conservatism is.

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13 thoughts on “The Alliance of Evangelicals and Conservatives

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  1. The “alliance” does NOT serve the cause of Christ. The orientation of church life toward political issues has harmed both the churches and conservatism in general. A book that helped me to understand this was one written years ago by a former leader of the “Moral Majority,” Cal Thomas–“Blinded by Might.” The church should recover the doctrine of the “two kingdoms” to avoid the blurring that has harmed its witness.

  2. A couple of issues just into my thinking here. First, it seems like the word “alliance” is much too strong a word for the apparent degree of cooperation between Christians and political conservatives. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of conservatism as a political force is the strong emphasis on individual liberty that characterizes virtually every strain you mention. The same is true to excess, it seems, among American Christians. At best, it is an uneasy alliance, if alliance is even the right word for it.

    Second, as citizens of this country, we do have an obligation to exercise our duties. Jesus never set aside earthly citizenship. As a Christian in the U.S., I have an obligation to work to preserve the freedom under law represented created by the Constitution. In political terms, that makes me more a conservative or libertarian than, say, socialist. Furthermore, preserving liberty serves the cause of Christ better than allowing it to be undermined or destroyed.

    I agree that we believers must participate in our duties as citizens of the United States in a manner that does not conflict with or undermine our higher obligations as citizens of the kingdom of God. I think working with those who do not share our spiritual beliefs and values is not only necessary, at times, but useful for fulfilling our duties in both kingdoms.

  3. Both useful comments. As to the question of the alliance, I am thinking specifically of the organizational links and strategic coordination between grass roots political operatives and parachurch orgs like Focus on the Family. These do, I think, constitute an alliance that affects local churches. I think it has been a disaster, and yet, there are many conservative beliefs that I think are important to uphold. So the dual citizenship Roger describes is what I want to explore.

  4. Pastor Raley,

    I think mixed in this may be a recovery of the doctrine of vocation. Our men’s group at church recently went through an outstanding book by Gene Veith, “God at Work,” which encouraged us a men to see our vocations as citizens, fathers, husbands, and workers (which is a Reformed/Lutheran concept). We have vocations as citizens to participate in the political process. But this is different/distinct from our roles in the church.

  5. I think one of the worst things for a Christian to do is to turn their back on the world; for there are many people suffering in the world, and the Christian work is the work of alleviating suffering. In fact, it could be put stronger: the Christian work is the work of creating and defending brotherhood between all people. This being so, why would any Christian support a Capitalist society in which people are alienated not only from each other, but from themselves, where separation and atomization are the law, and all community militated against? Many on the Left, since the 1930s, have critiqued Stalinist bureaucracies; in fact, the best critique of this type of communism is from the left. As is the best critique of our current society. Look around and take note: America is in the hands of Conservative forces, and as a result we see pervasive repression and unfreedom, not liberty. And look beyond America and you will see that the cost of this pseudo-liberty is the enslavement of vast tracts of the third world.

    The Christian work, then, is to oppose Capitalism and Conservatism. The difficulty, though, is that in America the Conservatives and the Christians are very often one and the same people.

    Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”- John 9:39

    “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. – John 9:41

    “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.” – Mark 2:22

    “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.”- Matthew 9:16

    Wit

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