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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin

Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism

D. G. Hart

W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Darryl G. Hart is Professor of History at Hillsdale College and was formerly, the adjunct professor of church history at Westminster Seminary, California. He has written a range of books including a biography of J. Gresham Machen, Defending the Faith  and another on John Williamson Nevin in the American Reformed Biographies series.

I initially picked up this book for two reasons, first, the author is a scholar who I respect even if I do not always share his conclusions (for example, I disagreed with some of his uncritical assessments of Nevin) and second, the polarisation of politics in America is something that has not even registered in the UK and is an intriguing social phenomena (if nothing else).

A few years ago, a good friend in the USA gave me a copy of a PBS television series entitled ‘With God on our side’ which chronicled the rise of the Christian Right within American politics. This series introduced me to a few of the topics and characters that surface throughout this book. The evangelical scene in America is described on the back cover as a mosaic or even a kaleidoscope. If you are completely unfamiliar with the American scene then this book may seem to jump from person to person and topic to topic, while it introduces some of the characters it also assumes a knowledge of others like, LaHaye, Falwell, Robertson, Balmer, Weyrich, Dobson and Rove that might not altogether be easy on this side of the Atlantic.

Hart begins with evangelical Protestantism in early 60s that cared about saving souls and has lost its political consciousness after the mocking of the efforts of Wm Jennings Bryan and failures of Prohibition, in the 1920s. In the 1950s, the established Protestant Churches had turned liberal and abandoned the historical principles of the faith, and evangelical moved into a group of smaller denominations, largely viewed as being ‘fundamentalist’. The Fundamentalists had been characterised by little national organisation other than that associated with one popular pastor or school. The fundamentalists where widely stigmatised in the liberal press. In 1942, 150 delegates in St. Louis formed the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) - choosing evangelical to fundamentalist - to promote conservative Christianity in America.  By the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater sought to activate the voting power of the evangelicals. The book then takes you through the work of Francis Schaffer, the rise of ‘Moral Majority’, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family to the central role of the political evangelical vote in the elections of Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush.

Hart points out that the early days of the NAE were filled with resolutions against communism, anti-Roman Catholicism and anything that aggravated the disintegration of the American family (largely, liquor, gambling and obscene literature). Interestingly, he notes that the NAE opposed state funding for church related schools – largely as a rouse for stopping funding to Romanist ones. At this point, conservative Christians largely voted for conservative politicians in the Republican stable. In the 70s, a group of evangelicals began pushing for ‘social justice’ type issues around poverty, racism and war.  Politicians, like Hatfield, took the ‘What would Jesus do’ message to the masses and hosted luncheons at the Senate that consisted of a one course meal of a hard roll. 1976, saw the ‘Year of the Evangelical’, according to Newsweek magazine – and the heavy evangelical support for the election of a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.

The book continues to chart the complex inter-relationships between Evangelicals  and both sides of the political divide. The movements within evangelicalism that replaced its political voice in Jerry Falwell, associated with traditional fundamentalism, with the voice of Pat Robertson, who was a Pentecostal. The book concludes with a chapter entitled ‘Why should Evangelicals be Conservative?’, which draws on the Augustinian distinction of ‘The City of God’ and ‘The City of Man’  and encourages interest in politics. He guides his readers to ‘reconsider the source of American greatness’, which he links to limited national government, to acknowledge ‘liberty for all’ and here he speaks for toleration, to acknowledge the limits of political solutions and then to ‘reconsider the source of Christian greatness’. He draws his readers to his view that spiritual warfare is more significant than culture wars and that we are called to be pilgrims and not crusaders.

It is good to have a book that is dealing with this type of contemporary issue, while at the same time, many readers will not share all of his conclusions.