Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History
by Gillis J. Harp
Oxford University Press, 2019
323 pages (hardback), $34.95
Since about the time when Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the Moral Majority in 1979 (with lots of help from Republican Party operatives), confessional and evangelical Protestants have generally identified as conservative. In Christian terms, being conservative meant at least belief in the supernatural character of biblical religion, as well as trust in the Bible as the word of God. In political categories, being conservative meant being pro-life, affirming the importance of the family, a strong national defense (especially in the Cold War context of America’s opposition to Soviet Communism), and also small or limited government. How any of those convictions cohered, from the big government needed to contain Communism to the limited government of the Constitution, or from the personal freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights to support for legislation to restrain immorality (such as prohibitions on heterosexual sex outside marriage and homosexual sex within it), was always a mystery. In election seasons, candidates and spokespersons for the Religious Right rarely connected the dots between faith and politics. Most Americans, on the Left and the Right, sensed that support for Republican candidates was normal for serious Christians and anyone who wanted to preserve America’s political norms. In effect, to be a conservative Christian was to be a political conservative (and please don’t ask if Republicans are truly conservative, thank you).
Compounding the unasked questions surrounding Christianity and American conservatism was a general ignorance about the history of political conservatism in the United States. After World War II, a conservative movement emerged out of frustration with the East Coast elite sensibilities of the old Republican Party. William F. Buckley Jr. was a huge figure in cultivating a constituency that was responsible (mainly) for transforming the Republican Party and channeling conservative energies into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. On the way to that major accomplishment in American political history, movement conservatives lingered on the fringes. Lyndon B. Johnson’s staggering defeat in 1964 of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, the ideal conservative for many in the movement, was an early indication that both the country and even the Republican Party itself were not ready for the conservatism that Buckley had constructed. But through a variety of institutions—especially magazines and think tanks—conservatives won many public debates and even some policy controversies to put one of their own in the White House.
Where were evangelicals and Protestant fellow travelers in this conservative history? That is not the question that Gillis J. Harp attempts to answer in his careful and comprehensive book. But Protestants and American Conservatism is necessary for anyone who wants to find an answer to the riddles surrounding Protestantism and political conservatism. At the same time, the book (like so many other histories of American conservatism, such as Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind or George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement) has an artificial quality, thanks to the necessity of defining conservatism and then identifying figures in the past who held to the specified set of ideas or policies. The study of history generally involves starting with the stories of persons, institutions, and policy debates before defining a position that unites what might seem like a disparate set of episodes. The reality is that modern conservatism is a movement that begins only in the 1950s (with books like Kirk’s or Buckley’s magazine The National Review). Any long-term history of conservatism before then is really a construction, looking for similarities among a host of figures or events that may have been disconnected in their own time or that have no direct relationship from one generation to the next. Despite this problem (which afflicts all histories of American conservatism), Harp has produced a smart and well-argued book on the history of Protestants’ place in American national politics.
The author’s narrative conventionally follows the stages of American political history and sorts out where Protestants stood within the major political developments of each period, from the colonial era and the founding, through debates over slavery and the union, capitalism and progressivism, and finally the World Wars and the Cold War. Most of the figures Harp includes before the twentieth century will likely be unfamiliar to conservative Protestants, who may venture into the world of conservatism through media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh or Ben Shapiro, but some (like Princeton theologians Charles Hodge or Benjamin Warfield) will be. But the bulk of voices prior to the fundamentalist controversy or the rise of evangelicalism will prompt readers to reach for their smartphones and open a search engine. In fact, the late nineteenth century’s debates about a modernizing society featured a variety of Protestant academics, many at Yale and Princeton, who were critical of progressivism (expanding government power to respond to social and economic upheaval), but who did not respond in the contemporary fashion that celebrates small government. These conservative Protestants also worried about corporate capitalism and the consequences of materialism for Americans’ character, while working within and hoping to bolster the existing structures of both government and civil society. Throughout much of this history, Harp detects the common conservative commitments to established social order, “defined customary hierarchies,” reluctance about rebellion, the organic character of society, the positive role of the state in moral order, and the importance of mediating institutions (families, schools, churches, and voluntary associations).
For readers particularly curious about evangelicalism and the Religious Right, Harp is equally instructive. Evangelicals were distant from the rise of the 1950s conservative movement and only joined actively into Republican electoral politics during the run-up to Reagan’s election. Harp is also astute about the thinness of evangelical political theory that imitated the conservative mantra about preserving liberty from big government and the exceptional character of the United States in spreading freedom around the world. Indeed, the chapter on “The Success and Failure of the Religious Right” may well be worth the price of the book, since it situates everyone from Falwell and Francis Schaeffer to Marvin Olasky and Cal Thomas in the context of a much broader history of both Protestantism and American politics.
The one opportunity Harp missed in this otherwise important book was an assessment of Protestantism’s relationship to modernity. Recent years have seen many Roman Catholic academics (e.g., Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, and Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed) attribute to the Reformation and its political consequences much of the moral and social debris that today’s social conservatives lament about modern society. By overturning received institutions (political and religious), the argument goes, Protestantism unleashed a society that promotes liberty at all costs, disregards order, and maybe even dismisses received truths. One reason Harp may have failed to address this critique of Protestantism was his decision to devote the conclusion to evangelicals and Donald Trump. Quite naturally, his book shows how anomalous that support in the 2016 election was and how far removed it is from earlier forms of Protestant political conservatism. At the same time, he could well have used this book to explain that Protestantism, for as many novelties it introduced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, retained its own political and theological ideas for maintaining order, the rule of law, and respect for authority. Even without entering into this debate, Harp’s book is as timely as it is thoughtful.
D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the Novakovic Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.