October 24, 2012

Discussing Paleo-Evangelicals: A Friendly Challenge

What follows is a dialogue elicited by a recent blog post entitled “Paleo-Evangelicals as Reluctant Republicans” by Thomas Kidd over at The Anxious Bench. Dr. Kidd’s observations proved to be quite thought-provoking in the office. Bart Gingerich and I conversed about “paleo-evangelicals” several times. With that reaction, they decided that others were having the same discussion or would like to join it. Bart’s post can be found here.

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When I read Tomas Kidd’s article about Paleo-Evangelicals I thought to myself, Thomas nailed how all the young staffers and interns in my office think. Because the IRD gets into all kinds of issues we often have great discussions about how the church and state interact and what does true conservatism look like. Hanging around the young staffers, mostly graduates of strong academic and conservative institutions, I have come to realize how establishment conservative I am. That being said, I find many of the arguments made by the paleo-evangelicals to be attractive, but insufficient as policy proscriptions and in some cases reactionary.

Thomas Kidd’s blog describes an overlooked group of evangelicals, whom he described as “Paleo-Evangelicals.” According to Thomas, there are three major characteristics of this group. First, they are distrustful of American “civil religion.” Second they “do not place much hope in any political party doing much good in this world.” And third, they take issue with certain Republican issues. All three of these characteristics are interesting, I found myself stuck on the first. Not because I am a fan of civil religion, but because I see some straw men lingering around.

The first question I asked Bart after we read the article was, “Do you really think that Christians who vote for Republicans really think they are advancing the Kingdom of God?” I have friends who are very committed to the Republican ticket and are very outspoken about their faith, and I have never heard one of them make the case that voting Republican is equal to furthering the Kingdom. So where does this idea come from that Christians voting a particular way equals advancing the Kingdom?

It is here that we find the swamp where Kingdom of God and Civil Religion meet. Bart briefly mentions two grand civil religion ideas of the American experiment: Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. Bart identifies these as antithetical to Christianity, even though they borrow elements from Protestantism. Attempting to make a clear distinction between true Christianity and American civil religion is a cornerstone of the paleo-evangelical position. The problem is that not everything about Manifest Destiny or American Exceptionalism is clearly unbiblical. Take for example the command of God to be “fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” What that meant in 1840 and what it means now is very different. In 1840, that scripture provided biblical backing to people longing to try their hand at “redeeming the earth.” Today, if that scripture is quoted at all, it is read apologetically and comes with an appeal for “Creation Care.” (I would argue that environmentalism is a major tenet of modern American civil religion.)

While I agree that American civil religion differs in many areas from Christianity, and defending civil religion is not our calling, the swampy part is that it is not always easy to differentiate. Part of the reason it is hard is because quite a few of the tenets of civil religion are in fact tenets of Christianity. In many of the issues where civil religion and Christianity merge, what we in fact are witnessing is the impact of light-filled Christians living and working in their communities. And the light of Christ is a blessing to the community. That, of course, does not mean those who follow civil religion, but not the person of Jesus Christ, will be saved.

The appeal towards human rights and justice is an area where in general there is overlap between civil religion and Christianity, but some of the rights or specific areas of justice are not in fact Christian at all. For example, the right to life is rooted in the biblical understanding of the value of the human person. Reproductive justice is used to defend the right to terminate an unwanted child and is fundamentally unchristian.

When a Christian supports a candidate because they are seeking to end abortion on demand or defunding Planned Parenthood, does that Christian believe that they are ushering in the Kingdom of God? I don’t think so. On this point most paleo-evangelicals would not accuse the Christian Republican of the whole Kingdom of God thing. So it seems there are a few specific areas that draw the most ire.

The point that seems to rile up the paleo-evangelical is David Barton and his overzealous attempts to prove each of the Founding Fathers was in fact an orthodox Christian. When I challenge how mainstream the following of Barton is, I am told he is huge. Perhaps I am the outlier here because until the recent dust up, I had never even heard of David Barton. It is interesting, though, that all the people I would most explicitly label as paleo-evangelical have been home-schooled or went to a Christian school which heavily favored the classics. With text books written by Barton and others of the same vein, these homeschoolers went on to college to learn Barton was making stuff up. Rather than abandoning their faith completely, which sadly happens too often, many of these paleo-evangelicals look for ways to create a distinction between Bartonesque civil religion and Christianity as articulated by the Church Fathers and Protestant reformers. Bart articulates his own experience,

“I blame this [suspicion of political systems] on a revival in classical learning, since it is at this point that ancient and medieval names start getting thrown around by paleo-evangelicals. The great figure looming in the background is St. Augustine of Hippo. In his City of God, he excoriates high hopes and faith in human politics.”

American civil religion and Christianity are quickly drifting apart. Those who see the value of both seek to hold them together because they see it as good for society overall. Those who see American civil religion as getting in the way of true Christian faith are fine with the separation. The latter is more reflective of establishment conservatives, while the former is more reflective of paleo-evangelicals. I count myself as an establishment conservative. But I really appreciate the insight I have received from my paleo-evangelical friends and look forward to our continued discussion.

Luke Moon is Business Manager for the IRD and regular blogger for Juicy Ecumenism. Follow him on Twitter @lukemoon1 or @TheIRD


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  • Howard Merrell

    (I’m posting this here, because Luke’s piece was the last one I read. My comments refer to both Luke, and Bart’s posts. You can cross reference if you want.)

    Thanks Luke and Bart for furthering this conversation. I am older than Bart’s parents–I don’t know your age, Luke–and was not home-schooled (It was unheard of in my circles in the 50s and 60s.), and am largely ignorant of the classics. When I read Kidd’s article I found myself largely agreeing with it. Obviously, my reasons are not those Bart emphasized in his piece.
    While you are right, Luke; here in the US, especially in the Bible-Belt, where I live, there is a considerable overlap between Evangelicalism and Civil Religion, that is the exception, not the norm. A survey of the past 2 millennia and even a survey of the globe at the present would lead one to believe that more often than not Evangelicalism and Civil Religion are in conflict. Luke, you alluded to some trends that indicate that, here, in America, we are headed for a time of greater contrast between the two.
    At my age, I’m not sure I appreciate being called “paleo” anything, but I guess the reason that I found myself in large measure saying, “That sounds like me.” when I read Kidd’s article, is what Bart calls the “Two Kingdom” concept. It is unfortunate that the Moral Majority et. al.–while I agree with much that they emphasize in public life–succeeded in creating a public linkage between a certain kind of politics and a Bible-based, cross-centered, faith-activated view of life, Evangelicalism.
    My faith informs my politics. They are not the same. I generally vote Republican, because for reasons both faith informed, and practically oriented, I regard them as the better choice. Sometimes it is the lesser of the evils. I could find a candidate who almost completely shares my views and vote for her or him, but me and the seventeen others who vote that way aren’t going to carry the day. Part of what the Bible teaches is stewardship, and I figure that voting for Third Party Harry isn’t a good use of my political penny.
    Maybe it is simply this: I am Evangelical (somewhere along the seam of Bauder and Mohler in the book Four Views On The Spectrum of Evangelicalism) because I believe the Bible compels me to be. I would like to think I would be Evangelical where, or when, ever I lived. I am (mostly) Republican–I used to think Conservative until I started reading some stuff at FPR and they told me I couldn’t be because I hadn’t read the right books, wasn’t quite ready to be a Roman Catholic, and didn’t stay where I was born. (bit of snark there)–because out of the choices available to me (that have a chance of carrying the day) it seems best.

    I need to be strictly Evangelical right now, and get ready for Prayer Meeting.

  • http://otherhalfofeurope.wordpress.com joshkamiller

    “When a Christian supports a candidate because they are seeking to end abortion on demand or defunding Planned Parenthood, does that Christian believe that they are ushering in the Kingdom of God? I don’t think so. ”
    Not sure I agree there. If a Christian supports a candidate based on the candidate’s position being in line with biblical teaching, then that person is actively trying to make the world more like what God intends, ushering in the Kingdom. Since most Christian Republicans have no hesitation to explain exactly why they vote the way they do, then it comes across to the paleo as Christians trying to usher in the kingdom. Since it seems to me that the paleo’s issue is all about appearances, then it seems like it is about more than just one guy redefining the Founding Father’s beliefs.

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  • Vance Freeman

    Mr. Moon,

    The fact that you didn’t know who David Barton was until the “dust up” is evidence that you are not really in touch with the branch of evangelicals/establishment conservatives that believe that voting Republican is the good work prepared in advance for them to do. So it’s not a surprise that you doubt they exist.

    Come on down to Texas (or just log in to my Facebook page), and I’ll introduce you to those folks. You cannot throw a rock here without hitting two of them. ;-) In my neck of the woods, to question the Republican party on war or immigration is to align yourself with Democrats/atheists/homosexuals. So these folks exist, whether that comports with your experience or not.

    Further, I am not sure how someone who follows Christ as Lord can promote another religion. American civil religion, by it’s definition, has it’s own competing beliefs, rituals, narratives, and paradigmatic figures. What value is there for Christians to embrace another religion whether it be propagated by Americans or Romans?

    Grace and peace!

    Vance

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  • Eric Lytle

    For what it’s worth:
    I’m an evangelical and a registered Republican. I do not think my vote helps usher in the kingdom of God. I do not think the Republicans are God’s party. I registered as Republican so I can vote in GOP primaries. I regard the GOP as the lesser of two evils.
    As a rule, the GOPs are “Democrats Lite” – less taxation, less entitlement spending, less hostile to Christianity. Our culture tilts left, and the GOP tilts a little less than the Dems. I already voted for Mitt, who is not by any means a true blue conservative – but consider what NOT voting for Mitt entails. I also voted on some state and county issues where I thought the choice very clear.
    I don’t claim to speak for every evangelical nor for every conservative. However, I do know lots of people in my position – voting out of a sense of duty, choosing the lesser of two evils, aware that politicians can do a lot of harm but cannot do much to halt cultural decline. I guess I am “paleo” in the sense that mine is an OLD and (I hope) WISE position, but hardly a position to get young Christians excited enough to run around and ring doorbells. If I were a pastor, tomorrow morning, the last Sunday before the election, I would preach a sermon on such Bible verses as “the nations are a drop in the bucket” and “put not your faith in princes” – and I would tell the congregation to PLEASE get out and vote for the candidates who will do least harm.