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. Luke Moon and I conversed about “paleo-evangelicals” several times. With that reaction, we decided that others were having the same discussion or would like to join in on it. Luke’s post can be found here.
I have been pegged. Joining the various coagulated labels applied to my religious and political positions, Dr. Kidd has seen fit to brand me “paleo-evangelical.” I don’t think I’m particularly “deeply conversant with the ancient history of the church, and with the Reformation” in the way that I need to be, but I’m trying (I can differentiate all the St. Gregorys from each other). I do sympathize with certain “Catholic social doctrines and traditions”: I’m liturgical, sacramental, and am a big fan of the various social encyclicals (even the oft-hated Humanae Vitae). I guess I do “gravitate” to the scribbling of The American Conservative and Front Porch Republic, if by “gravitate” Kidd means “reads daily.”
I hold the mentioned suspicions of American civil religion, the effectiveness of political parties, and certain Republican policies. It was here that Luke Moon and I had a disconnect—a “generation gap,” if you will. These are rare occurrences, since we understand ourselves as traditional in religious matters and conservative in political ones—thus, we are otherwise bound together by tradition. I will try to account for why I believe what I do, but (even as Kidd admits) others have different stories for adopting these same positions.
Let us first address the issue of civil religion. Although the term carries with it a history of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism, we don’t have time to discuss them at the moment. Instead, observe that civil religion—even in its American form—is not Christianity, borrowed elements from Protestantism aside. Indeed, civil religion exists everywhere and at all times, but my generation works hard to differentiate between true Christianity and the American civil religion. Also, when civil religion comes under attack, my generation has little-to-no desire to defend it. Religion as a social tool is a dead thing—an idol. In evangelizing or defending Christianity in an apologetics situation, the Gospel is offensive enough. We don’t need to be hauling around the baggage of Americanism when we’re trying to convey the true marrow of Christian doctrine.
Christianity should be welcomed in the public square, but we need to realize that our faith has been abused and manipulated for the sake of power. I resent it, and you should too. Thus, with this reservation in place, the emphasis of discussion, foundations of argument, and vocabulary choice has changed. Whether we’re talking about the actual Christian message or voicing one’s conscience in the public sphere pivots on context.
Yes, I am a conservative politically, but that springs from prudence, which is available to the heathen as well as the Christian. Prudence fosters my appreciation for the Founding Fathers, but it doesn’t push me to assert that they were “essentially Christian” as David Barton et al. try to propose. The “paleo-evangelical” lacks the compunction to do two things at once without differentiation. When I’m evangelizing, I’ve gone beyond the cardinal virtues and nature to the theological virtues and grace. The latter sphere is the Church’s special and unique contribution—it’s what the Church is about. The political sphere is for both the baptized and the pagan.
Next, Kidd asserts, “[T]he paleo evangelicals do not place much hope in any political party doing that much good in this world. Big political promises of hope and change typically come to naught, whatever party is making them.” This springs from the revived awareness of Christians’ dual citizenship and a sense of betrayal by movement conservatism (as embodied by so much of the Republican Party). The latter phenomenon has myriad causes. Freedoms have been threatened by the Republican-supported Patriot Act. One finds only lip service to the pro-life cause on the congressional level (a willing legislature and executive are what’s needed to overturn Roe v. Wade). The Abu Ghraib abuses, increased drones strikes, and decade-long war “over there” have cast a pall on the Middle Eastern conflicts. As for fiduciary responsibility, when Republicans come to power, they simply divvy up the budgetary pie differently rather than institute unpopular systematic changes (whether that be along capitalistic or distributist lines). Moreover, the paleo-evangelicals get squeamish when they read about the power plays, egos, and scandals of the Moral Majority movement. “Family values” has ultimately become a hollow if not ironic term.
In short, paleo-evangelicals notice that movement conservatism is an ideology, not an inclination or the principled application of prudence. Thus, they are unwilling to pull a party line at the moment.
Political skepticism, which Kidd envisions as a characteristic of the paleo-evangelicals, is a venerable habit of conservatives and Christians alike. I blame this 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. Our nation—whether it be the Roman Empire or the American republic—is doomed to mortality and corruption since it is the City of Man. We look after her and seek her good, but we really don’t expect too much out of human leaders. No, America is not the hope of the world, and we better not be claiming that it is such. That office belongs to the Christ.
Older generations may contend that they had no idea that they were conflating the two citizenships of the Christian. If that was within their intentions, they did a very bad job of communicating that. The young paleo-evangelicals raised in the midst of their Moral Majority parents took away a very different narrative and have rejected it. These young conservatives are trying to re-establish the rhetorical discipline of distinction, much to the dread of movement conservatives who desire mobilization and activism.
On the other hand (and this point springs also from St. Thomas Aquinas), virtue is still possible on earth, including earthly politics. Indeed, America has done a lot of good in the world, especially as a model of ordered liberty for a good bit of its national life. As Edmund Burke so eloquently illustrated in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, we as conservatives shouldn’t be expecting some sort of utopia to be ushered in through human politics. On the other hand, we should seek out human flourishing. Thus, Christian conservatives have two concerns to be worried about that are coming into tension once again: “the best is the enemy of the better” vs. “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” Paleo-evangelicals have been opting for the second, since increasingly it seems as if one has to choose between two outright monstrosities.
Until Republican leaders start taking seriously the ideas of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Oakeshott; young classical conservatives will remain rather aloof. Likewise, if advocates of Christian conservatism keep propagating harmful understandings of American exceptionalism rather than good ones, paleo-evangelicals are going to keep the GOP at an arm’s length. Perhaps paleo-evangelicals deserve Kidd’s “straight ticket” dig at their electoral hipsterdom. However, these young un’s stand not as political Laputans, but rather Christians with significant reservations on a variety of fields. All too often, the call to “realism” is really a demand for materialism. I don’t know if Kidd’s particular term “paleo-evangelical” will prove sustainable if stretched and scrutinized, but he definitely has picked up on an important trend and something of which the-powers-that-be should take notice.