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.
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