Book Review: Protestants and American Conservatism

In Book Reviews by Josh Bowman

Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History
(Oxford University Press. 2019)
by Gillis J. Harp

If there were ever a time to reexamine how Protestants, and particularly white evangelical Protestants, have impacted American politics and what passes for contemporary conservatism, it is now.  Christianity Today’s December editorial calling for President Trump’s removal gained such attention precisely because it was a distinctively minority view among evangelical Protestants.  They had overwhelmingly voted for, and continue to support, Trump, despite his known marital infidelity, his impulsiveness, his penchant for exaggeration and prevarication, his stated belief that he had no need to repent, his attempt to enlist foreign leaders to dig up dirt on his political opponents, and his lack of civility.

Gillis J. Harp, a Professor of History at Grove City College who has authored previous books on Phillips Brooks and the role that Auguste Comte played in shaping American Liberalism, provides context in his study of the ties between American Protestants and conservatism in U.S. history.  Although he does not phrase his book as a jeremiad, he does argue that the ties connecting American Protestants to conservatism are far less theologically informed than they were during colonial times.  Later, for example, the Puritan ideal of a covenantal government was largely supplanted by Lockean social contract theory and other ideologies.

Although American patriots believed that they were preserving the liberties they had enjoyed as English citizens, Harp believes that Protestant conservatives tended to take the Tory side in the American Revolution.  In the subsequent antebellum period, a number of southern Protestants broke cleanly with Lockean liberalism and individualism in order to justify slavery as a positive good justified by Scripture.

As the First and Second Great Awakenings stoked the fires of evangelicalism and pietism, fueling abolitionism, prohibition, and other reform movements, American Protestant conservatives often aligned themselves with capitalism.  Harp argues that they did so less as a result of theological reasoning than as part of a general zeitgeist.  During the Gilded Age, Protestant conservatives increasingly identified with Social Darwinism, whose proponents were rarely orthodox Christians.

Although some, like William Jennings Bryan, allied with the Progressive movement, a greater number of orthodox Protestants associated themselves with conservatives who lauded America’s Founding Fathers for putatively founding a Christian nation and expressed wariness of governmental paternalism and internationalism. Although fundamentalists retreated from political action  in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial, they remained strongly opposed to communism, which they, in turn, often equated with liberalism and socialism.

William Buckley’s National Review (founded in 1955) was a major milestone in the development of American conservatism but it contained few Protestant contributors. Supported in part by J. Howard Pew, Christianity Today (founded in 1956 and associated with Billy Graham) filled some of the gap.

Harp also concludes that theologian Rousas John Rushdoony’s “theonomy” was “disconnected from the historic mainstream of Reformed thought” (p. 205) and details the connection between Francis Schaeffer and Carl McIntyre.  Although Schaeffer connected with a new generation of evangelicals, his pronouncements on philosophy and culture were over-generalized and his opposition to abortion probably stemmed from his son’s influence.  Harp suggests that, on this and related issues, conservative Protestants too often reflected a Manichean worldview that overemphasized apocalyptic language and biblical proof texts rather than the kind of broad biblical understandings that had characterized their Puritan forbears or even earlier contributors to Christianity Today.  Pastors like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, like later members of the Tea Party movement, adopted a “nontheological pragmatism” (p. 11), and were particularly susceptible to assuming that their own conservative beliefs on issues as diverse as balanced budgets, states’ rights, and proper levels of taxation, must reflect biblical views.

Harp argues that confessional Protestant denominations with closer ties to their historical past, as well as individuals like Marvin Olasky and Ralph Reed, have added some theological respectability to conservative causes, but agrees with Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson that contemporary conservative Protestants have been too “blinded by might.”   Harp favorably quotes conservative columnist Ross Douthat’s comment that “the Trump era has revealed what you get when you leach the Christianity out of conservatism . . . .  [W]ithout the pull of transcendence, the future of the right promises to be tribal, cruel and very dark indeed” (p. 235).

Although I’m not sure that either were necessarily conservatives, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, neither of whom Harp covers in any depth, were among the most profound Protestant political thinkers in America since John Witherspoon (pictured above).  It would certainly be consistent with Protestant skepticism about ecclesiastical authority to wonder whether lay political thinkers have sometimes been more discerning than Protestant leaders, although this would hardly account for the continuing support that Trump appears to have among white evangelical Protestants.

Harp’s knowledge of American Protestant conservatism is encyclopedic, his prose is clear, his judgments are measured, and his message is sobering.  In an inversion of the biblical mandate of Romans 12:1,  the thinking of American Protestant conservatives has too often been molded more by their own regional identities, secular ideology, and quest for power than by the great biblical themes that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

John R. Vile
Middle Tennessee State University