- - Friday, September 16, 2011

By D.G. Hart
Eerdman’s, $25, 256 pages

What D.G. Hart tells us in this invigorating book is that Jerry Falwell is dead. I mean to tell you, brethren, he’s really, really dead - not least in terms of the influence he once exerted, with high and honorable intention, on the political process.

Today’s evangelicals, Mr. Hart relates, are at least as likely to push their government toward peace and justice commitments as away from policies that undermine the family or American exceptionalism. It’s not the same world it was a few decades ago, when American evangelicals - Mr. Falwell was perhaps the paradigm - aligned their preaching and their voting with the Republican Party and its embrace of limited government and anti-communism. For one thing, the commies are mostly gone. Evangelical writers such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo keep insisting on the “justice” agenda they see as inarguably consonant with biblical Christianity and the message of Jesus.

Odder and odder, in some sense, the old alliance between the “religious right” and the Republican Party has come to seem in latter years. Not so odd, perhaps as Mr. Hart might leave readers supposing, with his accounts of the flight from Falwellian certainties. My own observation is that, never mind the exhortations of the superstar preachers, the folk in the pew profess more in common with John A. Boehner than with Barack Obama: the Obama, anyway, whose presidency has become a succession of excuses for failure to execute campaign-trail promises.

Mr. Hart, a prolific author as well as a Hillsdale College historian, is surely right to point out all the same an evangelical trait hardly noted at all back in the Falwell days, when it was usual for the media to depict hordes of hooded Christians laboring up the hill, crosses going before, to fix them Jesus-hatin’ liberals, yes, sir, once and fer all.

A salient truth about evangelicals, says Mr. Hart, is that they’re not model conservatives. Rather, they are “addicted to changing the world” - for Christ, naturally, according to the shifting shades of perception that result from millions of minds interpreting in millions of ways the grand imperative of the Bible. People fixated on “change” lack a certain, shall we say, regard for traditions and the complex circumstances of daily life, many of them inherited, many of them delicate. There isn’t a whole lot about the evangelical instinct that could be called delicate. So, too, they see the Bible as the “standard for public life.” Not all Americans concur, do they?

Just before dismissing the congregation, Mr. Hart ascends the authorial pulpit to show readers why modern evangelicals should take a friendly look at conservatism, a basic consideration being that “conservatives have the best store of public arguments for defending the families, schools, churches, and voluntary associations on which evangelicals depend.”

Liberal evangelicals of the Wallis stamp swell with joy at the prospect of government initiatives to address this or that problem. “Inequality” is among their concerns. “Justice,” too.

Might one ask - I certainly would - why politicians and bureaucrats merit the trust that liberal evangelicals withhold from private actors and associations? I mean, look at the matter theologically. Aren’t politicians equally, with Chamber of Commerce leaders, victims of the fall of man? What’s to make anyone think they (despite once-frequent asseverations about “compassionate conservatism”) know more about human nature and remedies than anyone else, and that they enjoy matchless power to achieve goods for which we should all be thankful? I don’t hold it against Mr. Hart that he doesn’t get into the topic at this depth, feeling perhaps that he could do only so much in one book.

He does so much more, which is really the point here. He probes deep below the surface of evangelicalism to identify, with intelligence and grace, elements that conservatives might have examined with more detail back when Mr. Falwell and others came to shopping around for allies to fight the “secular humanism” they viewed with alarm. Conservatives, for one thing, might have thought more about how voters in general would view the evangelical quest, sublimated at first as Republican politics, for increasing Christianity’s political profile.

That would have started arguments about whether America was or wasn’t a Christian nation, as the evangelicals of the day sometimes alleged. Besides, their votes were wanted. Yet when Barry Goldwater, the grandest political conservative of them all back in his day, offered to kick Jerry Falwell in the place where he sat down, conservatives should have figured out that there might be some problems coming down the road. They didn’t, and now the piper demands his pay.

The intellectual vigor of conservatism a la William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, married to the zeal and religious insight of modern evangelical leaders, could perhaps some day fulfill the vision that Mr. Falwell and James Dobson had for reform and public improvement. To work, nonetheless, such a marriage would have to have in it more of mutual respect, and less of advantage-seeking, than was perhaps the case 30 years ago.

Regarding such an arrangement, the best place to understand the dynamics at work is this truly excellent book - scholarly but readable, generous in its assumptions, fair in its judgments. The congregation, brethren, will want to give Mr. Hart a good handshake as they head out the door.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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