Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History by Gillis J. Harp is published by Oxford University Press. Dr. Harp is a professor of history at Grove City College.
I became a Christian around the year 1972. A few years later, I self-consciously began identifying myself as a conservative. The conversion came about from the benefits of a lifelong family commitment to attending church and respecting the Christian faith. In God’s timing, I began finding sermons, previously uninteresting, suddenly compelling and convicting. Many factors contributed to what I now know was the work of the Holy Spirit convincing and convicting and drawing me to Christ.
Many factors also contributed to my becoming a conservative. One night, Johnny Carson had William F. Buckley, Jr. on his show as a guest. The next day, I went to the college library and checked out God and Man at Yale. I devoured it. This was during a season of my life when I was being overwhelmed with a myriad of ideas and concepts. The biggest intellectual change in my life at that time was embracing a Calvinistic Worldview. That changed and solidified all types of things in my life. It put me on a trajectory that has never changed.
But rethinking has been a way of life since the beginning. Much of what is found in Protestants and American Conservatism is almost biographical. Familiar names, issues, historical time periods, political fights, and the changing conservative agendas and definitions have been consuming passions for me in my personal thinking, teaching, lecturing, and writing.
The tendency in our time is to have quite simple ideas of what Conservatism and Liberalism are. Turn on conservative talk radio and a number of hosts will be there usually defending Pres. Trump and touting his conservative credentials. A few years back, they were castigating Pres. Obama and attacking his liberal views. Turn to many of the more liberal media formats and the opposite cases are being presented. Then there are those who now proclaim that any Republican who is not lining up exactly on the conservative’s check list is a RINO, that is, a Republican in Name Only.
Go back a few years and we have the rise of what has been called the Christian Right, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and other names, all of which are highlighting the politically conservative and usually Republican-leaning views of evangelical Christians. Of course, this opens the discussion up to other types of Christians who may not identify as evangelical, fundamentalist, Protestant, or conservative.
When did this all start? Some say when Ronald Reagan created his winning coalition in 1980. Some say when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion in 1973 (although Protestants remained asleep for a half decade on that one). Some date events back as far as the Goldwater race for the Presidency in 1964. Or maybe it does goes back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, published in 1951.
All those markers are useful, and a number of books have been written on both the popular and scholarly levels attempting to alert, alarm, or inform readers of the cultural, political, economic, and philosophical crises of our times. But the strength, the key selling point of this book is that while it covers all of the events listed above, it takes the issue of Christian conservative thought back to the Colonial Era.
This is not just another “America was founded by Christians” book. Lest anyone think I was being sarcastic with that sentence, I firmly believe our Colonial and Revolutionary Founders were Christians, with many being self-consciously focused on applying the precepts of the faith to events of their times.
“Nothing is simple,” says my former history professor Dr. Tom Wagy. The interaction of Protestants with politics has a long and textured history. It was not as though they were all trying to impose a Christian form or design on the political order. Rather, they carried deep presuppositions about the nature of man, of society, about the covenantal and historic connections between the faith and the social order, and about the applications of such presuppositions in their times.
Christianity is not safely caged within a political creed. One can argue that the Pharisees and Romans were the conservatives of their day. Certainly, those who didn’t skip across the pond to start new versions of church and state were not trying to conserve the English status quo. Nor were Loyalists during the American Revolution the liberals in the scuffle over rule of the colonies.
Literature is full of cases of characters donning someone else’s uniform or armor. Patroclus, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles’s armor, leading to his death in battle. Christians have been sometimes too quick to embrace a political view that puts them in the wrong battle or at least in a awkward position. Events both prior to and after the American Civil War put Christians in a variety of odd positions regarding application of the faith.
To be sure, I believe that Christian presuppositions call for a view of people that recognizes both their being in the image of God and being fallen. I believe that there are limits on what government can and should do. I believe that the free market is generally more conducive to prosperity and distribution and enjoyment of resources. I believe in freedom. All of these beliefs and more are grounded in my being a Christian. They propel me to favoring more conservative politics in our times. (I identify as an unhappy Reagan Republican.)
I remember some years ago when a conservative and Christian (failed) political figure was calling for America to reclaim the Panama Canal. For sure, I sided with Candidate Reagan on that issue in 1976. (His close ideologically conservative friend William F. Buckley, Jr. disagreed.) I think there are sound reasons for arguing that the U. S. should never have relinquished control of the Canal and Canal Zone. At the same time, I have not witnessed any apocalypse resulting from our ceding it back to Panama. What is the Christian position on this issue? I don’t find any of my Christian presuppositions endangered by giving up the Canal Zone.
Of course, not every issue is like that. And while the Bible doesn’t list a program for government actions, I do believe that there are plenty of laws, admonitions, examples, broad themes, specific applications, and so on for Christians to appeal to in thinking about public policy. There are both debatable issues and non-negotiables.
This book will not cause a conservative like me to repent, nor cause any who hold more liberal views to accept Christ. But it does examine and weigh out many of the past issues.
This book is fine history. Yes, I argued with the author at times. Yes, I hung my head in embarrassment a few times as well. Overall, I love the reading experience and hope to read it again and refer to it often.