The mainstream media loves politically liberal evangelicals, especially at this time of year, as we wonder whether the evangelical base will turn out sufficiently to win the election for the Republicans. But the media seems to have missed another category of evangelical that is ill at ease with the Republican Party. Borrowing loosely from the term paleoconservatives, let’s call them paleo evangelicals.
The paleo evangelicals are not liberal in any sense. They come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives: some are deeply conversant with the ancient history of the church, and with the Reformation; some are sympathetic to Roman Catholic social doctrines and traditions (if not all Catholic theology and ecclesiology); some are deeply conscious of the church’s mission outside of America; some gravitate toward outlets such as The American Conservative or the Front Porch Republic, publications and blogs focused on the conservative themes of local culture, limited government, and ordered liberty.
These paleo evangelicals keep the Republican party at arm’s length for three main reasons:
First is a deep suspicion of American civil religion. Civil religion seems to be a particularly prominent tenet of evangelical Republicans. But as this summer’s controversy over David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies illustrated, there are many evangelicals who have reservations about the blending of American national history with their faith. Last week’s post at the Anxious Bench by Miles Mullin represents yet another example of a young, conservative evangelical who believes that Barton and other Republican activists have conflated American history too closely with evangelical theology and conservative politics.
Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his new Founders’ Bible.
A second reason they are reluctant Republicans is that the 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. Although some might agree that churches and pastors have the constitutional right to endorse particular candidates, paleos think doing so mistakenly implies that, as a church, we put our trust in that candidate or party to advance the Kingdom of God.
A third reason that paleo evangelicals may only tepidly support the Republicans is because of problems with certain Republican positions. Among those is a reluctance to keep getting involved with new overseas conflicts, such as what happened in Iraq. Paleos may wonder whether a President Romney would draw us into a precipitous war with Iran. War really should be a last resort, the paleos argue. Another problematic issue is immigration. Though these evangelicals undoubtedly support tough border security, they understand that the illegal immigrants among us are largely here to stay, and they should dealt with as charitably as possible. Churches should always be welcoming to the stranger, and the paleos — including some non-Anglo evangelicals among them — hesitate to endorse policies that seem angrily anti-immigrant.
But on some of the most compelling issues, the Republican Party still seems like the best option for many paleos. [Daniel McCarthy writes about similar electoral choices facing traditionalist conservatives, at The American Conservative.] Are Republicans really committed to doing anything about abortion? Maybe not, but at least they’re likely to nominate judges who are open to allowing states to protect unborn children. Likewise with preserving the historic meaning of family and marriage, and honoring religious liberty: many Republicans may just pay these issues lip service, but at least they’re not fundamentally opposed to the traditional evangelical positions on marriage, religious freedom, and the unborn, as some Democrats seem to be.
Thus, in spite of their reservations, many paleo evangelicals, if they vote, will vote for Republicans on election day (hopefully they’ll find a Democrat or Libertarian for whom to vote, to avoid the indignity of casting a straight-ticket ballot). But they don’t like being the “base” of any political party. They have a higher calling than that.