I have written here several times about thoroughly conservative evangelicals who are “reluctant” Republicans. I call these folks “paleo evangelicals.”
I noted that some (though surely not all) of the paleo evangelicals are fans of websites such as the Front Porch Republic (which emphasizes “place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety” as key terms in any real solutions to our cultural malaise), and publications such as The American Conservative. Darryl Hart, who teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author of an excellent biography of J. Gresham Machen, among other books, wrote a friendly but perplexed rejoinder, titled “What’s Paleo about Evangelicalism?”, at the Front Porch Republic.
Hart says that while he would not wish to turn evangelicals away from the Front Porch Republic, he does not think that evangelicals, by definition, can be true conservatives. “Because evangelicalism has since its beginnings been a religious movement based on calling into question tradition and looking for the most up-to-date ways of promoting Christianity, it is infertile soil for cultivating conservatism,” he says.
Hart tellingly asks one Anglican evangelical in the comments section, “Are you the same as Joel Osteen? So why go by evangelical?”, as if Joel Osteen is the epitome of an evangelical. As Hart himself would undoubtedly admit, Osteen represents only one strand of evangelicalism. Hart also favorably cites historian Mark Noll, one of our generation’s greatest evangelical intellectual leaders, who is about as different from Joel Osteen as one can imagine. There’s great variety among evangelicals.
In any case, Hart gives a brief historical sketch of evangelicals and their anti-traditional inclinations, to demonstrate his point. I certainly agree that some evangelicals have had a strong anti-establishment, individualistic bent, but I don’t agree that evangelicals such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield (who is the subject of my next book) “were no respecters of tradition, forms, and mediating structures.”I think the key point missing here is that evangelicals (and, more broadly, Protestants), especially those such as Edwards and Whitefield, were seeking to recover lost biblical tradition more than inventing something new. (I concede that all movements, including paleo conservatives, who wish to recover something old almost inevitably create new forms and arguments, too.)
Whitefield, one of the most important evangelical preachers ever, and the best known person besides the king in eighteenth-century Anglo-America, eagerly affirmed the authority of trained and ordained ministers (assuming they were orthodox and regenerate!), and the guidance of creeds (routinely calling for a recovery of the teachings of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles). He never wanted to break up the Anglican Church, and insisted on the primacy of the sacraments — he chided Scottish Presbyterians for not taking communion often enough. He referred regularly to Catholic devotional writers, the Reformation and the Reformers, Saint Augustine, and the classical tradition, frequently inserting Latin quotes and citing the history of antiquity in his sermons. Does this sound like Joel Osteen?
Yes, Whitefield heavily emphasized the work the Holy Spirit and the need for the new birth. To Whitefield, this was not newfangled teaching, it was a renewal of biblical doctrines with significant precedents in church history. (Of course, you could say many of these same things about Edwards.)
So there’s plenty of historical backing for paleo evangelicalism. Indeed, a common feature of the paleos is attentiveness to luminaries of church history, including the Church Fathers, the Reformers, and the leaders of the Great Awakening — and of course, those of the Bible itself — as Christian guides. That attentiveness to the past is part of what makes an evangelical a paleo evangelical.