Are Evangelicals Welcome on the “Front Porch”?

Are Evangelicals Welcome on the “Front Porch”? November 6, 2012

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.

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  • kierkegaard71

    After reading a couple postings on this topic, I question how you can devise a term that defines a distinct class of folks without pointing to a public figure who embodies the term. Perhaps you are trying to categorize your own views or that of some of your colleagues; I don’t see the utility of the term socially yet. As I survey the scene, it seems like all the paleo types I know on the public scene are Catholic or Orthodox, not evangelical in any way. The Christian “paleo-liberatarians” are predominantly Catholic (e.g. Lew Rockwell). The Christian “paleo-conservatives” (or those who manifest leanings) are Catholic or Orthodox (e.g. Pat Buchanan, Rod Dreher). Where are these paleo-evangelicals? When are they going to “come out of the closet”?

  • Great points. The evangelical coalition is in fact fracturing, but the stream you refer to is certainly still strong today. I’m interested in the changing shape of evangelicalism by examining the present currents within the movement. Thx. for writing this.


    Psalm 115:1

  • thank you, Frank!

  • I am trying to identify a tendency of thought more than a formal movement, and the fact that it is not widely recognized is a big part of my point. It does lack prominent evangelical advocates (Rod Dreher may well be one of the most representative leaders. As you note, he’s Orthodox, but I would not be surprised if the majority of his followers are evangelicals — of the “Crunchy Con” variety). The paleos are people who have _not_ bought into the notion that being a Republican is an essential feature of my Christian faith, but they may have come to that conclusion from a variety of trajectories.

  • John C. Gardner

    It is lonely out in paleo Evangelical land since many(or at least a high percentage of evangelicals) seem to be affiliated with the Republican party and support some kind of civil religion coupled with Christianity in a syncretistic whole. I don’t speak about anyone’s salvation but my query is whether they see themselves as Christians first, Americans first and how these two perspectives relate to each other.

  • John Haas

    First, I don’t see how a refusal to affiliate with the Republican Party can affect what kind of evangelical you are. That would seem as relevant to one’s evangelicalism as what kind of car you drive or if you prefer Chicago-style pizza or the right kind.

    Second, one might–and many do–speak of “paleo-conservatism,” though it would be more illuminating to insist that the “neo-conservatives” (almost all in the Republican Party) are no conservatives at all: they are highly militaristic Manchester liberals. Paleo-conservatives are really just conservatives: they oppose the big and faceless (whether big government or big corporations), and they really do want to “conserve.” Manchester liberals are among the most zealous promoters of revolution and creative destruction around.

    Third, we should absorb David Gelernter’s insistence that “Americanism” is a religion–he happens to think it’s a great one–but however we evaluate it, it’s certainly something along that order, and we should recognize that those Christians who have bound their faith commitments inseparably to this “Americnism” are, in fact, synchretists.

  • Mark Sadler

    Tom, while I will also comment via Facebook I want to add to the conversation here that I believe there is merit in your distinction of a particular evangelical movement. As some have pointed out in one way or another the term “Evangelical” itself is, at best, slippery and has various descriptions by those who would use the term to their advantage so keep the term. Also, I do not agree with the suggestion that there must be some “face” to the term; some form of an persona that is the epitome of the Paleo-Evangelical. But, I do believe there are plenty of candidates to point to in the political and academic realms. I also agree with a much earlier comment that a 4th point considering relationship with Israel is helpful. Finally, given that you and I have visited some of these points before I endorse you view that the fundamental concern of these class of Christians is a return to sound Biblical doctrine that will guide social life and norms.