Paleo Evangelicals as Reluctant Republicans

Paleo Evangelicals as Reluctant Republicans October 16, 2012

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.

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  • kierkegaard71

    Another useful framework perhaps for assessing these “paleo evangelicals” would be to survey how they feel about US policy toward the current state of Israel – in distinction from those who support Israel from a “theological grid”. That “theological grid” could be dispensational theology imprinted on one’s politics or a more generic view of Israel that sees ethnic Israel maintaining a continuing role in God’ s redemptive purposes. I definitely see a certain distancing among some folks from a posture that automatically equates US national interests with Israel’s national interests.

  • That’s an excellent point, thanks. I recall Charles Ryrie saying that even dispensationalists need not endorse every single thing that the state of Israel does.

  • Craig

    As described, “paleo evangelicalism” is an arbitrarily distinguished segment of what is in fact a continuum. More likely there are just varying degrees to which American evangelicals are taken in by the GOP’s political bait. At the far right end is the Palin/Bachmann crowd; at the far left are the politically liberal evangelicals. The politically right-wing pro-life abortion is not inherently an evangelical position; nor are the “conservative themes of local culture, limited government, and ordered liberty.”

  • Keith Pavlischek

    Excellent summary. but (1) shouldn’t all Christians of all stripes keep all political parties at “arms length”? (2) just WHO would have to be on the GOP ticket for the “paleo-evangelicals” to be more rather than less enthusiastic?

  • Heh, I was a paleo-evangelical and I didn’t even know it! And I agree with kierkegaard71’s observations about Israel and US foreign policy. I dislike the ‘Israel, right or wrong’ attitude of most evangelicals.

  • John C. Gardner

    I would include myself in this group. I have voted Republican despite misgivings about their gung ho foreign policy. Although I am not a pacifist I think war should be judged by just war standards and that moral issues are more important to me than free markets. I am definitely not a libertarian and am skeptical about the fact that Americans want a robust military but do not want to pay for the wars or other government services that they receive. I am an evangelical Wesleyan Christian.

  • Phil Winn

    “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.” If these paleoconservative evangelicals are as charitable as they say, let’s have the churches, not the government, feed, house, clothe and employ the illegal immigrants.

  • I’m sometimes mistaken for a liberal in this political climate, but really, I fit the definition of paleo-evangelical pretty darn well. I love The American Conservative, in fact. But at this point, for the first time EVER I’m voting a straight party ticket – for democrats. I don’t like the Dem positions on many (most?) issues, but the state of the Republican party is such that I think it’s important that they not be given power. I would hope that a loss this year would result in a real shake-up rather than a doubling down. But the just beneath the surface racism, the antipathy to the poor, the willingness to put gaining power over the wellbeing of the country and the antipathy towards the poor has made them completely unpalatable at the moment. As a devout Christian, I would rather live in a society where my values do not rule the day (a position which is often very good for the church in the long run) than allow the current Republican party into power. They aren’t interested in advocating for my values anyways – they just want my vote. And this year, they aren’t getting it.

  • Matt Jamison

    Well put! I see a lot of this pattern in my Confessional Lutheran circles. It seems that most of these people were supportive Ron Paul when he was still an option, as they are antagonistic to a Republican establishment that they feel doesn’t represent their values.

  • Keith Johnston

    I would suggest that apart from the Pentecostals, who have a “vision of the disinherited,” that many evangelicals will vote for Gov Romney because they think that it is in their best economic interests to do so. Again apart from Pentecostals, it seems to me that evangelical Christianity in the United States is primarily a movement among middle-class or upper middle-class white people who are primarily conservative in all of their beliefs, not just theological beliefs, but political beliefs and social beliefs. As such, it is difficult for many American evangelicals to understand how an evangelical Christian could be a Democrat, much less vote for President Obama. As long as American evangelical Christians remain a voting bloc that is financially selfiish and willfully ignorant, our influence in the culture, and indeed with our own children, will continue to decline.

  • Samuel PG

    Thank you for this post. I really appreciate as someone who would likely qualify as a “paleo evangelical,” although I have never labelled myself that way. This particular paleo-evangelical will likely be voting for a Democrat at the top of the ticket and for Senate, with a Republican for the House.

  • B.B.G

    Dear Mr. Kidd
    Thank you very much for this fine blog. I have felt this way for years and thought I was a minority.

  • This illustrates that the so-called reasons that paleo-evangelicals (like me) have for their reluctance are already compromised by their “paleo-ness”, their sympathy for scholasticisms, church institutions, and social casuistry. They can’t be too suspicious of distinctively American Civil Religion since that really is nothing more or less but a version if classical natural theology, formulated during the scholastic period. The American Founders modeled concept of civil religion on the sane Greco-Roman sources as the Western Church used for their preambula fide. The classical church dies accept much of what Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson say – not, to be sure, because they say it, but because they agree with what they say and for the same reasons.

    Second, while PE’s nay specific problems with a concrete political party, their “paleo-ness” holds them to recognizing institutional political parties in principle as a middle institution as well as one for the politically responsible person, the homo politicus, which is everyone whether Christian or not. So the cannot simply pass on parties per se as means of engagement with our political responsibilities.

    Finally, queasiness about GOP positions has in principle been overcome by their acceptance of social casuistry. Policies regarding military intervention overseas, immigration, and whatever else all fall on a continuum of possible policies and options that extrapolate from general principles of equity that the state must respect., but which are legitimately qualified by the specifics of circumstances. So if a Paleo dies not like s pacific policy she is apt to tweak it rather than just reject it. She will appreciate what obligations the policy could be trying to fulfill abs suggest a more equitable way of doing so.

    So being paleo- already pulls the rug out from any absolute rejection in principle. The reluctance of paleo-evangelicals to be Republicans is mere family quibbling. But the real opposition is between paleos and the current version of the Democratic Party which rejects all civil religion, holds to totalizing institutions, and rejects social casuistry for conventionalism.

  • The church has had an uneasy relationship with government since the time of Constantine. I think we should be “reluctant” regardless of party affiliation.

  • Thanks B.B.G! Glad this was helpful.

  • agreed, Kerry. Good point.

  • Janet

    When was the last time you heard a Dispensationalist disagree with *anything* the modern State of Israel does?

  • Janet

    Rebecca, I agree and did the same, despite being a near-perfect Republican by demographics. As a white, educated, religious, high-income Republican, and small business owner, I did something I’ve never done before: For the first time in 30 years I voted Democrat (absentee) in a presidential election. As a devout Christian, my decision was based on Jesus’ teachings on the poor. How we treat them is how we treat Him. Cuts in the safety net at a time of record profits for banks and corporations, the stock market growth, oil industry’s profits this year, and astronomical executive pay just don’t sit well with me when we’re cutting out the poor. I don’t think I could look Jesus in the face.