Should a Candidate’s Faith Matter to Paleo Evangelicals?

Should a Candidate’s Faith Matter to Paleo Evangelicals? October 23, 2012

In last week’s column, “Paleo Evangelicals as Reluctant Republicans,” I argued that there are many conservative evangelicals who do not feel quite at home with today’s Republican Party. Some have undoubtedly balked at wholesale commitment to the Republican Party’s general election nominees in ’08 and ’12 because they were not evangelicals. John McCain had some evangelical influences but was not particularly articulate about his own faith, while Mitt Romney is not a Protestant, much less an evangelical. So should the faith of Romney (or President Obama) matter to paleo evangelicals? Yes, certainly — if we are praying for them, or in the (unlikely) event that we have a chance to speak personally to them about their faith. But in the voting booth, their personal faith does not matter — or at least it is not decisive. Faith-related public issues, however, may well be decisive.

As I have written before, evangelical Christians have often supported candidates with very different faiths from their own, most notably in the 1800 presidential election, when Baptists in particular overwhelmingly backed Thomas Jefferson [“When Baptists Voted for a Heretic”]. Baptists supported Jefferson largely because of his belief in religious liberty, an issue which remains one of the most significant to evangelicals today. So yes, we may vote for a candidate of a different faith from our own — and unless you choose a third party candidate, or decline to vote for president this year, evangelicals will do so.

The 1980 presidential election is quite instructive here. That year, you had Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Baptist who could comfortably give an articulate testimony about his conversion experience, running against Ronald Reagan, a man with deep evangelical influences but a personally indeterminate faith. Evangelicals affiliated with the Moral Majority set a key precedent when they decided, based on issues such as abortion and school prayer, to support Reagan over one of their brothers in the faith.

This year, evangelicals really don’t have an equivalent choice before them, since neither major candidate is an evangelical, and unlike 2008, neither of the vice presidential candidates are, either. Paleo evangelicals, skittish about American civil religion as they are, do not need to engage in any euphemistic contortions about Romney’s faith to make it seem more compatible  with ours. (Few evangelicals of any sort would attempt to do so with the president’s liberal Protestant faith; I remain puzzled by Mike Huckabee’s statement at the Republican convention that Obama is a “self-professed evangelical.”)

By all appearances, Romney is serious about Mormonism, a solid family man, and very charitable. But his beliefs about Christ, the church, the nature and future of humans, and the way of salvation, are (assuming he has conventional Mormon views on these topics) starkly different from those of evangelicals. So be it. America is not our church, and we’re not electing a pastor.

Of much greater concern to paleo evangelicals are issues such as which candidate is more likely to support religious liberty, to protect the life of the unborn, and to nominate judges who support those priorities. Depending on their perspective, other paleo evangelicals might ask what candidate will keep us out of war, support the historic definition of marriage, enact firm but charitable immigration policy, emphasize strong families and local communities over the federal behemoth, and/or manifest a truly bipartisan approach to solving problems. And surely all of us want a president who has the integrity and competence to manage the demands of the job.

A president’s faith will be related to all these issues. Real faith, after all, is not private; it colors all our beliefs and actions. But personal faith should not be our main concern when voting for president.

Content Director’s Note: This post is a part of our Election Month at Patheos feature. Patheos was designed to present the world’s most compelling conversations on life’s most important questions. Please join the Facebook following for our new News and Politics Channel — and check back throughout the month for more commentary on Election 2012. Please use hashtag #PatheosElection on Twitter.

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  • John C. Gardner

    Historically, were there any groups who might have qualified as Paleo Evangelicals in earlier periods of American history? These last two postings have been terrific and I plan to share them later today with my wife. Thank you for writing them.

  • Thanks, John. Part of the reason for my use of the term paleo is that I think so much of current evangelicalism is too ‘neo’ for comfort. So if you compare today’s evangelical Republican base to any number of evangelicals prior to 1980, you observe lots of potential contrasts — deeper familiarity with church history and the global mission of the church, less focus on American politics, political parties, or the Founding as central to our faith, etc. Of course, there’s always been a temptation to overemphasize politics or conflate America with the Kingdom, but we seem to have a very new and dangerous version of those emphases among us today.

  • John C. Gardner

    Thanks for the insight. I think of myself as a small government egalitarian politically(e.g. the term is used by Ross Douthat of the NY Times and a Wesleyan Christian on moral issues.
    I am enjoying your books thanks for writing them.
    Blessings in Christ,
    John G.

  • I’m intrigued by the title “Paleo-Evangelical,” and would probably like to think of myself as one. I would certainly think that it would include a deep commitment to the authority of Scripture as the inspired Word of God. Historically, however, I think that it would include a lot of diverse elements, however — Reformed , Wesleyan and Dispensational. And when it comes to political and social issues, I think that there has always been a contrast between Baptists on the one hand, with their free church theology, and groups like the Presbyterians and Methodists that practice infant baptism, might be inclined to think of Christianity in more communal terms, and might be more interested in reforming society at large.
    But then one could also define Paleo-Evangelicalism more narrowly to refer to conservative groups that grew out of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy of the ’20’s and 30’s mostly northern Baptists and Presbyterians.

  • kierkegaard71

    Let me offer an extreme example so I get your drift: would it be fitting for an evangelical to vote for a very moral, capable, pro-life, liberty-minded committed atheist as President?

  • yes, unless said atheist was running against “a very moral, capable, pro-life, liberty-minded committed” Christian!

  • all very good points, Bob. The paleo evangelicals come from a wide variety of backgrounds, although I am struck that many today are affiliated with Reformed theological circles, including Presbyterians and Baptists.