The merger of Jesus and Jefferson that propelled the New Christian Right was neither made in heaven, as in the eyes of its proponents, nor was it a cynical exercise in hypocritical self-interest, as often portrayed by its opponents. It was rather a historically constructed contingency that, judged from a broad Christian perspective, deserves to be both applauded and denounced.

It can be approved in classical Christian terms for trying to protect the lives of unborn innocents, but criticized for not seeing the need to mobilize on behalf of other weak and marginalized members of society, such as those who are trapped in urban ghettos. It can be praised for efforts at protecting families from the ravages of modern sexual and gender revolutions, but criticized for not acknowledging the stress placed upon families by postwar economic growth, 24/7 advertising, and runaway consumption. It can be praised for standing firm against atheistic communism, but criticized for treating the complex realities of the modern political world as a Manichean cartoon. It can be praised for insisting on personal responsibility in the face of Big Labor and Big Government, but also criticized for not exercising the same vigilance with respect to Big Finance, Big Insurance, and Big Business.

Above all, both books make abundantly clear that, in the recent United States, evangelical conservative politics has been a movement without a philosophy. The great irony of Dochuk’s story is that the jobs that drew practitioners of Southern plain-folk religion to California—and that enabled them to become advocates for local rights opposing dictates from Washington—were either created directly by government action or facilitated by government subsidies to oil, gas, aerospace, and defense industries. Yet to deal with such complexities—to bring together solidly grounded conceptions of government, employment, education, capitalism, race, history, world affairs, and even Christianity into practical political action—requires political philosophy of the sort that American evangelicals have never possessed. Theirs is not the tradition of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, or Mater et Magistra. It is instead the tradition of Charles G. Finney, who in the 1830s declared that the problem of slavery could be resolved “in three years’ time” if only slaveholders would recognize that slaveholding was a sin. It is the lineage of Billy Sunday, who in 1919 predicted that Prohibition would empty American prisons and transform the country into a heaven on earth.

The flourishing of conservative evangelical politics in recent American history has done considerable good through the exercise of instinct, anger, energy, and zeal. It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment.

Mark Noll, Jesus & Jefferson, The New Republic (May 2011)

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