Evangelicalism’s Second-Class Status in Conservatism

Evangelicals are the largest and most loyal voting block within the Republican coalition. Yet within the intellectual or institutional leadership core of conservatism, they are second class citizens. There are few prominent evangelical thought leaders in political conservatism. There are no evangelicals on the Supreme Court, and only one evangelical leading the top conservative think tanks or publications (Rich Lowry of National Review). In terms of results, conservatives have been completely routed on the social issues that are the top concern of evangelicals, while racking up many wins in libertarian economics and foreign interventionism.

How did this state of affairs come to be? In part it is because modern American conservatism was from its origins disconnected from the Protestant demographic mainstream of America. It is also because evangelicals joined the conservative movement relatively late in its development.

Modern American political conservatism arose in the postwar period out of three strands: anti-communism, libertarian economics, and traditionalism. These were merged into a unified movement through the work of the National Review, founded in 1955. Frank Meyer’s fusionism was accepted as a reconciliation of libertarianism and traditionalism by stating that traditional virtue was necessary for a successful libertarian economic system, but that virtue must be chosen or developed in an environment of liberty to be genuinely virtuous. Anti-communism served as the glue that held the movement together. This is the standard story of conservatism’s intellectual origin, as told in George Nash’s canonical history The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. But conservatism’s history can also be examined through its demographic origins.  

Contrary to modern myth, America was heavily British and overwhelmingly Protestant until the late 19th century. Even with mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, America remained a majority Protestant country. It was institutionally dominated by a Protestant establishment as late as the 1960s. After that period of institutional domination ended, America remained heavily Protestant demographically. Even in an era of declining religious identification, as recently as 2010 a majority of Americans identified as Protestant, according to research from Pew. America is a Protestant country.

But the principal developers of modern American conservatism were non-Protestant, and often non-American as well. The first edition of Nash’s history featured pictures of 25 major conservative leaders on the cover of the dust jacket. This prompted multiple people to use that set to quantify the demographic origins of conservatism’s key founders. Republican political strategist Kevin Phillips, in his 1982 book Post-Conservative America, wrote:

If one looks at the two dozen portraits on the front cover of George Nash’s postwar history of the U.S. conservative movement, a full half are either 1) repentant former Communists or fellow travelers or 2) émigrés from Austria, Germany, or some other portion of Central Europe. If one adds yet a third category to the list – a category of arch-traditionalist upper-middle-class Catholics entranced by tradition, age-old ritual and the nineteenth-century English Catholic gentility of G. K. Chesterton, Cardinal Newman, et. al. – the bulk of the stalwarts of the “conservative intellectual movement” are encompassed. Doctrinalists dominate, people only partially shaped by the American experience…A band of thinkers less likely to command mass loyalties or organize a mass popular movement in the United States could hardly be imagined.

Michael Lind, writing in Dissent magazine in 1995, took a more explicitly religious view, describing modern American conservatism as a Catholic-Jewish project:

The two main varieties of mainstream conservatism, from the founding of National Review in 1955 to the disastrous Houston convention of 1992, were Buckley-type fusionism (“fusing” free-market economics and a sort of high-church traditionalism) and neoconservatism. These corresponded more or less with the Catholic right and the Jewish right. Not all Buckleyites were Catholic (though the non-Catholics tended to convert, like Russell Kirk and Lew Lehrman) and not all neocons were Jewish; even so, the difference between fusionists and neocons was as much ethnocultural as ideological.

The Christian wing of modern American conservatism has thus always been Catholic dominated. As Lind indicates, the normative status of Catholicism among Christian conservative intellectuals is attested by the large number of prominent inbound conversions. At least three of the Protestants featured on the cover of Nash’s book converted to Catholicism. This trend continues to the present day with high profile figures such as Ross Douthat, R. R. Reno, Arthur Brooks, and Sohrab Ahmari all being Catholic converts. Lind also pointed to another round of foreign influence, writing, “The disparity in social origins between the conservative base and the conservative elite became even more pronounced in the 1980s, which saw a great influx of Thatcherite British journalists and policy analysts and other foreigners into the upper ranks of American conservatism.”

There have been many prominent evangelical Protestant politicians and large numbers of evangelical Protestant voters, but the intellectual leadership of conservatism has largely not been of American Protestant origin, and especially not evangelical Protestantism. It is this intellectual leadership which defines what conservatism is; what its principles, policy positions, and priorities are; what its boundaries are; and who’s in and who’s out. 

Evangelicals are also comparative newcomers to conservatism and the Republican Party. Evangelicals were originally Democrats. Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter was the first evangelical President. Newsweek declared 1976 the Year of the Evangelical on account of his election. Evangelicals began to migrate towards conservatism in the 1970s as part of a movement known as the New Right, whose leaders included evangelicals such as Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips, and Jerry Falwell. Not all New Right leaders were evangelicals. Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, was Catholic. But there was a new and substantial evangelical leadership presence in this movement that ultimately led evangelicalism to the right. According to Kevin Phillips, Jimmy Carter won the white Baptist vote 56-43% in 1976 but lost it 56-34% against Reagan in 1980. As late as 1983, sociologist James Davison Hunter found that a plurality of evangelicals still identified as Democrats. But by the end of that decade, evangelicalism was solidly conservative and Republican. In 1988 Pat Robertson even ran third in the popular voting in the Republican presidential primary and won status caucuses in Nevada and Washington.

The evangelical influx in the 1980s led to a transformation within conservatism, one that replaced “traditionalism” with today’s “social conservatism” (anti-abortion, anti-pornography, anti-sex education in schools, anti-gay marriage) in the three-legged stool of the movement. This was a win for evangelicals, and a demonstration that conservatism was beginning to incorporate their priorities. But there were other contributing factors that caused this shift. Beyond the “high church” traditionalism noted by Phillips and Lind, the traditionalist strand of conservatism also included a significant component of Southern traditionalism represented by people like Richard Weaver and Mel Bradford. As part of an internal civil war within the conservative movement, the Southern traditionalists were tarred as neo-confederates by the neoconservatives and largely sidelined and ultimately expelled from the movement along with others who became known as the “paleoconservatives.” The replacement of traditionalism with social conservatism helped institutionalize this neoconservative victory.

Evangelicals actually played a key role in the neoconservative or establishment victory within conservatism over the paleoconservatives. James Davison Hunter wrote of the “culture war” in 1991, but in 1992 evangelical leaders and voters sided with the establishment George H. W. Bush in 1992 over paleoconservative culture warrior and staunch Catholic Christian Pat Buchannan. They reprised this by supporting Bob Dole, who was tepid at best on social issues, over Buchannan again in 1996. Without evangelical support, the neoconservatives may not have been able to achieve hegemony within conservatism during the 1990s.

This surging influence of evangelicals was one reason Michael Lind left the conservative movement. As he wrote in Dissent, “For several decades, the chiefly Protestant and heavily southern and western mass constituency of conservatism had, as its spokesmen, Catholic and Jewish intellectuals, most of them Ivy League-educated Northeasterners… Sooner or later, it was inevitable that the conservative masses would find leaders who did not speak with funny upper class or foreign accents.” He believed this portended the intellectual degradation of conservatism and the reduction of the traditional conservative Catholic and Jewish elite to a role of “image-laundering” (creating publicly palatable euphemisms) for evangelicals and their issues.

In retrospect, Lind resigned from conservatism at the peak of evangelical influence within the movement. Evangelicals, far from determining the intellectual direction of conservatism, were reduced to handmaidens of  the existing conservative establishment.. Evangelicals were brought into the conservative coalition through the adoption of social conservatism in place of traditionalism in the tree-legged stool, but they thereafter lost all influence. And the complete rout of the right on social issues shows that conservative intellectuals and funders largely did not, at the end of the day, support these issues. They determined, correctly, that evangelical voters would not hold them accountable for failing to deliver on them.

In contrast with social issues, conservatives racked up impressive wins in the other two legs of the stool. Anti-communists not only saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, but readily shifted afterward to an aggressively interventionist foreign policy stance, convincing evangelical George W. Bush to occupy Afghanistan and invade Iraq. The libertarian economics wing has been rewarded with free trade deals, high levels of immigration, and a reduction in limits on economic concentration. And just as the evangelical Bush served primarily the interests of the interventionists over social policy priorities, so too Donald Trump, backed by 80% of evangelical voters, used full Republican control of the federal government to pass tax cuts.

Even the vaunted Republican judicial picks have been a bust for evangelicals. It’s notable that since the evangelicals aligned with conservatives in the 1980s, no Republican president has appointed an evangelical to the Supreme Court. The only Protestant of any kind currently on the court is Episcopalian convert Neil Gorsuch. Far from ruling in favor of evangelicals on social issues, Republican appointees have been the decisive votes in favor of gay marriage (Obergefell vs. Hodges) and expanding civil rights protections to LGBT individuals (Bostock vs. Clayton County). While there have been some favorable religious liberty rulings from the Supreme Court, these have generally been narrowly drawn to avoid providing any expansive substantive rights to people not party to the case. Pending abortion rulings could represent a major social conservative win. But even here, the US is unusually permissive in its abortion regime. Abortion could be significantly curtailed here and still remain mostly aligned with standards in Europe, hardly an anti-abortion continent.

The lack of evangelicals on the Supreme Court is an example of how they have largely been frozen out of the institutional leadership of conservatism. The same is evident in the major conservative think tanks. None of AEI, Heritage, the Manhattan Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Hudson Institute, or the Claremont Institute have an evangelical president, for example (though one of them has an Episcopalian president). It’s also true of major conservative magazines. Of National Review, City Journal, National Affairs, American Affairs, the American Conservative, the Claremont Review of Books, or First Things, only National Review is edited by an evangelical (though two others are edited by Episcopalians).  Catholic social conservatives may share in the losses on social issues, but at least they can console themselves with the knowledge that Catholics hold many key leadership roles within conservatism. Evangelicals can’t do this.

Undoubtedly evangelicals themselves are in part to blame for this state of affairs. They have failed to develop the intellectual or leadership capabilities needed to merit a seat at the table. Lind was not wrong in his assessment of the evangelicals in this regard.  This was admitted at nearly the same time by evangelical professor Mark Noll in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The scandal being that they didn’t have one.

But that’s not the whole story. The Catholic domination and long record of conversions to Catholicism by conservative intellectuals shows that there is a normative status to Catholicism within conservatism. Catholic thought so sets the conservative agenda that evangelicals frequently defer to it and look to it for leadership. We see, for example, conservatives becoming interested in Catholic social teaching or relying on Catholics like Patrick Deneen for critiques of liberalism. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a Calvinist head of government, but his introduction to US conservative audiences has largely come through former Catholic (now Eastern Orthodox) Rod Dreher or the Episcopalian Tucker Carlson. No prominent American evangelicals, not even Reformed Evangelicals, have assessed Orban through the lens of their own tradition.

Politically, evangelicals today occupy the same role within the conservative coalition that African-Americans do on the left. They are a large and loyal voting block that’s critical to electoral victory, kept permanently aggrieved with core concerns left unaddressed in order to motivate voter turnout, with a few go-along-to-get-along leaders who prosper within the system but no real seat at the table, and no good alternatives out there.

It’s well past time for evangelicals to reevaluate their relationship with political conservatism. At a minimum, evangelicals need to start developing and looking to their own intellectual leadership to set their agenda on culture, social policy, and politics. They can certainly partner with Catholics where appropriate, but they have to stop being dependent on (and in some cases envious of) Catholics for intellectual leadership, and ultimately institutional leadership as well.  This will not happen overnight, but the best time to start is now.

This is part of an overall evangelical renegotiation of its relationship with political conservatism and the Republican Party that needs to happen. Loyally voting for and funding a movement that doesn’t include you in its intellectual or institutional leadership and doesn’t deliver results on your key issues is a losing strategy.

*Image credit: Wunderstock

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Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn Aaron M. Renn is Cofounder and Senior Fellow at American Reformer. He also writes on cultural topics at Substack. Renn was previously an urban policy researcher, writer, and consultant. He was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research for five years. His work has been featured in leading publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.