A Review of Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History by Gillis J. Harp (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019)
NOTE: this review first appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of Ad Fontes, our quarterly journal. Subscribe to Ad Fontes in print and online here.
Public intellectuals enjoy writing obituaries. Less interested in literal death, many instead love to play both coroner and graveside minister to movements. En vogue obit industries declare, examine, and pontificate on the death of, among others, two movements: Modern Conservatism and Evangelicalism. It is no coincidence that these movements receive post-mortems in 2020 America. Both now are seen as failures by large swaths of right-leaning pundits: Modern Conservatism failed to limit government’s expansion or the Sexual Revolution’s march, and Evangelicals failed to sustain Protestantism’s orthodoxy or expand the number of its adherents.
Professor Gillis Harp’s book, Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History, helps place these assessments in a broader context. His volume includes discussions of the modern Right and Evangelicalism, but those movements form only a subset of America’s conservatism and Protestantism. Harp strives primarily “to demonstrate the ways in which conservative thought has been formed by religious views associated with different strands of orthodox Protestantism” (2). In so doing, Harp contends that “Protestant beliefs have made several significant contributions to conservatism both in the abstract realm of ideas and in the arena of political positions or practical policies” (2). As we will see, Harp understands these contributions to form a distinct, important, and ultimately superior articulation of conservatism in comparison to its counterparts.
Thus, Protestants and American Conservatism accepts the existence and legitimacy of two forms of inquiry: political theology and political philosophy. Both seek to answer the essential question of political life: what is justice? In addressing that question, both pursue knowledge of who should rule, for what purposes, and according to what means. The two diverge regarding the final source and thus standard of such knowledge. Political theology ultimately grounds itself in God’s revelation. Political philosophy sees man himself—whether his reason or will—as the norm by which to discern justice. This difference does not mean the two cannot concur; the God who reveals Himself also created man. Yet it does leave open the possibility that their conclusions will be in tension if not outright contradiction. After all, human reason errs; human will is sinful.
As the title portends, Harp seeks to engage a distinct strand of political theology—Protestant—with a distinct strain of political philosophy—conservative. His history must show the former’s possibility and the latter’s coherent existence across American history. Protestant political theology’s possibility depends on whether Scripture, Protestantism’s source of special revelation and thus its unrivaled standard, contains teachings on the essential concerns of political life. Harp’s history describes three responses in American history to this question.
The first consciously says “no.” Scripture discusses salvation of souls. It teaches little to nothing about political life. Thus, Christians and the Church should focus on souls and avoid politics. Early twentieth-century Evangelicals largely took this route. So did antebellum, Southern, Old School Presbyterians, though Harp notes how even they seemed to see a distinctly Christian basis to political rule.
The second response gives an unconscious “no.” It does claim Biblical warrant for conservative positions. But in reality, it merely adopts conservative political philosophy, adding a thin veneer of Christianity as sugar-coating. Christian Conservatives took this option for much of the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, especially the Evangelicals who make up so much of the contemporary Republican Party. Harp claims that:
[s]ince the turn of the twentieth century (if not earlier), the most common approach of Christian conservatives has been activist and atheoretical, rarely evidencing deep theological reflection. Accordingly, their political theology often differed little from the sort of generic civil religion assumed by many less religious Americans, and they have sometimes confused partisan tropes with essential tenets of the faith (12).
Third, finally, and preferably, Harp sees a great number of American Protestants affirming the existence of their own, Scriptural political theology. God’s Word does discuss justice, the question of rule, the purposes of government, and the means political communities may use. These form a coherent body of thought that neither ignores politics nor subsumes itself under contemporary partisanships. Instead, it is an independent interlocutor, engaging other perspectives from Protestant postulates. Harp sees this position articulated in a nearly unbroken stream from the first settlers in the early 1600s until the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century. In these sections, he introduces the reader to an impressive but now lesser-known list of Protestants who consciously considered principles and practices of political life, including Tayler Lewis, Yale’s Theodore Woosley, and Princeton’s Lyman H. Atwater and William Brenton Greene, Jr.
Regarding conservatism, mainstream scholarship often denied that a consistent, coherent conservatism existed throughout American history. Harp admits conservatism is a “slippery and difficult…term to define” (5). He adopts Jerry Muller’s description of conservatism as one that can provide some consistency. This definition sees conservatism as recognizing human fallibility, a predisposition to maintaining established institutions, including ones supportive of social hierarchy, rejection of social contract theories, and seeing social benefit to public religiosity.
It is not clear that this definition adequately holds the strands Harp defines as conservative together. One example comes in his discussion of social contract theory and the American Revolution. Many Loyalists rejected this theory, which holds that governments are formed by the consent of free and equal individuals for the protection of their rights. Such Loyalists are recognizably conservative by Harp’s dividing line. But nearly all American Founders accepted some form of this doctrine. This poses a problem for the existence of conservatism for American history after, say, 1776. Harp names men like John Adams as a conservative Founder, but Adams, among others mentioned, clearly bought into a form of social contract theory. Thus, Adams comes across as conservative only in relation to his revolutionary counterparts. This instance partakes of a larger tendency in Harp’s story, wherein conservatism seems constantly in retreat, forced to modify itself to new, decreasingly conservative paradigms as American history unfolds.
The volume succeeds more when understood as setting up Protestantism’s interaction with essential political questions. To know justice, for instance, we must determine whether Aristotle rightly said that “man is by nature a political animal.” Harp declares that Protestant political theology affirmed this claim, emphasizing the organic, God-ordained origins of politics over contract-based, artificially man-made beginnings. Harp helpfully discusses how these starting points inform how Protestants understood the interplay between individual and community, and the content of the common good.
Moreover, justice’s definition involves determining who should rightly rule. Harp’s discussion of equality in American politics and Protestantism touches on this topic. Inequality prefers rule by the one or the few. Equality supports rule by the many. Harp argues that conservatism tends toward inequality, toward hierarchy. This tendency manifests itself in numerous ways. One division concerns the relationship between reason and affection, with the few demanding the primacy of the head and the many that of the heart. Along these lines, Harp views the debate over the First Great Awakening through class conflict, seeing the “Old Light” anti-revivalism as partly manifesting elitist proclivities and “New Light” endorsement of revivals as more egalitarian. While he sides conservatism with inequality, the reality surely is more nuanced. Conservative defenses of hierarchy largely result from attempts to moderate democratic tendencies at work, then and now, in our political community, not to deny all forms of human equality. Nor does it account for populist tendencies on the Right, including a traditionalism wherein patriotism preserves the principles, documents, and practices of the Founders.
Finally, justice’s definition affects the purposes of government. To consider these points, political theologians must examine what demands God makes of humanity, politically constituted. For Harp, political philosophy of a more libertarian flavor sees law as originating from human will and only seeking to protect individual rights. A truly Protestant political theology, Harp argues, grounds law ultimately in God’s character and will, with human law not only protecting body and goods but instructing the soul in virtue, including at least outward conformity to the moral law. Put from another angle, man as both political and religious being makes a public religion not a question of whether but of how. Laws will influence souls; they will have a posture toward God. In American history, Protestant political theology often sees this truth. However, the book more often finds this point reduced to articulating religion’s utility for public life, from Washington’s “Farewell Address” to arguments of the Moral Majority in the 1980s.
To make matters worse, Protestants today do not engage these questions. Mark Noll famously declared the scandal of the Evangelical mind to be the lack of one. Here, Harp shows the scandal of post-nineteenth century Protestant political theology is the same. This dearth leaves today’s Christian Conservatism shallow, paltry, and fickle. It contributes to the failure of Evangelicalism and Modern Conservatism, and it gives Protestant Christians no footing from which to engage the emerging populist, nationalist Conservatism under President Trump.
Harp ends by calling for a renewal of Protestant political theology. He gives a sturdy outline of the questions it must answer and an illuminating reading list of past practitioners. However, he seems disconsolate about that project’s prospects. Much of his melancholy comes honest. After being so long lost, recovery seems daunting, the current climate deeply uninviting.
Still, perhaps there is more reason to hope than Harp lets on. Neither Modern Conservatism nor the new nationalism shows signs of a distinctly Protestant political perspective. To the extent either one has a political theology, it is dominated by Roman Catholics, who occupy the lion’s share of both movements’ intellectual wings. However, the issues driving these perspectives remain the same in substance as those serious Protestant thought addressed in the past. Parts of Modern Conservatism may skew too libertarian. Yet the movement’s views can readily be engaged by John Winthrop’s articulation of liberty as following the moral law and understanding persons as made for community. Harp sees the new nationalism as xenophobic. Yet, even in its flaws, the movement’s emphasis on “America First” surely shows a striving for a more political man, gaining much power not just from love of strongmen (as Harp claims) but from an egalitarian revulsion against elitist meritocracy.
A Protestant political theology can recognize the truths hoped for in both movements while giving its own answer. These answers would be steeped in the biblical vision of God creating man for community and establishing politics for the cultivation of that community in body, mind, and heart.
A contemporary assessment both more charitable and more accurate would present more useful ground for developing these interactions and thus a relevant, principled Protestant political theology. Then, Harp’s narrative could provide a useful intellectual history that, well-cultivated, might replace obituaries with tales of rebirth.
Adam M. Carrington is Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. He has published on matters of Constitutional law, separation of powers, and Protestant political thought.