Monday, May 16, 2005This is the first in what I hope becomes an ongoing examination of the evangelical approach to conservatism. The lack of evangelical presence within the conservative intellectual world is no accident, and I am eager to explore the reasons behind this development. Reader comments, e-mail and trackbacks are encouraged and appreaciated.
Though the relevant pieces are a week or so old, two recent works by Christopher Hitchens and Al Mohler reveal some interesting viewpoints on the part of a leading evangelical. Though Hitchens was recently described by Hugh Hewitt as being “center-left,” Hitchens is one of the most difficult pundits to categorize. The patient reader finds much to chew on concerning his work, even if he does not agree with the author. Mohler, too, is confusing in his own way. A leader of the Southern Baptist Convention with heavily Reformed leanings, he is a fine scholar. He is conservative, generally speaking, but Mohler has yet to come out as a anything resembling a Buckley or Kirk-style conservative. The closest parallel that I can find is that of the brilliant Catholic Richard John Neuhaus, though Neuhaus’ work has for a long time been more specifically political.
It was Mohler who brought the matter of Hitchens’ view of religious conservatives to his own blog, referring to the juxtaposition of contrasting articles by Hitchens and James Taranto concerning religious conservatives that recently appeared in OpinionJournal. Hitchens’ piece clearly discusses his disagreement with, if not his disdain towards, Christianity. Ok, fine. Nothing new there. Hitchens goes on to demonstrate his opposition to a “shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity.” It is worth mentioning that the only evangelical leaders mentioned in his article are Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. In his own analysis, Mohler would have done well to acknowledge this tidbit. Hitchens points towards two thinkers who have been influential in modern American conservatism: Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss. Both were non-religious if not atheistic, and Hitchens is acknowledging that conservatism has heretofore allowed such thinking into its tent. (Readers interested in the fumbling talk of Pat Robertson should follow this link to the Evangelical Outpost.)
Mohler’s disagreement with Hitchens is muddled, in my own view, simply because in many cases Mohler’s point is unclear. Hitchens cites Barry Goldwater as a model conservative, a point duly noted by Mohler. Would Mohler disagree with this? If so, there’s a lot of conservative – many of whom are religious believers – who would jump to Hitchens’ and Goldwater’s defense. Whereas Hitchens’ merely denounces a particular religious approach to politics, Mohler claims that Hitchens seeks a Right willing to denounce all believers. This is nonsense. Hitchen’s citing of Rand and Strauss was simply a demonstration of the fact that conservatism, while rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethos, has never been an idea exclusive to those profess Christ. The Christian Russell Kirk would agree with this, as he included the works of nonbelievers, Benjamin Franklin and John Locke, to name two, in his The Portable Conservative Reader. Hitchens himself defended religious conservatives (in his own unique manner) in this post-election piece for Slate.
Dr. Mohler is a wise man, and I wish very much that all evangelical leaders possessed his level of knowledge. Yet at the risk of sounding like a certain boor from Massachusetts, I wish his own writing bore a trace of nuance. Hitchens may be philosophically at odds with the Christian faith, but does not suggest that Christians stay quiet in their churches while the atheists run the land. He does, however, disapprove of a certain political approach that is embodied in the Falwells, Robertsons and perhaps even Dobsons of the world. It is not likely that Hitchens would take such umbrage at the political work of Neuhaus or Chuck Colson. While I do not fully agree with Hitchens, it is disappointing that Mohler cannot understand the differences between Falwell and Neuhuas. Until such distinctions can be made and articulated, it is unlikely that the evangelical influence on politics will progress beyond a grass roots campaign.