Who Are the Paleo Evangelicals?

Last week, historian Thomas Kidd described a subset of evangelicals who are reluctant Republicans. Inspired by the term paleoconservative, he calls them paleo evangelicals. These evangelicals, according to Kidd, are suspicious of American civil religion, and skeptical that much good comes from allegiance to any political party. Although conservative, paleos do not agree with the modern GOP on all issues. On balance, the GOP may be the party that gets their votes, but they are not enthusiastic that voting one’s values is the salvation of the nation.

Kidd specifically raises the differences between paleo evangelicals and the Christian nation movement led by David Barton. He writes

Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his new Founders’ Bible.

Kidd does not speculate about the size of this group but I think he is correct that such evangelicals exist. I certainly would be close to this camp. Picking up on his ideas, Bart Gingrich and Anna Williams see paleos as being more prevalent among younger people.  I hope they are correct.

One leading voice among evangelicals in the younger generation is Jonathan Merritt. His book A Faith of Our Own finds fault with the culture war and the conflation of Christianity with politics. Merritt’s experience may give insight into the making of paleos. About his peers and the church, Merritt writes

Having come of age during the first aftershock period, young people today seem especially dissatisfied. A culture-warring church is the only one they’ve experienced, and they are running away as fast as they can. (p. 77)

Merritt seems to be describing paleos when he writes:

Today’s Christians are rising up to rediscover the faith in a world that is, not a world that was. They desire to reclaim the faith from the partisan spirit so pervasive among some Christians in America…These Christians aren’t consumed with a platform or a party or a policy; they are devoted to a person who emptied Himself to rule supreme over a new kind of kingdom. (p. 86)

I hope Merritt and the others are correct about a rising group of evangelicals who reject the conflation of religion and politics and who want to reclaim the faith. To me, it is interesting to consider what it would look like for this group to become the majority within evangelical circles. Would new leaders take existing groups (e.g., Family Research Council, Focus on the Family) in a new direction? Or would these groups disband? Currently, evangelicals are known more for what evangelical para-church organizations are against than what they are for. Surely, the paleos would go in a different direction.

Although leaning toward cynicism, the following serves as the soundtrack for this post: