by Matthew Raley
Evangelicals and political conservatives have been allies for decades, an alliance many evangelicals now question.
Evangelicals certainly constitute a large part of the Republican base. But the alliance I’m talking about is more specific. The conservative movement is distinct from the GOP, and the two have long had a strained relationship. Conservatives embraced most of the GOP’s presidential nominees since Ronald Reagan only reluctantly. Neither of the George Bushes were “movement” conservatives, and Bob Dole and John McCain were frequent antagonists.
So my focus is on the evangelical relationship with the conservative movement ideologically and organizationally. Does this alliance serve the cause of Christ? Has the increasing orientation of church life toward political issues harmed churches? Has the politicization of churches harmed conservatism itself?
Let’s start with definition and analysis.
Most people professing to be conservatives today do not know what conservatism is. It is not Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin. Indeed, conservatism is not historically or essentially a political philosophy, but a philosophy of culture that expresses itself politically. The logic of its policies cannot be understood without a grasp of the ideas about culture on which the policies are grounded.
There are three basic strains that came together mid-20th century to form what we know as conservatism today.
First, there were libertarians. Thinkers such as Albert Jay Nock and Friedrich Hayek constructed seminal arguments for the free market against state control, arguments that were further developed by economists such as Milton Friedman and political philosophers such as Willmoore Kendall. The supply-side tax policies of Arthur Laffer also came from this strain. For a libertarian, a value that must be preserved is economic liberty vested in private property.
Evangelicals have not felt much kinship with this faction. Socially, evangelicals were small business and agrarian people, not financiers. They were (and remain) based in the southeast and the west, not in the northeast. Furthermore, evangelicals have a long history of economic populism (back to William Jennings Bryan) that continues to this day pitting Wall Street against Main Street.
One question I want to ponder, then, is the significance of private property biblically.
A second strain of conservatism is traditionalism. The thinker here is Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, which surveyed cultural and political thinkers from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot. Conservatives of this faction drew their inspiration from Britain, and from such continental figures as Alexis de Tocqueville. They emphasized the respect for folkways and local hierarchies that informed the American founders as they wrote our Constitution. For a traditionalist, the value that must be preserved is the inherited way of life.
This is the faction in which evangelicals feel most at home. But there is still tension. Most traditionalists are Roman Catholic, leading many on the religious right (e.g. Chuck Colson) to seek theological rapprochement for the sake of cultural alliance.
So I also want to consider the significance of inherited ways of life biblically.
A third strain that went into today’s conservatism consisted of anti-communists — the most socially complex faction.
Most of these conservatives started out on the left and joined one of several migrations to the right. An intellectually powerful migration occurred in the 1930s and 40s in reaction against Stalinism. This group of ex-communists and fellow travelers was represented most prominently by Whittaker Chambers, John dos Passos, and James Burnham. Another migration came when New Deal liberals and internationalists like Ronald Reagan perceived that Democrats were not committed to defeating the Soviet Union. A still later group, consisting of Irving Kristol, John Podhoretz, and Midge Decter, et al., reacted against the counterculture in the 1960s.
For anti-communist conservatives, free society was the primary thing to preserve against communist dictatorship. These conservatives had experienced radical leftism from the inside, or in direct contact, and regarded it not as mistaken but evil. They were intellectuals — journalists, novelists, social scientists, policy analysts.
Evangelicals were certainly anti-communist, but had little affinity for the academic orientation of many conservatives from this faction.
I want to ponder whether loyalty to one’s culture and patriotism for one’s country have significance in the biblical scheme of things.
The man who, more than anyone else, fused the three strains into one movement was William F. Buckley, Jr. He was able to fuse them partly because he personally embodied all of them. He was reared on Nockian anti-statism and on Catholic traditionalism, and was driven politically by the mandate to defeat the Soviet Union. The instrument he founded for articulating the fusion and gathering the factions under one roof was National Review. (The term fusionism and its intellectual formulations were the construct of fellow editor Frank Meyer.)
The fusion worked because all of the factions shared the principle that localities are strongest when free to govern themselves. The localities need to be strong in order to keep people strong. Communism was the ultimate offense against this philosophy because it violently leveled all local authority.
To consider whether evangelicals should keep thinking of themselves as conservatives, the first question is not whether Palin is a hot political commodity, or whether Rush is a liability, but whether the Bible agrees with what conservatism is.