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GWB’s "evangelical conservatism"

Win Myers reminded me that Bill McClay lectured on "American Culture and the Presidency" at the Ethics and Public Policy Center yesterday. It’s an interesting and penetrating talk, such as one would expect from McClay. Here are a couple of snippets:

It is, then, quite legitimate to ask whether Bush is even rightly understood as a conservative. Clearly, this question can involve us in an endless semantic game, and I don’t want to spend our time doing that. But the fundamental dynamic at work is, I think, pretty clear. Although many secular observers seem not to understand this, evangelicalism, by its very nature, has an uneasy relationship with conservatism. To call someone both an evangelical and a conservative, then, while it is not to utter a contradiction, is to call him something slightly more problematic than one may think. Of course this is, or should be, true of all Christians, who have transcendental loyalties that must sometimes override their political commitments, even very fundamental ones. But it is especially true of evangelicalism. As a faith that revolves around the experience of individual transformation, it inevitably exists in tension with settled ways, established social hierarchies, customary usages, and entrenched institutional forms. Because evangelicalism places such powerful emphasis upon the individual act of conversion, and insists upon the individual’s ability to have a personal and unmediated relationship to the Deity and to the Holy Scriptures, it fits well with the American tendency to treat all existing institutions, even the church itself, as if their existence and authority were provisional and subordinate, merely serving as a vehicle for the proclamation of the Gospel and the achievement of a richer and more vibrant individual faith. As such, then, evangelicalism, at least in its most high-octane form, may not always be very friendly to any settled institutional status quo. In the great revivals of earlier American history, it nearly always served to divide churches and undermine established hierarchies, a powerful force for what Nathan Hatch called “the democratization of American Christianity.”

True, evangelicalism can also be a force of moral conservatism, in insisting upon the permanence of certain moral and ethical desiderata, particularly if those are clearly stated in the Bible. But it can also be a force of profound moral radicalism, calling into question the justice and equity of the most fundamental structures of social life, and doing so from a firm vantage point outside those structures. David Chappell’s excellent recent book on the Civil Rights Movement, A Stone of Hope, very effectively made the point that it was the power of prophetic evangelical Christianity that energized the Civil Rights Movement and gave southern blacks the courage and fortitude to challenge the existing segregationist social order. And one could say similar things about many of the great nineteenth-century American movements for social reform, notably abolitionism, a rather unpopular cause in its day which would have made little headway without the fervent commitment of evangelical Protestants who believed the country was being polluted and degraded by the continued existence of slavery.

I am not claiming that Bush is a radical reformer. I don’t think anyone, other than an opponent straining for partisan advantage, would do that. But I am pointing out that the religious vision that energizes him is not always compatible with conservatism as conventionally understood, and may not, in the long run, be easily contained or constrained by it. Yes, Bush is a conservative, but he is a conservative whose conservatism has been continuously informed, leavened, challenged, reshaped, and reoriented by his religious convictions; and many of his closest aides and advisors have undergone a similar process. To capture this distinctive, I’m going to use the term “evangelical conservatism” to describe his position. I should hasten to add that there is a very great difference between “evangelical conservatism” and “conservative evangelicalism,” the latter of which refers to a theologically conservative position which may or may not translate into conservative political views. What I’m calling “evangelical conservatism” is better understood as a form of conservatism, then, and not as a form of evangelicalism -- a political, rather than a theological, term.

He concludes this way:

There is not much of Niebuhr, or original sin, or any other form of Calvinist severity, in the current outlook of the Bush administration. That too is a reflection of the optimistic character of American evangelicalism, and therefore of evangelical conservatism. It certainly reflects the preference of the American electorate, which does not like to hear bad news, a fact that is surely one of the deep and eternal challenges to democratic statesmanship. And it is, by and large, an appropriate way for good leaders to behave. It is, in some respects, a political strength.

But conservatism will be like the salt that has lost its savor, if it abandons its most fundamental mission -- which is to remind us of what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision” of human existence, which sees life as a struggle, with invariably mixed outcomes, full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible people, a world in which the legacy of the past is usually more reliable than the projections of the future. As the example of Niebuhr suggests, such a vision need not reject the possibility of human progress altogether -- which, by the way, has never been characteristic of traditional conservatism either, from Edmund Burke on. But it does suggest that it is sometimes wise to adopt, so to speak, a darker shade of red, one that sees the hand of Providence in our reversals as well as our triumphs. To do so is as needful for American evangelicalism as for American politics.

I think I see just a little more "fallibilism" and "fallenness" in Bush’s self-presentation than McClay does, but I agree that there is a substantial admixture of confidence and perhaps even occasionally over-confidence. We should be grateful to McClay for reminding us of what is under-stressed in the President’s particularly American brand of "evangelical conservatism" and of where we can go to find the correctives.


   

Discussions - 4 Comments


Excellent comments by Professor McClay. Being in the process of writing a dissertation on American conservatism as an intellectual problem, I agree with him that the kind of religiosity predominant on the Right -- Bush’s religiosity -- exists in an uneasy relationship with traditionalist, not just libertarian, conservatism. I do think it helps to explain Bush’s compulsion to evaluate people excessively in terms of their "hearts," his continuing attachment to an increasingly illusory "bipartisanship," his very inconsistent record of conservative governance, and the lack of much evidence that he either knows or understands the historical conservative movement, let alone its philosphical roots.

". . . . . . what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision” of human existence, which sees life as a struggle, with invariably mixed outcomes, full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible people, a world in which the legacy of the past is usually more reliable than the projections of the future. As the example of Niebuhr suggests, such a vision need not reject the possibility of human progress altogether . . . . . "

What is human progress? Man has only one failure; the failure to distinguish lies from truth. “Mixed outcomes, full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible people” are merely results of humanity’s inability to know what is true and what is not.
When humans learn to distinguish truth from lies there will be “progress”. That might take a while, so until then we have law. Societies have been designed(not evolved)to allow people to co-exist in a world polluted by lies. As the world becomes more interactive society must adapt to accommodate humanity’s co-existence with lies not previously encountered; this adaptation is not progress, it is merely adaptation to different faces of the same old problem.

Bush is so religious that he actually thinks he is God. I don’t think J.C. likes that.

Well then. Bush needs to turn on summer. I’m sick of the coldness here in Ohio. I’ll write him a letter.

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