The Reiteration of Religious Conservatism

Rebecca Heilweil, University of Pennsylvania

In 1996, The New York Times reported that the growth of the United States’ religious right was an “opportunity.” Foreshadowing the reality of two following decades, religion is now one of the most important qualities Americans search for in a presidential candidate. Pew recently reported that most voters are looking for strong faith in their commander-in-chief, while atheism is still considered a major shortcoming.

According to a 1996 American Jewish Committee poll, only 38 percent of the nation’s conservative evangelicals said they had read or heard much about the religious right. Then, American evangelicals worried about prayer in schools, society’s moral decay, and ensuring Christian representation in politics. Demographic polling determined that evangelicals tended to be “older, less educated, less well-off financially, more rural, more Southern and more Republican than other Americans,” foreshadowing a conservative pivot towards religion. These Americans became the base for the so-called new religious right.

Yet the religious fervor of the Anglo-American right, and U.S. politics itself, is not novel. This contention is not to argue that secular conservatism does not exist, nor to contend that religious politics is a positive or negative good. This is also not to endorse conservative thought. Merely, the religious right’s most recent prominence must be understood in its relative historical context. Moreover, while conflating “Republican” and “Conservative” is certainly dangerous territory, discerning whether religion in right-leaning politics is a fad or a central ideological tenet of conservatism is worthwhile.

Religion has come and gone and come again in its relevance to American politics; perhaps, we shouldn’t be surprised. Of course, the religion of long-dead conservative intellectuals is not necessarily representative of 21st century evangelicals. However, it appears that modern understanding of the religious right has largely ignored the ideological basis for faith’s role in traditional conservative philosophy, as well as religion’s prominent history in the United States.

The religious roots of conservatism trace back to the 18th century.  

In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk investigates modern conservatism. While he traverses the approaches of multiple conservative thinkers, most striking is perhaps his emphasis on religion. Religion is present in the conservative’s understanding of the individual political actor, as well as the social collective. He writes that “every sincere creed is a recognition of Divine purpose in the universe, and all mundane order is dependent on reverence for the religious creed.” (29)

At conservatism’s core is an appreciation for tradition, in his view commonly misunderstood as immutable dogma.  For Kirk, conservatives believe current society reflects divine intent, and that rights and duties function on an almost spiritual level. Political problems are both moral and religious dilemmas, while property and freedom are mutually dependent.

Kirk emphasizes that tradition is neither obvious or implicit knowledge, and that conservatives possess a fundamental affection for history’s mysteries.

In Kirk’s view, spiritual rhetoric underlies conservative preservationist inclinations, rather than justifying radical change. It was transcendence of religious thought, though perhaps not its specific content,  that could root the political system. A necessary focus on the spiritual qualities of man could also explain human nature, a prerequisite to social construction.

He writes, “Only the restless shallow, self-intoxicated atheist, who refuses to admit the existence of anything greater than himself, really can have the impudence to deny these sources of religious insight. And the spectacle of Burke’s ranging intellect thus humbly convinced, his erudition supporting the verdict of the Christian fathers, his producent, practical, reforming spirit submitting to the discipline of religious tradition, is perhaps as good a proof as any direct evidence available to man that our world is only a little part of great spiritual hierarchy.” (29)

His writing contends  that the individual’s ability to reason and revel in thought provide the proof for the existence of a Divine being and Godly authorship. More significantly, individuals maintain their own moral quality, connecting each of us to natural law. Under this conservatism, men have equal spiritually endowed-rights, (but are morally assured a right to equal property or equal social rank). In this view, “radicals” choose to act as Gods themselves. For individuals hoping to pursue the divine pursuits, traditional conservatism requires looking backwards, not forwards.

For Kirk, tradition informs society by slowly unfolding the Divine design, comprised of what the world has already experienced. Liberty and moral equality is preserved, therefore, by the reenactment of repeated social and historical processes. And, unlike the individual, society is immortal, maintaining a spiritual continuity that the Divine force acts upon. Through this calculation, Godly transcendence is achieved through tradition. The best way to respect the wishes of God is to repeat the past, which reflects what God has already willed (the “long term tendencies”).

Kirk is not the only intellectual to trace the relationship between traditionalist conservatism and religion, but he provides an important view for way the two, for many, are inherently connected.

Now, decades later, many renounce the right of a “new Christian right.” Despite cries of the religious radicalism of the right, the intermingling of religion and politics is not really new (nor does an institutional separation of church and state forbid it).

Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer, for instance, argued that the modern birth of the religious right came not with Roe v. Wade, but rather segregation.

In his POLITICO article, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” he writes,“The abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. “

After the Brown v. Board decision, public schools were integrated, while non-government academies remained segregated. The 1970 Supreme Court decision Green v. Connally supported the validity of new Internal Revenue Service policy: “racially discriminatory private schools are not entitled to the Federal tax exemption provided for charitable, educational institutions, and persons making gifts to such schools are not entitled to the deductions provided in case of gifts to charitable, educational institutions.”

Balmer argues that it was this decision animated the first constituencies of the modern religious right. For him, Green v. Connally “ captured the attention of evangelical leaders, especially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related ‘segregation academies,’including [Jerry] Falwell’s own Lynchburg Christian School, inquiring about their racial policies.”

Reaching back farther into history, we can find more and more examples of the mixing of religion and even general American politics. Religious tradition is part of the complicated American legacy, with both positive and ugly consequences.  To find the divine sense of religious endowment implanted on the U.S., we need to look  no further than Common Sense, produced by the influential Thomas Paine.

Harkening back to the radical authoritarianism of the British monarch, he wrote,  “But where says some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.”

He continued, “Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts. They distinguish us from the herd of common animals.”

In Common Sense, the founding of America looked something like divine promise: the freedom to worship and respect God though democracy, and to avoid the tyranny of a King attempting to steal His place.  Ultimately, that faith affects people’s politics should not be surprising, regardless of whether or not it’s utilitarian. For many of its founding thinkers, and subsequent history, religious thought is infused upon its roots.