Earlier this year, the New York Times published two opinion columns harshly critical of the Republican party. The author bemoaned the passing of a time when, he argued, Republicans stood solidly for a handful of core principles: limited government, a strong national defense, light taxes and regulatory burdens, and free trade. Pointing to recent high-profile fights over issues like Terri Schiavo and embryonic stem-cell research, he accused party bigwigs of promoting a cynical alliance with socially conservative, and primarily evangelical, Christians. This partnership, he wrote, threatened to turn the party into “the political extension of a religious movement.”
Fears about the religious right are hardly new to the Times op-ed page, but this broadside was different. Not only did it assail Republicans for having sacrificed their classical liberal principles, but it came from one of their own, John Danforth-a former senator as well as an Episcopal priest, who remains a respected figure within the party. The message was not warmly received. Fellow conservatives who took note dismissed Danforth as an estranged political has-been; author and radio host Hugh Hewitt accused Danforth of anti-evangelical animus. Liberals who might have celebrated the prospect of a high-profile defection were quickly disappointed by the rest of what Danforth had to say. Among other things, he emphasized that he was pro-life, believed in the primacy of traditional heterosexual marriage, and remained a supporter of President Bush.
Was this, then, just one idiosyncratic Republican on a soapbox? Or is something deeper at work? I believe it is the latter, for while John Danforth is certainly no theologian, his argument expressed an American attitude about religion and politics both widespread and long-ignored. It is the view that was prevalent in Protestant churches before the 1960s, and which informed the Republican party for decades. Today, unfortunately, it is a viewpoint more likely to be found among disenchanted laypeople than church leaders-and one, moreover, which may resonate with libertarians. Republican leaders may not be much interested in Danforth now, but they would do well to pay attention to the attitudes he articulated.
Wait a second. Libertarians? Interested in religious argument? For anyone familiar with modern libertarianism, this might seem unlikely. Many libertarians, after all, take their spiritual cues from proud atheists like Ayn Rand who lump clerical authority in with government as a threat to the integrity of the individual. Yet the spirit of liberty runs much deeper in America than the sorry state of contemporary libertarianism would suggest, and the historical roots of libertarianism-or, perhaps more accurately, classical liberalism-show no necessary conflict with religious belief. John Locke, after all, began his defense of private property and the consent of the governed, in the Second Treatise on Government, by reasoning from the Book of Genesis. John Milton defended freedom of the press by appealing to man’s dignity and reason, as a creature formed in the image of God. With the possible exceptions of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, all of the American Founders were themselves religious men; and all, including Jefferson and Franklin, sought to secure religious belief against public coercion. Classical liberals to the core, they placed the greatest value on the free consent of the individual, informed by his conscience-a view of natural right and human nature that was itself indebted to Protestant Christianity.
The Founders thus introduced a peculiarly American phenomenon, later to be known as our “civil religion.” John Adams argued fervently in support of freely chosen religion as the basis of public morality, for it was, he believed, church-instilled virtues like responsibility, honesty, and self-restraint that would sustain the character of a commercial republic. Alexis de Tocqueville later noted that, in America, “religion sees in civil freedom a noble exercise of the faculties of man; in the political world, a field left by the Creator to the efforts of intelligence,” while “freedom sees in religion the companion of its struggles and its triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, the divine source of its rights.” By the mid-20th century, with both Roman Catholics and Jews assimilating into American life, the dominant view continued to regard churches and synagogues as bulwarks of civil society. Religious institutions frequently took the lead in providing charitable services and relief to the poor, and helped to instill in their middle-class members the habits of “free men.” Doctrinal disputes were considered largely irrelevant. President Eisenhower famously summed up this non-sectarian religiosity with clever ambiguity of his own: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith-and I don’t care what it is.”
Yet this American creed began to break down soon after Eisenhower formulated it. When the civil rights struggle exploded in the South, religious organizations around the country felt compelled to take a position-arguing, with justification, that this was no ordinary political issue, but a deeply moral one that demanded a religious response. By the time President Johnson declared the war on poverty, many of the dominant “mainline” churches-a wide group, including Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and others-were abandoning their long history of independent action to participate more directly in the welfare state. It was not long before their previous political restraint was gone as well. By the 1980s, the National Council of Churches and many of its members were taking positions on everything from divestment in South Africa to nuclear security strategies and funding levels for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In retrospect, the result of all this posturing seems predictable: what sociologist Peter Berger has called “prophetic inflation,” the devaluing of many religious claims in public life, and a credibility gap between church leaders and their congregants. The slow and continuing decline of mainline Protestantism is a complicated story, but part of the cause surely lies in the churches’ self-imposed politicization, which drained much of their spiritual substance. As the 1970s and ’80s wore on, and public skepticism about the war on poverty and government intervention in the economy increased, the classical liberal spirit of the Founders began making a comeback. More and more Americans, church-going or not, realized that the welfare state had become massively wasteful and frequently counterproductive for the very people it was supposed to help. Yet a great many Protestant leaders continued-and still continue-to talk as if the burden of human misery could be lifted simply by well-coordinated state action. The last prominent critic of the overreaching public power to speak from within mainline Protestant Christianity, Reinhold Niebuhr, died in 1972. No one has replaced him.
Not every individual church suffered from this malaise, of course. Some, in fact, have been quite successful, by playing to their own strengths and developing a newly serious sense of mission. Modest, and in some ways more humane, these churches remain focused on their congregations, guided by ideals of spiritual camaraderie, and take their cues from the old world of church suppers and fundraisers. Like earlier generations of Americans, these Protestant congregations today are discovering that the proper freedom and dignity of the individual is itself a religious principle, and are beginning to think seriously about what this means for an individual’s right to his income, to his property, and to his privacy. Yet these churches remain unfortunate outliers within the overall picture of Protestant intellectual and demographic decline.
None of this has occurred in a cultural vacuum. Many losses suffered by mainline churches have directly benefited the rising evangelical movement, as parishioners head for greener pastures and more inspiring spiritual guidance. Such changes, however, raise new questions about the religious psychology of the American people. Even a cursory examination will reveal basic differences in the worldviews of mainline and evangelical Protestantism. Mainline churches have long been more or less rationalistic in outlook, respectful of individual direction, and in many respects deeply bourgeois. Modern evangelical Christianity, by contrast, emphasizes direct experience of the divine and the importance of personal salvation. More importantly, in many cases, the characteristic evangelical focus on human sinfulness feeds a suspicion of individual motives when these seem to stray too far from religious mandate.
It is not my intention-and, in any case, this is not the place-to decide between conflicting visions of the human soul. The question of the individual conscience has haunted Christianity at least since the days of Augustine. Yet this is no ordinary struggle over dogma. Different views of human motivation place different demands on the law and the political process, and it is increasingly recognized that, unlike the old mainline churches, evangelical Christianity does not comport well with the libertarian streak in the American character. To put the contrast another way, for most mainline Protestants there is no higher social authority than the sincere human conscience, while for many evangelicals, the desires of individuals are not necessarily to be taken at face value.
If one accepts the former view, the existence of differing opinions on the public good is taken for granted as part of the human condition. The demands of conscience pose a political question, a challenge of consent-Whose view do we follow, the majority’s, a supermajority’s?-and politics becomes the art of balancing differing views and interests. This is the view of politics that animates many classical liberals as well, right down to modern libertarians like James Buchanan. Buchanan, the founder of the public choice school of economics, has written that the American Constitution ingeniously represents interests in such a way as to minimize the chance that government action will harm one group of citizens at the expense of another. The result may not be the libertarian dream of a pure “night-watchman state,” but, says Buchanan, at least it tends to promote public action only in areas of widespread agreement, leaving the rest for individuals and private groups to pursue. As the 19th century statesman John C. Calhoun put it, constitutional government in a varied society forces “the different interests, portions, or orders … to desist from attempting to adopt any measure calculated to promote the prosperity of one, or more, by sacrificing that of others; and thus to force them all to unite in such measures only as would promote the prosperity of all, as the only means to prevent the suspension of the action of the government-and, thereby, to avoid anarchy, the greatest of all evils.”
Of course, to arrive at such a picture of reconciled interests, you need individuals holding and expressing those interests in the first place. Where mainline Protestants, by and large, agree with libertarians in maximizing consent for the sake of individual liberty and civil peace, evangelicals tend to go further, inquiring into whether the interests themselves are legitimate or corrupt. It is precisely this distinctive way in which evangelical Christians approach contentious issues that is frequently at issue today. Which brings us back to John Danforth and the New York Times.
In those columns, the Republican party’s treatment of several hot-button issues came in for attack: stem cell research, the Terri Schiavo affair, and same-sex marriage. In all three cases, Danforth faulted his party’s leadership not for reaching the wrong conclusions, but for preempting debate and refusing to recognize honest differences of opinion among Christian believers. The problem, in his view, was with the legislative method used, not the result, and the real difficulty lay in the fact that conservative evangelicals in the Republican party are too often prone to Biblical certainty when it comes to various public policies. Yet other Christians, he argued, “are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings.” Though he did not mention it, Danforth was in tune here with a great classical liberal of early America, James Madison, who noted in The Federalist that differences of opinion were inevitable “as long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it.” That Danforth should find such a contrast between mainline and evangelical Christians is not surprising, for the very logic of evangelicalism raises real questions about the proper treatment of honest dissent. After all, if God has given truth to man through Scripture, can political disagreement be anything other than ignorance? No major evangelical leader has yet addressed this question in a truly public manner.
Luckily, when it comes to controversial social issues, few outside of liberal advocacy groups are interested in trying to isolate religious voices from the public square. And it would be a terrible overstatement to suggest that socially-conservative believers are closet theocrats. Many right-leaning religious intellectuals are today struggling to define the proper limits to religious-political involvement in a liberal republic (Richard John Neuhaus and his pioneering journal, First Things, stand out as leaders on this front). But it would not be unfair to point out that such reflection does not seem to have penetrated deeply into the political sphere itself. When Republican senator Rick Santorum recently announced that his political duty was to vote the position of his church, he not only did a potential disservice to everyone in his state, Pennsylvania, who belonged to another congregation. He exhibited a shocking disregard for the compromise integral to an open society and a commercial civilization. The classical liberal notion of universal public consent, that government action is most legitimate when enforcing rules comprehensible and agreeable to all, was nowhere to be found.
The underlying Republican failing here can be summed up in one word: restraint. Or rather, a lack of restraint-a lack that has become, in the eyes of many, an unfortunately defining feature of today’s Republican party. Restraint, of course, means a self-imposed sense of limits, of things one will not do. In government, it is the will and authority to say “No” when passing human fancies and minority interests present themselves for fulfillment, and to demand that men and women pull themselves up rather than wait to be helped.
Does the Republican party today lack restraint? The American people, by many measures, seem to be saying it does. Take Congress’s attempt last year to transfer jurisdiction over Terri Schiavo into the federal courts, and thus to restore the feeding tube that her husband had ordered removed. As was widely reported at the time, polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans-upwards of 80 percent-opposed this move. But why? Did they agree with Michael Schiavo’s decision to let his wife “die with dignity,” as supporters put it? Were the American people taking a stand on life, death, and family privacy? Not at all, according to astute journalists like National Journal‘s Jonathan Rauch. Most were simply reacting to congressional overreach, and rejecting what seemed a last-minute rule change to benefit one side in a complicated dispute. The majority of Americans are internally conflicted on moral questions like the one that faced the Schiavo family, and unwilling to permit a brain-dead woman to be treated callously. But, like good libertarians, we’re also willing to tolerate very little congressional meddling where it doesn’t belong. The federalist principle, wrote Rauch, along with an old-fashioned respect for the law, remain surprisingly strong in America.
A similar situation obtains in other areas of dispute. Most Americans are still opposed to, or at least unsure about, gay marriage, but few want to see a Federal Marriage Amendment added to the Constitution. A majority support embryonic stem cell research, but aren’t at all sure when life begins, and seem to be satisfied with debating research funding at the state level. What do these issues and attitudes have in common? Personal uncertainty, little confidence in the federal government to reach a decent conclusion, and fear that it will reach a spectacularly bad one. In other words, we have a recipe for that most classically liberal of solutions: muddling through while treading on the interests, and offending the sensibilities, of the fewest people possible. Some combination of federalism and individual liberty seems the order of the day.
Very few people vote based on their religious beliefs alone, and probably even fewer select a church or synagogue with political categories in mind. Nevertheless, we may be seeing the beginnings of a religious revival, in a spirit amenable to classical liberalism and libertarianism. This is surely to be welcomed. Not only might it be a great comfort to hear voices urging caution and respect for natural rights from the pulpit; it might also help to restore our civil religion, to return it to something more than ritualistic monotheism devoid of ethical content, yet still less than a full faith. For this, we will require the same liberality that enabled Samuel Adams, at the Continental Congress, to declare that he would support the heartfelt prayers of any patriot. Such a reinvigorated religious enlightenment might remind us that, while God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, He is blind neither to human liberty, nor to the fate of America.
Jeffrey Bergman is a law student at the University of Chicago and a regular blogger at jointstrikeweasel.blogspot.com.