NRO’s Corner is all atwitter about Heather Mac Donald’s piece for The American Conservative‘s sympoisum on Left and Right. The NROdniks seem especially exercised about the notion that conservatism nowadays might be crippling itself by alienating atheists and agnostics. For my part, I certainly hope something cripples nationalist “conservatism,” though I don’t think it’s likely to be a lack of appeal to secular folk. After all, religion and nationalism in the United States sometimes appear nearly synonymous. [“What Tocqueville found in America in 1830,” Robert Nisbet once wrote, “was in almost equal parts Christian (Puritan specifically) and nationalist. Christ the Redeemer and America the Redeemer Nation existed side by side.”]
Historically speaking, religious belief and actual Burkean conservatism have not been so closely aligned. As Robert Nisbet — who was not a believer himself, as I recall — shows in Conservatism: Dream and Reality, it is established, institutional religion that Burkeans have traditionally defended — defended, that is, against radical disestablishmentarian Protestants as well as Jacobin types. Many of the greatest conservative thinkers and leaders of the past have not often been noted for their religious zeal. How religious was John Adams? Burke’s degree of belief and Disraeli’s remain open to question. (Again, they took Christianity seriously as an institutuion, but not necessarily as a body of dogma.) Robert Ingersoll, one of the most noteworthy Republicans of the 19th century, was equally noteworthy and outspoken as an agnostic. The leading New Humanists, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt, were nonbelievers (though More became increasingly appreciative of Christianity late in life). William Graham Sumner and Albert Jay Nock had both been Episcopal priests but lost their faith and did write as believers. Mencken, of course was agnostic. Oakeshott and Weaver were rather idiosyncratic Christians and very far from being Religious Right types. As far as politicians go, Goldwater was spiritual but not religious, and Ronald Reagan did not regularly attend church. Few of these men were professed agnostics — none, by my count, called himself an atheist. Yet all of them were far removed from the religiosity that is central to the political philosophy of such latter-day Christian conservatives as James Dobson and Richard John Neuhaus.
Nisbet wrote in Conservatism: Dream and Reality about the relationship between conservatism and religion:
Religion is acceptable: it is indeed a good thing provided it is not made the base of the intrusion of personal beliefs into the public body of the nation. Doubtless no conservative, in the Burkean sense, has ever lived who could look out on today’s Moral Majority with equanimity, what with its so often brazen and calculated confusion of the secular — as manifested by intrusive laws and constitutional amendments — and the transcendentally religious.