Religion and Conservatism

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.


12 thoughts on “Religion and Conservatism

  1. Paul J Cella August 15, 2006 / 12:09 pm

    Babbitt remained an agnostic (though never a truculent one) all his life, but I don’t think it is fair to throw More in that category. One of his later ones carried the title Christ the Word. Theology became his prime interest. He wrote extensively of his admiration for Augustine and Pascal. Babbitt himself once expressed his exasperation with More’s religion by accusing him of going Jesuit.

  2. Gintas Jazbutis August 15, 2006 / 8:45 pm

    It seems that MacDonald stumbled into the wrong symposium. She though she was in the “Has the Right Been Co-Opted by Religion?” symposium, which is something TAC might want to do someday. This symposium, however, was “What is Left? What is Right?” and was supposed to answer questions MacDonald didn’t even begin to answer.

  3. Daniel McCarthy August 15, 2006 / 9:25 pm

    Thanks for the comments, gentlemen. More seems to have stopped short of professing Christianity, but Paul Cella is correct to highlight the importance of Christianity in his thought.

    Heather Mac Donald’s symposium piece was rather off-topic; on the other hand, it’s generated a good deal of discussion, which speaks in its favor. (I hope other contributions to the symposium start attracting some notice — including Claes Ryn’s, especially.) There was a risk when we were putting together the symposium that some contributors would overlap in their arguments. Luckily that turned out not to be the case, even if it meant bending the terms of the symposium in one or two places.

  4. Tim August 15, 2006 / 11:07 pm

    Haether MacDonald is correct to call attention to the tradition of “theo-skeptical” conservatism. There are many who are, as she says, conservative because they are skeptical.

    Maybe the departure point between conservative and leftist skeptics was defined by Hayek. Hayek drew a distinction between two kinds of rationalism, “constructivist rationalism” , with an exaggerated belief in the power of one mind to be master of all it surveys, and a more skeptical and humility based rationalism that accepted the rationality of spontaneous ordered systems and historically inherited systems.

    Although the so-called Religious Right gets all the media attention, perhaps the real dogmatists are the hard core Anti-Religious Left. It is interesting to note the recycling of “Voltaire speak” amongst secularist liberals. Voltaire’s critique of the church in the name of reason made good sense in his day, but both the church and society have moved on. Yet the secular liberals still have not progressed beyond “Voltaire speak”. Not long after Voltaire’s death, the French Revolution gave birth to a new religion dedicated to Reason (with a capital R) was being pushed by the Jacobins, since then various secular religions of the right and left and the elevation of revolution, nation, class and race (and now ‘the environment’) to mystical status have engendered more crimes and corruptions than all the worst popes laid end to end. If Voltaire were reincarnated he would certainly be in the ranks of the theo-skeptic conservatives.

  5. R J Stove August 16, 2006 / 12:34 am

    Does any reader of this blog have any thoughts on the state of the parties regarding Jefferson and religion?

    I’d always assumed that he was a Deist, that he refused ever to be a godfather to baptized children, and that his own version of the New Testament was specifically devised to deny all miraculous elements in Christ’s life. But since then I’ve come across Bushie-style Protestant fundamentalist web commentaries which maintain that this is a foul libel on Jefferson, and that the third president was an entirely orthodox Christian.

    While I’m displaying my ignorance, what, I wonder, do historians now say about the question of whether Washington did, or did not, become a Catholic on his deathbed? I’ve read and heard this allegation X number of times, but have never encountered hard evidence which would either support or refute it.

  6. Jeff Taylor August 16, 2006 / 6:46 am

    R.J., your assumption is correct. Jefferson was a Deist or Unitarian. He didn’t believe in miracles or anything that offended his sense of reason, and he didn’t believe in the trinity, and he didn’t believe in a priestly class that interfered with an individual’s relations with God, but he did believe in a Creator who was in some sense a judge of humanity and he did believe in the ethics of Jesus. Like Tom Paine, Jefferson was neither an atheist nor an orthodox Christian. Something in between.

    There are many fine pieces in the Left/Right issue of TAC but my favorite is the very first one (Andrew J. Bacevich).

    I’m a Christian so I disagree with MacDonald’s inability or unwillingness to recognize the existence and authority of God, but I agree with her general point. Libertarians should not feel excluded from the camp of genuine conservatism despite theological differences with many paleocons. Even the Constitution Party is now splintering over efforts to make it a “pure” Christian party. Efforts on behalf of pseudo-theocracy are bound to fail and are, in fact, dangerous. I’m willing to wait for the real thing: Christ can set up his own kingdom on Earth when He returns. In the meantime, I prefer democracy, which includes believers and non-believers of every stripe.

    This thread is about conservatism and religion, but I have something to contribute about liberalism and religion. I wrote a piece that was published by CounterPunch earlier in the summer about Bush and Christianity in which I contrasted Bush unfavorably with William Jennings Bryan ( I identified myself from the get-go as an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian. Some liberal secularists couldn’t get past that stumbling block and couldn’t see how Bryan of Scopes Trial fame could be held up as a role model for modern progressives. What I wrote to an intelligent but atheistic Green activist has applicability to conservatives, too, I think:

    I can’t agree with you that if someone believes in some religious “mythology” s/he is necessarily less politically progressive. I know lots of Greens who believe in New Age spirituality–which I consider to be mostly nonsense–but they are very progressive in their politics. Their philosophical/theological foundation, my foundation, and the foundation of an atheist may be quite different but we can still end up at the same place when it comes to politics. In that sense, I believe in “separation of church and state” more than you do. You imply that religious belief taints a person’s politics, whereas I don’t really care what people think about God or religion as long as we can cooperate in the political realm. When I vote for a politician, I’m not subjecting him or her to a religious test and I don’t do it with my political comrades either. I’m not voting for a pastor; I’m voting for a politician. The criteria are different.

    In some ways, the discussion we’re having is exactly what progressives should NOT be focusing on among ourselves. It’s just one more way in which we splinter “the movement.” It can be interesting and even useful, but it’s not the main thing. There’s no need for me to try to talk you into converting to Christianity or for you to try to lead me to secularism. On a personal level it may be important at times, but in a political sense it’s mostly a distraction…unless we think that our political party must be grounded on religious or irreligious truth. I don’t. We should be reaching out beyond our comfort zone if we’re interested in a majoritarian political coalition. People of every stripe should feel welcome. Litmus tests on religion should be avoided. For me, I would also avoid litmus tests on controversial secondary issues because the primary issue in politics is always WHO RULES? (=democracy? majority rule or minority rule?) Most progressives don’t feel that way but I think they’re wrong.

  7. Paul J Cella August 16, 2006 / 12:07 pm

    I am rather partial to Jeremy Beer’s contribution. Ryn’s is good as well.

    Mr. McCarthy: I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but if Christ the Word is not the work of a professing Christian, then I’m a donut. I’ll concede that More’s Christianity, like Weaver’s and Oakeshott’s, was eccentric and ambiguous; but his exploration of the Incarnation, of the Logos, is plainly the work of a Christian man.

  8. Daniel McCarthy August 16, 2006 / 4:02 pm

    No dead horses here. I haven’t read Christ the Word, and I’m happy to defer to your better-informed assessment of More.

  9. Matthew August 17, 2006 / 5:11 am

    Great comments all – but I must disagree with Mr. Taylor’s point that religion and politics need not interact at all. While a belief system is entirely personal – religion is generally tied to one institution or another, and one’s political views in the context of a religious institution have and may color one’s political views outside it. Historical examples abound – Catholic conversion of pagan Iceland directly led to the fall of the free state and eventual submission to the Norweigan king, the English Reformation was not only a debate over prayer books and priests but over how much authority did God give to Pope over King, and the American revolution freed the colonies from both Parliament and the Church of England. Even today, there have been many discussions on LRC trying to reconcile Catholicism and unfettered capitalism, and to mention the New Age example – a New Ager is most likely always going to be green, if not a Green. To take the extreme, a politician that professes to be a Wiccan and watches Charmed reruns for more than eye candy is most likely not going to get your vote if you want to drill in ANWR.

    On another note – you are doing a wonderful job with the blog Mr. McCarthy.

  10. Jeff Taylor August 19, 2006 / 1:36 am

    I don’t disagree with what Matthew writes. Religion and politics obviously do interact and affect each other. My point was that if a political party wishes to win elections and wield influence, it makes a mistake by turning people away at the door on the basis of religion. I’m not saying that religion is unimportant. For me, spiritual truths are far more important than political planks. But if I’m going to be involved in electoral politics then I favor a broad-based populist party that transcends spiritual differences. It’s the difference between a vote being cast and a soul being saved. There is some crossover, but we should Render unto God the things that are God’s and unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

  11. James Kabala August 21, 2006 / 2:25 am

    It certainly would be a remarkable and interesting thing if Washington became a Catholic on his deathbed, but there is very little evidence for it. I think Michael Novak in his recent book (yes, a neocon, but the book is worthwhile) makes the telling point that if such a conversion had really occurred, surely the priest who performed the ceremony would have publicized it. What a coup it would have been for the much-discriminated-against Catholics! Yet while Catholic orators of the antebellum period rarely miss an opportunity to mention such Catholic revolutionary heroes as Charles Carroll, John Barry, the Marquis de Lafayette, or Tadeusz Kosciusko, a conversion to Catholicism by Washington is never mentioned even as a rumor or legend. Washington’s ardent Freemasonry during his life would also seem to argue against the theory, although, of course, many other converts have been ex-Freemasons.
    Some interesting claims about the alleged conversion can be found here , but I don’t know the source of most of them. The claim that Washington made the Sign of the Cross before meals is fascinating, for example, but I have never seen it in mentioned in any biography and wonder if it comes from a reliable source. I can testify from a recent tourist visit that there is indeed a picture among the artwork at Mount Vernon that seems to be of the Blessed Virgin, but I would be reluctant to read any deep significance into that fact without additional evidence.
    The only thing I would add to Jeff Taylor’s comment on Jefferson is that Jefferson was also ardently anticlerical.

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