by David Beilstein
PART of the immense difficulty in comprehending modern conservatism in the face of its older manifestation; what we might call Burkean Old Whig classical liberalism, is in the former’s desire to impose evangelical Biblical norms of morality on state power, to be imposed—against Constitutional authority—on the citizenry.
The latter, Old Whig classical liberalism, however, sought to confine Federal authority to its Constitutionally enumerated parameters, animating individual liberty, and likewise, buttressing the general concepts through natural law [book of nature] of a civil society, faithful to the rule of law.
In this schema, glancing at political candidates said to be radically conservative, i.e., Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, et al., means imposing Biblical norms of morality through state power. That is, God’s law—Theonomos—is to be the rulebook for American rule of law.
Evangelical minded political candidates are, of course, inconsistent in their desire to impose such reactionary ideas on America’s laws—as quite a few of these laws are simply untenable to majorities of modern Americans; men and women increasingly unchurched, and likewise inconsistent with a nation that decoupled religion from state duties in the First Amendment.
The summary of Yahweh’s law, the Ten Commandments, cannot possibly be married to the U.S. Constitution, unless of course, God’s nation is properly seen as not geographical, or worldly, but the New Testament Church—the New Israel— a nation of a different “sphere” than of the state. It is within Christ’s church, within its ministerial function, that applies God’s laws, holding sinful saints accountable.
The proclamation of the law/Holy Gospel; the administration of the sacraments, is the nation of the Church’s Constitutional byproduct. In such a dualistic schema, the state has its jurisdiction, the Church, a wholly different jurisdiction—it’s addendum, ever more important because of it’s eternal and Holy significance. Modern conservatism, in part, has a problem with this dualistic construction because theologically, religious conservatism does not view its religious, or political ideas, through the dual city exegetical developments of St Augustine and the Protestant Reformers, but through the premise of Finneyite triumphalism.
Such ethic, wholly this world focused, was the starting point for myriads of attitudes and legislation of the early 20th century Progressive era. As expected, such ethic did not reduce state power and intrusion over the American citizen, but summarily subjected said citizen to utopian ideas of his and her interests married to the state. Once this marriage was consummated—and it took 100 years, 1913-2013—Burke’s “little platoons”, i.e., mediating associations, were attenuated; thus the need of the state to rule heart and activity of the civitas, has increased.
In his 2010 book, “From Billy Graham To Sarah Palin: Evangelicals And The Betrayal of American Conservatism”— historian Dr D.G. Hart, writes,
Even so, deep within the soul of the members of the emerging Religious Right beat the heart not of a Burkean conservative but of a Finneyite activist. Evangelicals may have sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” with relish, but their interest in political formalities, the sorts of questions that yielded the constitutionalism, federalism, and republicanism of the framers, was of secondary importance. Before polity came morality and righteousness, whether personal or social.
The winnowing down of what American conservatism truly is by “political-minded” evangelicals has done large disservice not only for American politics, but for those whose desire is a Federal Government checked by walls of separation; limited to the confines articulated in the U.S. Constitution.
Dr D.G. Hart summarizes, wonderfully,
The assumption that any American citizen who favors prayer in public schools or restrictions on abortion is conservative has not done much good for the body politic, American conservatism, or even the churches where many worship. To overlook American’s political traditions of republicanism, federalism, and constitutionalism, in favor of a referendum-like proposition on a specific form of behavior is to miss the genuine contributions of the American framers and what they believed was necessary to sustain a liberal republic. To reduce conservatism to what goes on in or comes out of the bedroom, or to equate the right with small government, is to miss a thick account of human virtue and the good society in embedded in a millennia of experience of and reflection about human nature, civil society, and political power.
Furthermore, to equate Christianity with the second table of the Decalogue—those commandments having to do with the first table (i.e., the love of God), not to mention the rest of the Old and New Testaments. Of course, to blame evangelicals for simplistic renderings of America’s political traditions would be equally simplistic. Plenty of journalists, policy wonks, and academics also deserve blame—people whose job it is to know better about Protestantism, American conservatism, and the United States government. Even so, from evangelicals has issued much confusion about the Christian faith and American politics.