April 27, 2005,
It is high time to pause.
It is becoming an article of faith that President Bush not only is himself an evangelical conservative, but owes his election victory to evangelical conservatives. I’d guess that the psephologists have not done their homework on this latter point, and I doubt that they have materials at hand that would permit them to announce, say, that it was evangelical conservatives who gave the state of Ohio to Bush. How would you establish that Bush’s appeal to evangelicals was critical? And how are you going to define evangelicals? A sophisticated author at work on a book on the subject of the rise in the past ten years of U.S. Christianity lists as tests of acceptable Christian positions in the evangelical community abortion and gay rights. “I am not an acceptable Christian,” he concludes ruefully, “by applying those two standards.”
Wilfred McClay who is a learned senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., gave an arresting lecture in February called “The Evangelical Conservatism of George W. Bush; Or, How the Republicans Became Red.” By this last crack McClay means to associate Red with corporate political idealism. For instance, the socialists and the Communists (and the 1848 progressives, who chose the color red to distinguish themselves from the partisans of the existing orders, bland Whiters more or less content with the status quo).
And so to George Bush. McClay lists the energizing discontents of President Bush. “His ‘compassionate conservatism,’ his relatively favorable view of many Federal social and educational programs, his sensitivity to issues of racial injustice and reconciliation, his softness on immigration issues, his promotion of the faith-based initiative, his concern with issues of international religious liberty, his African AIDS initiative, and above all, his enormously ambitious, even seemingly utopian, foreign-policy objectives [these] are positions that are best explained by the effects of his evangelical Christian convictions, and by his willingness to allow those convictions to trump more conventional conservative positions.” Mr. McClay darts off here to make different points, entirely engrossing: “It is strange that, of all the things liberals loathe about Bush, his religiousness seems to be at the top of the list. For it is precisely the seriousness of Bush’s commitment to his evangelical faith that has made him more ‘liberal,’ in a certain sense, than many of his party brethren.”
But it is high time to pause. The positions listed by McClay as most likely related to evangelicalism are not plausibly removed from a general political idealism which can be said to be rooted in Christian belief, but not exclusively so. The points listed in the Bush agenda are independently backed by many non-Christians, and indeed the most conspicuous of these, the ultra¬-Wilsonianism of Bush’s second Inaugural Address, is most reliably traced not to Christian impulses, but to a non¬-Christian expression of them. It is the neo-cons, most frequently identified as Jewish in orientation, who are primarily identified with such policies so that we have arrived at exactly what, beyond that Jewish idealism and Christian idealism can and often do converge?
How otherwise to ingest the statement by Woodrow Wilson campaigning for the presidency in 1911? “A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about. . . . America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the tenets of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”
Whether Bush owes his election to any explicit connection with evangelical Christianity is sheer speculation, as noted. But a derivative point, made by Wilfred McClay and of quite general interest, is: What has happened to the political idealism associated with the liberals? He refers to Martin Peretz of The New Republic, whose views he summarizes. “Liberals, he argues, find themselves today where conservatives were a half-century ago, without ideas, without a vision of the good society, bookless, forced to feed on stale ideas from the 60s, and therefore, dying.”
Let them die. Meanwhile, conservatives will keep our eyes on President Bush, and stop him before he campaigns for compulsory baptism.