The Perplexities of American Conservatism

Over at U.S. Intellectual History, Andrew Hartman has some interesting reflections on the way modern conservatives tend to champion both “liberty” and “order.”  I recommend reading the entire post, but here is a taste:

…I have found in my research that often those making what sound like libertarian arguments are Christian Right activists. For example, in culture war struggles over the curriculum, it’s the Christian Right that most forcefully argues against national control in favor of local control of schools. It’s the Christian Right that has made it its strategy to get elected to local school boards in order to stem national trends in education they abhor, such as the teaching of evolutionary science. Similarly, in his must-read article, “Family Policy Past As Prologue: Jimmy Carter, the White House Conference on Families, and the Mobilization of the New Christian Right,” Leo Ribuffo shows how in the Progressive Era and before, persistent evangelical concerns over the crumbling family were often married to progressive economic concerns about the destructive force of unregulated capitalism. But by the 1970s, Christian Right activists uniformly blamed the decrepit condition of the traditional family on the welfare state, which they believed encouraged dependency, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

So how do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory facts: that the Christian Right wants a moral establishment, a coercive vision of government, with its libertarian framework? Here I would draw a crucial distinction between libertarianism and anti-statism. Members of the Christian Right are decidedly not radical individualists of the Age of Aquarius. But they are opposed to the state insofar as it represents a secularism that they despise. The state as it is currently constituted is seen as the greatest barrier to their Protestant moral establishment. Now, obviously, many Christian Right leaders celebrate unregulated capitalism—“free enterprise”—to the degree that they fit well within the Republican Party, which would give corporations a freer reign than they already enjoy. This holds true even in the wake of the recent destructive financial collapse that is so obviously the result of giving free reign to finance, the most powerful sector of corporate America. This tendency needs better historical explanation than I can give in this blog post. But it does not take away from the fact that libertarianism is not anti-statism, and that the Christian Right, and thus much of American conservatism, holds to the latter, not the former.