Religion and the Right

by Jonah Goldberg

I’m speaking to a class of grad students at George Mason tonight, nominally about my book (not open to the public, fyi). But one of the questions that the prof asked me to noodle — the role of God and religion in conservatism and my own worldview — has been bouncing around my head a bit. In the wake of all the Sarah Palin mishigas, it occurs to me that lots of people seem to believe that modern conservatism was, until the day before yesterday, a purely urbane, secular, affair with perhaps a good deal of pro-forma nodding to religion but little spiritual devotion. According to this storyline, the religious yahoos have “taken over the party” and places like National Review have become infected with their St. Vitus’ dance.

That certainly seems to be the upshot Kathleen Parker’s “oogedy-boogedy” comments, not to mention the general upshot of Jeffrey Hart’s more considered — but ultimately similar — complaints as well as some several thousand emails, blog comments, and barbs from TV commentators and columnists, including David Brooks, David Frum, John Avlon and many others (See Ramesh’s piece on Scapegoating the Social Right in the latest issue for more). Now, I do think there’s some merit to this as political analysis in terms of the public perception of the GOP and the direction some would take it (though I still tend to side with Ramesh in that fight). And I certainly have problems with the growth of populism on the Right. But there seems to me something left out of the whole discussion: In many respects religion is less central to intellectual conservatism than it was 40 years ago.

If you go back and read the debates between, say, Brent Bozell II and Frank Meyer (and M. Stanton Evans) on the proper role of religion in society in general and for conservatives in particular, you get a real sense of what a live issue religion was, back in those allegedly halcyon days of tweed, scotch and canapés. In 1962 Bozell rejected the Meyer and Evans libertarian-Fusionist argument. Bozell believed that some degree of virtuous compulsion must be an active part of a moral society, or put more fairly to Bozell, that freedom of choice wasn’t nearly as important as the Fusionists claimed. “For as the mystics tell us, true sanctity is achieved only when man loses his freedom— when he is freed of the temptation to displease God.”

On the question of why man’s goal is to pursue virtue, Bozell writes:

“I think there are two possible answers to such a question. One is that God desires— for its own sake—a human order that conforms to the transcendent order, and therefore that He measures virtue by the extent to which human action existentially reflects divine norms. But this answer is certainly not the one Meyer and Stanton Evans would give. Under such a view of things, man’s concern is simply to establish temporal conditions conducive to God-approved human action, and while leaving matters to individual choice may be useful in some instances, there is no a priori need for freedom at all. The other possibility is that God wants man to ‘prove himself’ — or, in Christian terms, to earn salvation. This we may assume, until they tell us otherwise, is exactly Meyer’s and Evans’ meaning.”

What is striking about this is not Bozell’s view of virtue — he was very conservative and very Catholic and he said it better elsewhere — nor is it his reading (or misreading) of the fusionist position. No, what I find intriguing is Bozell’s good-faith assumption that Meyer and Evans’ position is derived from a sincere desire to know God’s will.

And it was a correct assumption. “The conservative believes,” Evans wrote, “that ours is a God-centered, and therefore an ordered Universe [and] that man’s purpose is to shape his life to the patterns of order proceeding from the Divine center of life.”

National Review itself, and William F. Buckley and particular, were hardly casual about the role of religion. Indeed, the Catholicism of National Review is probably at its lowest ebb (though I’m open to correction on that point). If you read the pages of NR from the 1950s and 1960s you’d be hard pressed to conclude that it was ever a truly secular magazine. Indeed, if you read Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement (and why on earth wouldn’t you?), you’ll find that the proper role and scope of religion has been a permanent fixture of conservatism from the get-go.

Now of course, there are large cultural and contextual differences been then and now. The Cold War and the threat of atheistic Communism helped to highlight the religiosity of the West. Today, religiosity is perceived by many in the elite culture as one of the world’s problems, not one of the West’s advantages. The evangelical Right tends to be more populist than the Catholic Right was (though there are real exceptions to this generalization as well). But populism and religiosity should not be confused, even though it seems they often are. And on my fundamental point, I think it’s clear: the idea that conservatism — as opposed to the Republican Party — is suddenly and without precedent embracing religiosity to a dangerous extent is just false. If anything, the new and unprecedented change is the striking rise of secularism in some quarters of the right, most quarters of libertarianism and nearly all quarters of liberalism.

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