Politics & Policy

Faith, Fortune, and The Frontier

The pillars of America's unique conservativism.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth and final installment in a series of excerpts from The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This is the second half of Chapter 13: “Right From the Beginning.”


Why are Americans so religious? The obvious reason is that religion played such a prominent role in both the creation and shaping of the country. The earliest American colonies were settled by Puritans, dissenters who saw the new land as an opportunity to escape from religious persecution and practice their religious faith as vigorously as they could. The constitution’s First Amendment specifically guaranteed the “free expression” of religion. By and large, the new country lived up to this promise, but those who did still feel discriminated against, notably the Mormons, helped to spearhead the move westward in the nineteenth century.

The other reason for America’s religiosity is perhaps more surprising: it is the fact that America was founded as a secular state. The same First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion also prohibits Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The separation of church and state distinguishes America from European “confessional states.” Many religious conservatives complain that this separation unjustly excludes religion from the public square. Many of the most vigorous supporters of the separation are liberals. But in fact the separation of church and state has done more than anything else to preserve religion as a vigorous (and usually conservative) force in American life.

The disestablishment of religion injected market forces into American religious life. Religious organizations could not rely on the state for subsidies in the same way as, say, the Church of England. They had to compete to survive. This was exactly as Jefferson, one of the most vigorous supporters of disestablishment, predicted. In his notes for a speech to the legislature in 1776 he argued that religious freedom would strengthen the church because it would “oblige its ministers to be industrious [and] exemplary.” American religion was always throwing up new churches that could market the Word better than the competition. During the Great Awakening of the 1840s, for example, revivalists dispensed with Latinate sermons (“all hic haec hoc and no God in it”) and invented rousing gospel songs.

Disestablishment also lifted a huge burden from religion. What better way to distort faith than to make it dependent on the whims of politicians? And what better way to debilitate faith than to link it to the pursuit of sinecures and preferments? America was mercifully free from the local equivalents of Trollope’s parsons, who were constantly maneuvering for official preferment. It was also free from the power struggles that debilitated the Catholic Church: remember that Lord Acton’s injunction that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely comes from his description of the medieval papacy. American churches had nothing to rely on to ensure their survival other than their own spiritual strength.

The religious groups that survived best in America’s competitive environment were the most “enthusiastic”: the ones that took their faith most seriously and preached it most vigorously. Even today, Americans swap religions quickly: around 16 percent of the population has changed denominations and the proportion rises the more fundamental the creeds get, with one study showing that half the pastors in megachurches having moved from another denomination. Some people think America is currently in the middle of its Fourth Great Awakening; but the truth is that these great awakenings have been so frequent and prolonged that there has never been a period of sleep from which to awake. Revivalism does not need to be revived; rather, it is a continuous fact of American life.

America’s penchant for religion hasn’t exclusively benefited conservatives. One of the most religious groups in the country is also one of the most Democratic: African-Americans. Two of the most prominent left-wing politicians, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are both reverends (Sharpton was ordained at the tender age of ten). Throughout American history, protest movements have had a religious component. The underground railway, which helped slaves to the North and freedom, was run by holy criminals. The father of populism, William Jennings Bryan, was a lay preacher. Religious people were in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights for women and blacks. During the 2000 election campaign Al Gore talked about using “faith-based organizations” to help solve America’s social problems almost as enthusiastically as George Bush.

But throughout its history America’s religiosity has encouraged Americans to see problems in terms of individual virtues and vices. It has also encouraged Americans to try to solve society’s ills through voluntary activity rather than state action. Calvin Colton, a Briton who visited America in the 1830s, noted that the separation of church and state had given rise to “a new species of social organization before unknown in history.” In America voluntary organizations took on functions that, in Europe, were performed either by the state or by state-financed churches. Religious groups set up elaborate systems of voluntary welfare. The Catholic Church, for example, established a separate welfare state, a parallel universe with its own schools, hospitals and provisions for the indigent and unfortunate. Many of these voluntary groups were highly suspicious of government interference. In 1931 the chairman of the Red Cross’s central committee went before Congress to discuss a proposed federal appropriation of $25 million for relief of drought victims. “All we pray for,” he said, “is that you let us alone and let us do the job.”

Religion has also reinforced America’s patriotism. From the first the religious groups who fled to America had a strong sense that they were settling in a special place with a special role in God’s plan–a city on a hill, a beacon to the rest of the world. America has long regarded itself as a redeemer nation. “Nation after nation, cheered by our example, will follow in our footsteps till the whole earth is freed,” said Lyman Beecher, a nineteenth-century cleric. Patriotism and religion are mutually reinforcing. This is why, during Eisenhower’s presidency, religious groups got the phrase “under God” (Lincoln’s phrase from the Gettysburg address) added to the Pledge of Allegiance, whose original version, conservatives note, was written by Francis Bellamy, a socialist educator.


If God has predisposed America to conservatism, then so has Mammon. Why throw in your lot with radicals when you can simply move farther West? Why agitate for revolution when you are doing so well out of the established system? As Werner Sombart famously put it, the ship of American socialism ran aground on “shoals of roast beef and apple pie.”

America has always been a feast of plenty. From the sixteenth century onward, visitors have waxed lyrical about the country’s abundance of everything: abundance of space which allows people to own their own homes and support their own families; abundance of food that makes them the most generously fed people in the world; and abundance of opportunities for upward mobility. In Europe, too many people were always chasing too few opportunities. In America, there were always too few people to exploit everything the country had to offer. In the 1780s J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a visiting Frenchman, noted that “there is room for everybody in America…. I do not mean that everyone who comes will grow rich in a little time; no, but he may procure an easy, decent maintenance, by his industry.” In 1817, William Cobbett, a British critic of the establishment, commented on American dietary excesses: “You are not much pressed to eat and drink, but such an abundance is spread before you…that you instantly lose all restraint.” In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, the first person to meditate at any length on American exceptionalism, remarked that fortune offered “an immense booty to the Americans.”

These differences became more marked with the invention of mass production. Americans simply possessed more stuff than anybody else: more cars, more telephones, more radios, more vacuum cleaners, more electric lights, more bathtubs, more supermarkets, more movie theaters, more of any new invention or innovation that would make life more endurable. In The Future in America (1906), H. G. Wells noted that even in the “filthy back streets of the East Side” of New York people were much better off than their peers in London. During his stay in New York in 1917, Leon Trotsky was astonished by the facilities in his cheap apartment in the East Bronx: “electric lights, gas cooking-range, bath, telephone, automatic service elevator, and even a chute for the garbage.” All this won his children over to New York. Franklin D. Roosevelt said that if he could place one American book in the hands of every Russian, he would choose the Sears, Roebuck catalogue.

Just as important as the abundance of material goods was the abundance of opportunity. For most of America’s history, most of its inhabitants could expect to get richer during their lifetimes–and expect that their children would get richer still. In 1909-1929 consumer expenditure per head rose almost 45 percent in real terms, and then rose another 52 percent from 1929-1960. The twin engines of economic expansion–geographical expansion into new lands in the West and technological expansion into new realms of production–created a constant supply of new opportunities. And at the same time a relentless supply of new immigrants stood ready to take the places that were being vacated at the bottom of the ladder. Everybody in the country–old or new, immigrant or settled, middle class or lumpen proletarian, Italian godfather or WASP patrician–seemed to be moved by the same motives: the desire to make a profit, to accumulate dollars, to get ahead in the world and flaunt your wealth as a sign that you had got ahead.

It was only fitting that a people of plenty should put their trust not in the state, but in the providers of plenty–the businessmen. Capitalism came to America with the first settlers. The country was founded by profit-obsessed corporations: the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company and, more darkly for the country’s future, the slave-trading Royal African Company (New York was named after the latter’s president, James, Duke of York). The Puritans, who came for religious rather than commercial reasons, also had a distinctly capitalist frame of mind. There have always been exceptions to this enthusiasm for capitalism, such as the Southern Agrarians, the Populists and Michael Moore, but in general America has had little use for the European contempt for business. Americans celebrate the creative genius of businesspeople in much the same way that the French celebrate the creative genius of artists and intellectuals. Ronald Reagan captured this attitude perfectly when, as a flack for General Electric in the 1950s, he liked to say that the company’s primary product was progress. American school textbooks recounted tales of the practical genius of men like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison (and will no doubt one day celebrate the practical genius of Bill Gates). The first instinct of policy makers has generally been to stand back and give businesspeople the room that they need to exercise their creative genius.

America has been much more inclined to let public work be covered by private philanthropy than Europe has. The country’s landscape is littered with monuments to business philanthropy: great universities like Stanford and Chicago; great galleries like the Getty and the Frick; great medical research centers like Rockefeller University. Every one of these monuments is the product of a large private fortune translated into a large public good. And for each of these great monuments there are a thousand small-scale charities bent on repairing the fractured raiment of society. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller Sr. and the rest of the robber barons were hard-faced men who destroyed their competitors and crushed trade unions. But they were also great philanthropists. Carnegie talked about the religion of philanthropy. His dictum that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced” created a fashion among his fellow robber barons for pouring money into universities, art galleries and medical schools, a fashion that survives with today’s new tech billionaires.

The idea that wealth entails responsibility went much deeper than billionaires. Americans of all degrees of wealth have been unusually generous with their money. Even while he was a poor clerk in Cleveland, Rockefeller gave away a fixed proportion of his income. More important still, Americans have been unusually generous with their time. Voluntary organizations designed to solve society’s problems have flourished more lavishly in the United States than perhaps any other country. Today American philanthropic contributions account for about 1 percent of national income, compared with between 0.2 percent and 0.8 percent in Europe. Crucially, Americans much prefer to give away their money themselves, rather than let their government do it: foreign aid is a pathetic portion of government spending.

This tradition of philanthropy encouraged America to tackle its social problems without building a European-style welfare state, and to embrace modernity without abandoning its traditions of voluntarism, decentralization and experiment. The country did a remarkable job of creating a national infrastructure before the introduction of the federal income tax in 1913. And, even as the federal government grew in the 1930s and 1940s, boosted by war, depression and idealism, America took the conservative attitude that the public sector should not be allowed to crowd out the voluntary one.


The roots of American conservatism are embedded in the most fundamental thing about any country: its geography. America is the world’s fourth largest country, and, unusually for such a large place, two-thirds of it is habitable. It is a land of wide-open spaces–a place where rugged individualism can become a philosophy rather than just a hopeful cliché, where reinvention is always possible and where conservatism can become a much more optimistic–even sometimes utopian–creed than it has been anywhere else.

Geography helps to explain why immigration, so often a source of discontent in more crowded places, has usually had the opposite effect in America. The history of every big city in America has been littered with fights between the established inhabitants and new arrivals. But immigrants have repeatedly replenished the supply of devotees to the American capitalist dream. (An old Ellis Island motto: “The cowards never came, and the weak died on the way.”) Most immigrants saw–and still see–America as a land of milk and honey compared with their old homelands. Most have embraced their new country with the enthusiasm of converts and followed the path of upward mobility: starting off in ethnic enclaves (which also had the effect of diluting working-class solidarity) and then eventually making it into the suburbs and the great American middle class. It cannot be a mere coincidence that the most consistently left-wing group in America has been blacks–the only people who did not come to the country voluntarily.

And once people arrived in America, they kept on moving. Internal migration has been one of the secrets of America’s economic success. One of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet ministers once famously exhorted Britain’s unemployed to “get on their bikes” to look for work; that advice has never been needed in America, where there has always been somewhere better to go. The Left is correct to point out that some economic migrations have been desperate affairs: think of Tom Joad and the hapless Okies in The Grapes of Wrath. But the truth for most migrants over time has been more enriching. “The western wilds, from the Alleghenies to the Pacific, constituted the richest free gift that was ever spread out before civilized man,” Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in his paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893). “Never again can such an opportunity come to the sons of men.” A senior Republican in California, surveying the prosperous elderly white faces at his party’s state convention, says that one word comes to his mind: Okies. (He means it as an insult, but it also shows that Tom Joad’s descendants have not done badly.)

The migrants left their past behind, along with all the accumulated traditions of the Old World. Many migrants were identified not by their family names but by their given names and preferably by their nicknames–a tradition that still thrives in Texas (and can be seen in George W. Bush’s habit of giving everybody he knows a pet name). Daniel Boorstin produces a wonderful quotation from a Texas pioneer: “Truly this is a world which has no regard for the established order of things, but knocks them sky west and crooked, and lo, the upstart hath the land and its fatness.”

The modern equivalent of this homestead is the suburb. Ask Americans where they want to live, and only 13 percent say they would like to live in a city; the biggest number–37 percent–say a small town, and 25 percent say the suburbs. Most Americans seem to expect, in their heart of hearts, that they will end up living in a sun-blessed subdivision. And they are right to do so. More than half the population now lives in a suburb of some sort; by contrast, two-thirds of the population in Europe is categorized as urban. And American suburbs are different: the new Edge cities include far more offices and workplaces, far more immigrants, far more space and far more variety in terms of rich suburbs and poor suburbs than the standard middle-class dormitory “commuter belts” of the sort you see round big European cities.

The New World’s capacity to reinvent itself–to summon up ever newer worlds from its vast expanse of space–has reinforced the odd mixture of individualism and traditionalism at the heart of American conservatism. The Sun Belt that burst into prominence in the Reagan era might almost be regarded as a new nation. Its towns began without any of the palaces, cathedrals, archives and monuments that weigh people down with memories of the past. It is a nation of sprawling cities, a slash-and-burn social policy and incessant reinvention, a nation of strip malls and megachurches, of country-and-western music and NASCAR racing.

Yet many of the rootless people of the new frontier combined this reinvention with a fierce thirst for the solace of religion. This religion was much more hard-edged than the sort that flourished back on the East Coast, let alone back in Europe. It saw money not as something that needed to be apologized for but as a sign that you had worked hard and earned the Lord’s blessing–an idea that survived long after wagon trains gave way to Jeep Cherokees. In June 1981 Ronald Reagan’s deputy counsel, Herbert Ellingwood, told a “financial success seminar” in Anaheim, California, that “economic salvation and spiritual salvation go side by side.” One of us once rather merrily suggested to a group of Christian conservatives in Colorado that Jesus Christ was really something of a socialist–and then had to spend the next half hour in what might be described as emergency Bible study. In the South in particular this religion can be fiercely judgmental. The mystical visions of the New Testament about forgiving people their trespasses has held less appeal than Old Testament pragmatism; if you do bad things, bad things happen to you. As T. R. Fehrenbach, Texas’s leading modern chronicler, observes, the passages in the Bible that made more sense to his state were “the parts in which the children of Israel saw the sweetness in a harsh land and piled up the foreskins of their enemies.”

Meanwhile, the frontier also inured Americans to violence. Guns were essential to people who were taming a wild frontier. Frontier societies easily turned to the ultimate punishment–execution–to preserve a precarious order or indeed to grab the land in the first place. The people who built Texas, such as Jack Hays and L. H. McNelly, saw themselves as warriors, not murderers. In the spirit of the West, writes Fehrenbach, “Hays, who shot many a squaw outside her teepee, was no more a killer than a bombardier who dropped his armaments on crowded tenements in World War II.” Even once the land was grabbed, the burden of self-defense in disputes lay with the individual. (If they were too wimpish to do so, tough luck: they should have stayed at home.) The prospect of prosperity and the permanent threat of anarchy: what could be more conducive to conservative thinking than that?

So America has always had conservative elements. But it did not really have a Right Nation until the mid-twentieth century. Since then a set of conservative inclinations and prejudices have hardened into something more substantial. For most of its history, America didn’t need a conservative movement because it was a fundamentally conservative nation. This movement sprang up in the 1950s when conservative Americans began to react against the advances that “big government liberalism” had made in the past two decades, and it roared into life in the 1960s when Johnson’s Democrats tried to drag the country dramatically to the Left. Even today hostility to liberalism–be it Southern churchgoers protesting against gay marriage or Bill O’Reilly harrying the European axis of weasel on Fox News–forms a strong part of American conservatism. But American conservatism plainly has metamorphosed into something far more formidable than knee-jerk reaction; at home and abroad it is an ideology that is characterized as much by aggressive preemption as by defensive reaction.

John Micklethwait is the U.S. editor of The Economist and Adrian Wooldridge is its Washington correspondent.


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