From reading Derb’s column today, you might get the impression that evangelicals and Catholics are somehow behind the drift toward “big-government conservatism.” This is misconception that has appeared elsewhere too, so it bears some scrutiny. Everyone forgets that the infusion of the religious right into politics, and the shift of evangelicals into the GOP column, partly accounted for Ronald Reagan’s victories in the 1980s. The pre-religious right Republican party was characterized by a go-along-to-get-along establishment that was perfectly happy to accommodate ever-bigger government. It was thankfully swept away by the religious “crazies” (and other new Republican voters). The trend continued with the role the religious right played in the 1994 Republican “revolution,” sweeping the Democrats from power and leading to a full-frontal assault on big government. What happened next is that congressional Republicans got trounced by Bill Clinton in the budget wars, chastening them forevermore. The GOP needed some sort of fresh approach and George Bush came up with “compassionate conservatism.” This was not something forced upon him by religious people. True, it was in some ways, especially rhetorically, pitched toward Catholic swing voters, who are not ideologically anti-statist. But it’s not as though Bush could have discarded them and built an anti-statist political majority with some other group of voters.
Today’s Republican party is more anti-regulation than, say, the GOP under President Bush’s father was. It is more anti-tax. It is too lax on spending–but we complained about spending growth under Bush’s father and even under Reagan. Finally, it is more willing to broach fundamental reforms of the welfare state. Now, through Social Security reform, Bush is actually proposing a creative way to significantly reduce government’s spending over time and ultimately its sway over our lives. If it sinks, it won’t be because of evangelicals and devout Catholics have risen up against it. It will be because of decidedly non-religious right Republicans such as Susan Collins and, well, Derb.