02 March 2005

Bush's 'conservative' reformism

It seems I am not the only person to puzzle at the popular media's use of red and blue to stand for the American public's support for Republican and Democratic Parties respectively. Here is Wilfred McClay, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, speaking on "American Culture and the Presidency." McClay notes that, while the colour red was after 1848 associated with progressive reform movements, such as socialism, it has now come, at least in his country, to be attached to the party which is ostensibly the more conservative. Yet it may be that the current assignment of red to the Republicans is more appropriate, historically speaking, than might initially appear to be the case. After all, Bush's domestic and foreign policies are driven by "a commitment to the general cause of human freedom and human liberation." In this respect, Bush is closer to his evangelical protestant roots than to traditional conservatism. What are the differences? McClay writes:

Although many secular observers seem not to understand this, evangelicalism, by its very nature, has an uneasy relationship with conservatism. To call someone both an evangelical and a conservative, then, while it is not to utter a contradiction, is to call him something slightly more problematic than one may think. Of course this is, or should be, true of all Christians, who have transcendental loyalties that must sometimes override their political commitments, even very fundamental ones. But it is especially true of evangelicalism. As a faith that revolves around the experience of individual transformation, it inevitably exists in tension with settled ways, established social hierarchies, customary usages, and entrenched institutional forms. Because evangelicalism places such powerful emphasis upon the individual act of conversion, and insists upon the individual's ability to have a personal and unmediated relationship to the Deity and to the Holy Scriptures, it fits well with the American tendency to treat all existing institutions, even the church itself, as if their existence and authority were provisional and subordinate, merely serving as a vehicle for the proclamation of the Gospel and the achievement of a richer and more vibrant individual faith. As such, then, evangelicalism, at least in its most high-octane form, may not always be very friendly to any settled institutional status quo. In the great revivals of earlier American history, it nearly always served to divide churches and undermine established hierarchies, a powerful force for what Nathan Hatch called "the democratization of American Christianity."

It is not surprising, then, that Bush's proposed reforms are nearly always intended to empower individuals to control their own lives and fortunes within what he likes to call an "ownership society." A society of independent smallholders, as it would have been styled in our agrarian past, is something worth struggling for, as a community is deemed only as virtuous as its component individuals.

Yet there is something lacking in the Bush vision, which McClay picks up on. It is a sense of limits -- a "constrained vision" -- which is found in an older European conservatism, but not in its upstart American version. McClay again:

There is not much of [Reinhold] Niebuhr, or original sin, or any other form of Calvinist severity, in the current outlook of the Bush administration. That too is a reflection of the optimistic character of American evangelicalism, and therefore of evangelical conservatism. It certainly reflects the preference of the American electorate, which does not like to hear bad news, a fact that is surely one of the deep and eternal challenges to democratic statesmanship.

I am reminded of the late Christopher Lasch's description of Ronald Reagan's "traditional values" -- "boosterism, rugged individualism, a willingness to resort to force (against weaker opponents) on the slightest provocation" -- as having little to do with tradition. Or Eugene Genovese's observation that Reagan's "optimistic view of human nature" was nearly enough to "warm the hearts of liberal theologians." Much of what could be said of Reagan a generation ago can now be said of Bush. What both share is a certain 19th-century brand of liberal individualism which is sometimes, albeit misleadingly, labelled conservative.

Incidentally, I received word that James W. Skillen's With or Against the World?: America's Role among the Nations, has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield. This is a book I have alluded to more than once on this blog, and I think it may just prove to be the most important book Skillen has written. I will likely be commenting on it here at some point.

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