Christians disagree on whether the Republican losses in the November elections were a blessing or a setback, because they initially differed on how to characterize the contest. Those who saw it in terms of the liberal-conservative model saw it as a gain for liberals and a setback for conservatives. Those who saw the elections as a referendum on the enlarging powers of the federal government at the expense of its citizens saw the election results as a healthy repudiation of that loss of liberty. Define the issue differently and the analysis might again change.
The problem with the conservative-liberal model has been long apparent. George Wallace (who in 1968 led the last third-party presidential candidacy to actually garner electoral votes) said then that there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats.
The parties themselves have changed greatly over the years. The Republicans were the “radicals” of the Civil War era and the Democrats the conservative party of the Old South. The Democrats took the populist position of loose money and (silver) inflation in the William Jennings Bryan years, and yet the Republicans under Theodore Roosevelt began the popular yet indefensible trust-busting, which labeled any business a danger that became larger than some measure of public opinion deemed appropriate. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt began the massive deficit spending and inflation of the New Deal, but he only accelerated what the “conservative” Republican Herbert Hoover had begun.
The word “liberal” has as its root the same word as “liberty” (the “liberal arts,” for example, are those subjects that were deemed useful in the exercise and preservation of liberty). “Conservatives” have long had trouble both defining what they sought to conserve and explaining why, when it was long gone, this was not itself a form of radicalism.
Semantics aside, the political direction of conservatism has changed over the years, so much so that it can scarcely be called an ideological position. The evolution of the “conservative” movement was described by Robert LeFevre about fifty years ago.1 The term “conservative” was first widely used to describe a political philosophy during the FDR era, when his policies were seen as a repudiation of the traditional relationship of the government to its citizens. Conservatives were those who wanted to preserve the long-standing limitations on the role of the national government in the affairs of the citizenry.
While FDR was seen as preparing the U.S. for involvement in the war in Europe, conservatives urged neutrality. FDR’s liberal interventionist policies were met by conservative pleas to preserve the traditional non-intervention policy in foreign wars. While FDR sought to expand the influence of the U.S. around the world, his conservative critics attacked this policy as both expensive and dangerous.
FDR began a liberal policy of massive deficit spending and inflation while his conservative critics cautioned against the high taxes and debt this policy represented. FDR’s enlargement of government was met by conservatives with a defense of small, limited government. FDR’s redistributive taxation policies were decried as socialistic; his conservative critics called for the protection of private property and individual responsibility. FDR’s liberal appeals for a New Deal were met with conservative appeals to return to the limited government of the Constitution.
The conservative voices of opposition were almost drowned out amidst those who saw FDR as something of a demi-god, America’s savior. The cost of his “salvation” was indeed high, a massive debt, but a victory in World War II made the future seem bright for the U.S.2 FDR died near the end of the war. He became a martyr for the next generation of liberals who sought to perpetuate his policies.
LeFevre points out the first post-war shift in conservative politics. Conservatives became anti-communists. This was not merely the philosophical opposition to socialism’s redistribution of wealth, which had characterized the criticism of FDR. Conservatives after the war were losing that argument in Washington. Instead, they set their sights on international Marxism. By destroying the head of the beast, they hoped to destroy its influence at home. This necessitated abandoning their opposition to interventionism, which became acceptable if its purpose was to challenge communism. Being an international anti-communist became in the 1950s and ’60s the test of a true conservative. This meant supporting spending to resist communism around the world, even if that spending was for a foreign war. Conservatives moved, then, from isolationism to internationalism and from being doves to hawks. They wanted a stronger government in order to oppose communism. They thus based their policies not on ideological principle, but on the first of many issues by which they defined themselves in the years to follow.
As the issues came and went, it was those with an ideological consistency who provided the arguments for the conservative movement, though it was those politicians who operated in terms of pragmatism and the recurring need to win elections that represented them to most people. Pragmatism, by its nature, changes, and the changes in political conservatism were beginning to accelerate.
As pragmatic politicians began supporting what conservatives had once opposed, George Wallace (himself a pragmatic populist) seemed prescient in his analysis of the parties of the late 1960s. Then, into the conservative movement stepped a new force, one that would come to dominate the Republican resurgence of the 1980s and thereafter.
The neoconservatives arose as a liberal branch of academia embarrassed by Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society tax dollar giveaway boondoggle.3 Their criticisms were valid, bore weight, and were welcomed by the Right. One of the distinctives of neoconservatism is its complete abandonment of the nonintervention policy to the point that it advocates American hegemony. It presents this intervention as a benign attempt to spread democracy. Those who oppose them at home are called anti-democratic liberals (Why “liberals”? Because they oppose the new neoconservative vision of conservatism, the one that used to be called liberalism).
The neoconservative confidence in democracy is, of course, itself telling. Democracy became a prominent theme in state textbooks after the Civil War, whereas previously the emphasis had been on the functioning of representative government under the Constitution. The republic’s multiplicity of governments gave way to the national government in Washington as the representative of “the will of the people.”
Democracy has thus represented not more liberty but less. This trend was early seen in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who ostensibly claimed sovereignty for the people but then, in reality, removed their right to exercise that power by investing it in the “body politic,” the state. The collective people in the form of the state always took precedence over the individual. “Now, the Sovereign People,” Rousseau writes, speaking of the state representing collective man, “having no existence outside that of the individuals who compose it, has, and can have, no interest at variance with theirs. Consequently the sovereign power need give no guarantee to its subjects, since it is impossible that the body should wish to injure all its members, nor, as we shall see later, can it injure any single individual.”4
This, R. J. Rushdoony notes, was to impart to the state the divine attribute of infallibility.5 Because the state represented the collective will of the people, the individuals, though ostensibly sovereign, were demoted to the status of being the “subjects” of “the sovereign power,” the government. Democracy can thus be every bit as powerful a force for statist tyranny as any other methodology of absolutism.
The conservative-liberal paradigm is no longer a useful one. Minimally, they represent fixed labels for ideologies that have long since shifted. More dangerously, the conservative-liberal paradigm can mean we are supporting that which we find reprehensible because it claims an old, though-inaccurate label. It is worth noting that the Pharisees were considered the religious conservatives of their day by the people, though our Lord noted their very radical misuse of Scripture.
One of the problems conservatives have had in recent generations is that they have lacked any real ideological touchstone for their “orthodoxy.” Some held fast to the “original intent” of the Constitution, but with new, binding judicial activism, this became a difficult basis for tactical action. Libertarians have been among the most consistent of thinkers because they have a well-formulated (though humanistic) standard of the rights of the individual by which they can judge political thought and acts.
The failure of Christians to formulate a defense of liberty against growing government has been most noticeable. It was, after all, the advance of Christianity that promoted both civilization and liberty in the West, and it was the rise of Calvinism in England that provided it with a limited monarchy and went on to advocate liberty in America with the Constitution. No nation had ever before in history created a government with the express purpose of constraining its growth.
The problem with Christian conservatism in recent generations is that it has followed the ancient Greek and Enlightenment perspective that man is a political animal. This was the very assumption that early Christians rejected. When Paul preached to the Greeks on Mars Hill (Acts 17), he spoke of their religious idols with a full awareness of their greater loyalty to the political order as the essential world of man. They were, as Greeks, interested in gods as first causes for their philosophy or for insight into man’s potentiality (some of the Greek gods, were, remember, men who had transcended mortality to become immortal). The men on Mars Hill had thus expressed interest in the Resurrection of Jesus, but not for the right reasons. Paul presented a God who could not be a tool of philosophers, but who made all things and to whom all would answer in judgment. This judgment would be by Jesus Christ, and the supernatural witness to this future exercise of divine right was His Resurrection from the dead.
At this claim the sermon was put to an end, while some openly mocked Paul. If this was the meaning of the Resurrection, they were not interested. A God who was sovereign and who would judge them held no interest. Yet this was the God of Paul and the early Christians, who responded to demands that they proclaim, “Caesar is Lord!” with the baptismal confession, “Jesus is Lord!”
The post-Enlightenment age has been a return to the Greek view of man as a political being and hence subject, as in Rousseau’s thinking, to the sovereign will of collective man as represented by the state. The humanism of the Enlightenment made the theoretically sovereign individual man merely a component of the truly sovereign collective man. This collective and the loss of individual liberty has been a tendency of the democratic impulse ever since.
Modern man is now seen as a political being (hence the individualistic impulse of libertarianism or the older form of conservatism is seen as an unworkable ideal, one out of touch with the “real” world). Christians have yielded to this type of unequivocal political identification, often in the name of well-intentioned patriotism. Whereas Paul said to the Greeks on Mars Hill that “in him [God] we live, and move, and have our being,” Christians now often seem resigned to the end that in the state they live and move and have their being. Instead of the freedom of Christ in terms of God’s law-word, they submit as the slaves of the democratic “body politic.”
The Christian is a citizen of his country, but he must acknowledge that his is a dual citizenship and that his primary loyalty must be to the Kingdom of God. Christ makes clear this is to be our first loyalty: “[S]eek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). The righteousness of God and the furtherance of His Kingdom is to be our focus, and this must be our message and our calling in every aspect of our lives.
The state is but one aspect of godly dominion, and its reclamation must be predicated on the need to reduce its sway over other spheres. Without the ideological touchstone of God’s law, conservatism is merely a parody of its own rhetoric. A rootless conservatism looks for issues and rallying points that will turn out the vote to perpetuate the political image that one group or another is doing great things for the people and the nation.
In 1965 my father moved to Southern California to begin Chalcedon and emphasize the need for Christian Reconstruction. Many of his early supporters were those who were disillusioned with the landslide loss of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Some urged him to take more of an anti-communist approach in order to attract conservative money. Others have suggested his constant criticism of “the state” was repetitive and tiresome.
His approach was, however, consistent. He renounced both the ascendant statists and their phony political opposition as themselves statists who coveted the reins of power. His alternative was to pronounce a pox on both their houses and proclaim an alternative in limited law spheres and Biblical self-government.
The Christian Right did not learn its lesson in 1964 or in 1980 when in the “Reagan Revolution” it was courted for votes but then dismissed in victory. Reagan’s desire was to conclude the anti-communist crusade of the post-war Republican Party, not to reform government in any way. His bone to those interested in other issues was tax cuts, though he increased their long-term indebtedness and hence tax liability by continued deficit spending. That is the tactic of a politician, but not a conservative, fiscal or otherwise. The later resurgence of Republicans in the 1994 congressional races and the subsequent victory of George W. Bush represented the ascendancy of neoconservatives, in fact, their virtual monopoly of the party.
Disillusionment is a good thing unless you believe in the utility of illusions. There is no political move toward individual rights, reduced government, or honest money because these things do not advance any political party’s agenda. The liberty of the future will be in a conscious repentance before God and a recommitment to His law-word. The liberty of the future will be in the self-government of Christian man in his family, church, and calling.
1. For my synopsis of the devolution of conservatism, I am indebted to Robert LeFevre, “The ‘Conservative Movement,’” a reprint of a leaflet by the author originally titled “Those Who Protest” available online at www.lewrockwell.com/orig7/lefevre1.html.
2. The New Deal did nothing to turn the economy around. The Depression only deepened. The U.S. entrance into the war and the production of war materials (all financed by debt) is what put Americans back to work. The continuation of massive government spending to stimulate the economy is thus a continuation of our wartime policy of “spending” our way out of depression, with the debt payable by future generations.
3. For the origins of neoconservatism see Gary North, “An Introduction to Neoconservatism” www.lewrockwell.com/north/north180.html.
4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau as quoted in R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. I (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), 26.
5. Rushdoony, 26.