Readings in the Age of Empire

The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party
Ryan Sager
Wiley, 2006
248 pp.

The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get it Back
Andrew Sullivan
HarperCollins, 2006
294 pp.

Religious Americans always have been involved in politics. In recent years, evangelicals have become more active. The latter now play a key role in U.S. foreign policy. “Evangelical power is here to stay for the foreseeable future,” argues Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, other than the fact that so many Christian conservatives have been on the wrong side of so many foreign policy issues in recent times. One has the feeling that many evangelicals have substituted new WWJK (Who would Jesus kill?) wristbands for their old WWJD ones (What would Jesus do?).

Reflexive evangelical support for President George W. Bush and his war finally may be changing. The percentage of weekly churchgoers who voted Democratic rose from 41 percent in 2004 to 48 percent last week. Democrats made similar gains among Catholics and even evangelicals. Although the latter group remains a strong Republican voting bloc, roughly 30 percent cast Democratic ballots last week.

Religious voters are rethinking their partisan allegiances for the same reasons that other Americans are doing so: spending abuses, congressional scandals, and the Iraq debacle. In particular, polls indicate that evangelical support for the Iraq war is falling. A year ago, 71 percent of white evangelical Protestants said invading Iraq was the right decision. Last month, that number had fallen to 58 percent.

Even some top evangelicals privately rue their support for the Iraq invasion and complain about having been misled by President George W. Bush. A number of Christian leaders recognize the tragic irony that the war has loosed violence and persecution upon the Iraqi Christian community and stoked hatred of indigenous Christians elsewhere in the Muslim world. With little reason to expect the lion to soon lie down with the lamb, support for the war among religious Americans is likely to continue falling.

Obviously, it behooves anyone involved in politics to better understand how religious values impact politics and government policy. Ryan Sager, an editorial writer with the New York Post, and Andrew Sullivan, a blogger and commentator, separately consider the question of the Republican Party’s relationship to Christians. They approach the issue very differently, though both have produced interesting books. Alas, since both of the writers are hawks – though Sullivan now evinces some doubts, given the administration’s grotesque incompetence – neither writer pays sufficient attention to the curious transformation of Christ’s peacemakers into Bush’s warriors.

Sager focuses on the “fusion,” à la Frank Meyer, between libertarianism and traditionalism, that characterized the conservative movement through the Cold War era. Broadly speaking, conservatism simultaneously emphasized liberty and virtue. Ronald Reagan epitomized that alliance, advocating limited government and promoting traditional conservative social positions. There always were tensions in the partnership, but this meld of classical liberal politics and Judeo-Christian values enabled the GOP to seize control of Congress in 1994. The threat of hegemonic communism long made foreign policy easy: there were arguments over how to confront the menace, but virtually every participant in the coalition agreed that there was a menace.

Today, however, argues Sager, “the marriage at the heart of the conservative movement” is “falling apart.” President Bush has dropped even the pretense of being concerned about the size of government and level of government spending. The Republican-led Congress routinely chose social meddling over limited government. Leading figures like former House Majority Leader Richard Armey and James Dobson of Focus on the Family are feuding over the latter’s penchant for using government to advance his moral beliefs.

With the Republican loss of control of Congress, the infighting is likely to worsen. Not that the battle lines always will be clear. As Sager notes: “Any observer of the current Congress will quickly recognize that many of the most socially conservative members are among the most economically conservative, and vice versa.” Still, many Christians appear to have dropped their focus on preventing government interference (with private schools, home schooling, and more) in favor of one on using the state to advance Christian values. Without overarching issues and credible leaders in common, disagreements between libertarian and traditionalist conservatives will grow, both in substance and in emphasis.

Sager calls for a renewed fusionism, based on a commitment to limited government – essentially the traditional program of libertarian-minded conservatives. How to sell social conservatives? Sager argues that “just as big-government conservatism doesn’t work as policy, it falls short as politics as well.” He adds: social conservatives should recognize “that libertarian means still ultimately serve traditionalist ends.” Good luck.

Most of Sager’s analysis is reasonable and unexceptional. But he leaves his own elephant in the room, international affairs. Sager largely dismisses the issue, noting that “On foreign policy, most conservatives – regardless of their particular feelings as to how the Iraq war has been handled – believe that Bush has gotten the big picture right, that America has to confront terror-sponsoring regimes aggressively.” Thus, Sager emphasizes that his fusionism “wouldn’t mean a retreat in the War on Terror; nothing could be more counterproductive politically or to America’s national-security interests.”

The problem with this analysis, of course, is that war is the ultimate big government program. It’s hard to be simultaneously for limited government and for global social engineering, ousting disfavored regimes and building democracies.

Sager’s vision isn’t easy to pull off in theory. It certainly has proved to be difficult in practice. Indeed, President Bush deserves credit for having so disastrously bungled the attempt to micromanage the globe. It’s hard for anyone, at least anyone who is concerned about the lavish expenditure of American lives and money, to look at Iraq and seriously propose another attempt at nation-building.

Moreover, Sager ignores the fact that for a small but important minority of limited government conservatives, Iraq is seen as having nothing to do with combating terrorism. Or, more precisely, the war is seen as actually increasing the threat of terrorism. At one time, Sager could credibly argue that few conservatives disagreed with Bush’s approach. Today, however, many mainstream conservatives, such as William F. Buckley, are issuing mea culpas. Even the neocons are running for the exits, uncharitably blaming Bush for bungling the war that he so generously launched at their urging. Some still argue that Generals William Kristol and Richard Perle could have done the job right. But virtually no one outside of the neocons’ narrow circle believes this to be the case.

Perhaps more important, unease at the war is spreading to Christian ranks, at least if the voting assessments from last week are to be believed. For six years, a perception that George W. Bush was “one of them” caused many evangelicals to give the president a pass. If he said that the war on Iraq was critical, if he said it was part of the War on Terror, if he said that everything was going swimmingly, then it must be true, irrespective of abundant evidence to the contrary. But the horrific reality that Iraq has become has eroded that reflexive confidence in the president’s leadership. Moreover, his successor, even if a conservative Republican, isn’t likely (thankfully!) to benefit from the same degree of trust.

So what would a reconstituted fusionism look like in foreign policy? Sager might favor warmed-over Bushism, but many other people are likely to want something new. Until everyone knows what that something new will be, it will be hard for either libertarians or social conservatives to declare in favor of such an approach.

More philosophical and rhetorical is Andrew Sullivan in The Conservative Soul. He spends much of the book considering religious faith, particularly of the fundamentalist variety. He contends that true conservatism results in greater skepticism.

It’s an argument with which I have some sympathy. Although there are certain critical bedrock truths without which Christianity has no meaning, we only see through the glass darkly, the Apostle Paul wrote, and there is room for honest disagreement among the faithful. I think Sullivan, a gay Catholic, goes too far in attempting to dismiss long-standing principles that are deeply rooted in Christian scripture, tradition, and institutions. Nevertheless, I see a faith that gains rather than loses by recognizing that a symbolic rather than literal understanding many Old Testament stories, for instance, yields the most meaning.

All of this is interesting, but not obviously relevant to politics today. Sullivan tries to make the connection:

“[U]ntil recently American evangelicalism tended to keep some distance from governmental power. The Christian separation between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s – drawn from the Gospels – helped restrain the inexorable theological logic of fundamentalism in America for a long time. The last few decades have proved an exception, however. As modernity advanced, and the certitudes of fundamentalist faith seemed mocked by an increasingly liberal society, evangelicals mobilized and entered politics. Their faith and zeal sharpened, the temptation to fuse political and religious authority beckoned more insistently. The result is today’s Republican Party, which is perhaps the first fundamentally religious political party in American history.”

Well, that seems a bit over the top. However, evangelicals and other religious conservatives have simultaneously become more statist and gained greater influence in the Republican Party. The problem is not so much theological fundamentalism as philosophical statism. After all, many religious liberals cheerfully back an even more expansive government – in the name of the same Christian faith. There even are a few leftish evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, who marry theological orthodoxy with liberal politics. Forget religious fundamentalism; the problem is that conservative evangelicals have joined theological liberals in supporting the interventionist state, even though they often disagree over the particular interventions they believe to be desirable.

Sullivan rightly complains about the many conservative apostasies committed by the Bush administration and Republican Congress. But pork-barrel spending and abusive earmarking have nothing to do with religious fundamentalism. Writes Sullivan, the president and his advisers “wanted to signal a new kind of conservatism, one comfortable with big government, and willing to use it to advance morality, express compassion, and reward allies and supporters.” Quite true. But it’s almost all politics and virtually no theology.

Sullivan applies the same analysis to foreign policy, yielding a much richer discussion on the issue than is present in The Elephant in the Room. Sullivan writes:

“But it was in foreign policy that the new conservatism made its most spectacular impression. The defining event of the Bush presidency was the mass murder of thousands of innocent civilians only eight months after George W. Bush took office. The administration’s response to that seismic event reveals both the strength and the weakness of the new politics of American fundamentalism.”

Sullivan acknowledges his own mistake in backing the Iraq war with too much passion and too little skepticism. And he provides a good catalog of administration mistakes growing out of the absolute certitude exhibited by the president’s team.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to equate religious fundamentalism, upon which Sullivan lavishes so much attention, and the Bush administration’s foreign policy. The only obvious religious “fundamentalist” involved in policymaking was the president. In contrast, Vice President Richard Cheney mixed personal certitude and ideological commitment to catastrophic effect. The gaggle of others who advocated, designed, and implemented the disaster known as Iraq – Kristol, Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, Feith, Cambone, Perle, Adelman, McCain, the Republican congressional leadership, many Democrats, the National Review crew, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial writers, American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution staffers, and many, many more – exhibited varying mixtures of personal, political, and theological hubris.

Sullivan’s answer is “the conservatism of doubt,” based on conservatives who know what they don’t know. That leads him to suggest sensible instincts – which obviously were not on display when he was cheerleading for war. The U.S. should be well-armed and well-prepared to defend itself, but should “eschew any grand notions of history or great crusades” while recognizing the complexity of the world, including “that in wartime, even the most careful plans can be upset by a collision with reality.” Perhaps most fundamental, contends Sullivan, “Conservatives, after all, hate war.”

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern conservatism is that, despite Sullivan’s statement, the movement no longer evidences much distaste of war. To the contrary, many leaders on the Right seem to minimize war, treating it as one of many tools appropriately used for even frivolous ends. Although Sullivan offers no detailed foreign policy alternative to Bush fundamentalism, his suggestion of practical doubt about the promises so often made by war supporters married to philosophical reluctance to loose the dogs of war would be one possible basis for a foreign policy fusionism in line with what Ryan Sager proposes on domestic policy.

Christian and even fundamentalist participation in politics today is problematic not because the theology of such people is necessarily bad, but because their philosophy of politics is bad. Ultimately, it is up to God, not government, to inaugurate his kingdom.

A much greater humility by Christians in politics is particularly warranted in the foreign policy realm. Too many evangelicals trusted George W. Bush because he was one of them. But he misused their trust, as an increasing number of believers appear to recognize. Rather than dwell on the past, we should focus on the future: never again. Never again should religious activists be able to seize control of the secular state to advance their personal religious beliefs.

Read more by Doug Bandow