The Morphing of The Amercan Right. From Burke and Buckley to Baptists and Falwell


While discussing the general state of affairs in this country in chat the other night, I was given a link to an article in Salon by Michael Lind on The American Right. A kind of later 20th century history of sorts that is rather insightful, at least to me.  According to Lind, conservatism in the US was not originally enmeshed with fundamentalist religion as it is now. Here is what he says on the matter.

Following World War II, the American right was a miscellany of marginal, embittered subcultures — anti-New Dealers, isolationists, paranoid anticommunists, anti-semites and white supremacists. Russell Kirk and others associated with William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review sought to Americanize a version of high-toned British Burkean conservatism. While the eighteenth century British parliamentarian was embraced by conservatives for his opposition to the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, a champion of the rights of Britain’s Indian, Irish and American subjects, could also be claimed by liberals like Yale Law School’s Alexander Bickel, who preferred gradual, cautious reform to radical social experimentation. In its liberal as in its conservative forms, Burkeanism disdains reaction and radicalism alike, and favors change in lesser things when necessary to maintain the continuity of more fundamental institutions and values.

The religious equivalent of Burkean politics is orthodoxy, not fundamentalism. Orthodoxy means the continuity of a tradition, as interpreted by an authoritative body of experts, such as priests, rabbis or mullahs. The term “fundamentalism” originated in the early twentieth century as a description of reactionary evangelical Protestants in the U.S. who rejected liberal Protestantism and modern evolutionary science and insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible. The phrase is nowadays applied indiscriminately and often inaccurately to various religious movements, some of which, in the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim traditions are better described as ultra-orthodox.

 

In other words it was more of a rational approach to conservatism that was more centrist and down to earth.  When the South abandoned the Democratic Party over civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War and became solid Republican, this Orthodoxy was replaced by the fundamentalism of the Southern Baptists and other fundamentalist churches.

America’s Burkean conservatives like Kirk tended to favor Catholicism or the Anglo-Catholic school within the Anglican church. For them, establishment and hierarchy were terms of praise. But once white Southerners captured the Republican party and the conservative movement, the High Church right that found Kirk and Buckley among its college of cardinals gave way to the political equivalent of the Foot-Washin’ Baptists.

Today Protestant fundamentalism is associated with the Scots-Irish in the Bible Belt from West Virginia to Texas, but its ancestry lies in now-secular New England and the Midwest and it migrated southward only after the Civil War. As Burke observed at the time of the American revolution:

   “All Protestantism…is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance: it is the dissidence of dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.”

It is also the populism of Populism. As an intermediary between the soul and God, the church hierarchy has been all but replaced by the Bible in fundamentalist Protestantism. Nor is there any need for theologians to expound the Bible, which was conveniently written in English so that it can be understood by any plain American.

The increasingly-Southernized American Right has transferred the fundamentalist Protestant mentality from the sphere of religion to the spheres of law and the economy. Protestant fundamentalism is now joined by constitutional fundamentalism and market fundamentalism.

With religious Orthodoxy being replaced by fundamentalism, so to was financial Orthodoxy being replace by market fundamentalism.

The increasingly-Southernized American Right has transferred the fundamentalist Protestant mentality from the sphere of religion to the spheres of law and the economy. Protestant fundamentalism is now joined by constitutional fundamentalism and market fundamentalism.

In all three cases, the pattern is the same. There is the eternal Truth that never varies — the will of God, the principles of the Founding Fathers, the so-called laws of the free market. There are the scriptures which explain the eternal truths — the King James Bible, in the case of religious fundamentalism, the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, in the case of constitutional fundamentalism, and Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the case of market fundamentalism (The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand can be substituted for Hayek, on request).

“There’s only one book you ever need to read,” a Bible-believin’ Texan Baptist once assured me. He was two books short of a populist conservative bookshelf. But in the age of post-intellectual, fundamentalist conservatism, three books are sufficient to make anyone the equal of the most erudite intellectual. The books need not actually be read, and for the most part probably are not; it is enough, in argument, to thump the Bible, and to thump “The Road to Serfdom” and “Atlas Shrugged,” too.

This fundamentalist approach to politics also replaced their main spokesmen with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Ed McAteer, founder of the Moral Majority.  But this market fundamentalism is as much a fantasy as their religious beliefs. Choosing to ignore those historical facts that contradict it the,  same as they choose to ignore certain parts of the Bible. Any Burkean conservative would not be caught dead aligning with their fundamentalist and libertarian views.

……Russell Kirk wrote that any true conservative would be a socialist before he would be a libertarian. But then he was a Burkean High Church conservative.

And the consequence of this is a total breakdown in political discourse. With the current conservatives being of the One True Religion.

The rise of triple fundamentalism on the American right creates a crisis of political discourse in the United States. Back when conservatism was orthodox and traditional, rather than fundamentalist and counter-revolutionary, conservatives could engage in friendly debates with liberals, and minds on both sides could now and then be changed. But if your sect alone understands the True Religion and the True Constitution and the Laws of the Market, then there is no point in debate. All those who disagree with you are heretics, to be defeated, whether or not they are converted.

This One True Religion approachto politics and economicsleaves progressives with a very difficult time dealing with them.

For their part, progressives have no idea of how to respond to the emergent right’s triple fundamentalism. Today it is the left, not the right, that is Burkean in America. Modern American liberalism is disillusioned, to the point of defeatism, by the frustration of the utopian hopes of 1960s liberalism in the Age of Reagan that followed and has not yet ended. Today it is liberals, not conservatives, who tend to be cautious and incremental and skeptical to a fault about the prospects for reform, while it is the right that wants to blow up the U.S. economy and start all over, on the basis of the doctrines of two Austrian professors and a Russian émigré novelist. Barack Obama, who would have flourished in an age when conservatives and liberals shared a common Burkean sensibility, finds himself as baffled and flustered by the tribunes of the Tea Party as Edmund Burke would have been by the young Marjoe Gortner.

This is the problem we currently face.  A group that is totally consumed – every thought – by a fanatical fundamentalist belief system that refuses to listen to anyone or anything that does not adhere to their ideological dogma.  That holds martyrdom in nearly as high esteem as some  fundamentalist Islamic sects and sees those who disagree as the enemy to be exterminated. You simply cannot think of these people that now make up conservative republicans in a rational way for they are nearly totally irrational.

Which also leads one to wonder how any of them can claim to care about anyone else – any other living thing – even their spouse and children, if they completely reject those who do not conform to their righteous standards.


 

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2 thoughts on “The Morphing of The Amercan Right. From Burke and Buckley to Baptists and Falwell

  1. Great street sign!

    I just wonder how many of these ‘followers’ ever took the time to actually read and attempt to understand the Bible or the Constitution or the…

    The Protestant of old was adamant that he did not need a Pope to tell him what the Bible really said, he did not need a King to tell him what the sacred Governmental papers said…and yet he needs that Pope under a different guise and he needs a King/Queen under a different guise to explain things he cannot really understand.

  2. I see little indication that religion or our constitution have a whole lot to do with much of anything nowadays. Sure there are the constant arguments about these things that have always been with us. But when you get right down to it everything is about money now. Politics and religion are only important to some. Nothing gets our attention and that of our lawmakers like money.

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