America’s Right (part 2)

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Robert Horwitz’s America’s Right describes how the power of the Tea Party in today’s Republican Party developed out of a long tradition of anti-establishment conservatism, a tradition with roots in economic objections to the New Deal and Cold War fears of communism. The social and economic problems that fractured the postwar liberal consensus in the 1960s and 70s generated two conservative movements that brought anti-establishment conservatism into the political mainstream, especially the Republican mainstream. These were the new religious right and neoconservatism.

The religious right

Sociologists have described a process of secularization whereby religion and other social institutions become increasingly distinct and independent, creating the modern “separation of church and state.” Many theorists have expected religion to decline in public importance, retreating more and more into the private sphere of life. This would mean, in the words of Hugh Heclo, that “politics should be conducted on the basis of public reason (in principle accessible to all citizens) and not on the basis of religiously revealed truths or religiously sectarian teachings.” Public policy would be based increasingly on rational arguments supported by facts rather than religious beliefs.

However, making religion irrelevant to public policy is not as easy as it may sound. At the very least, Christians have hoped that their religious values, including the value they place on religious and other forms of liberty, will provide a cultural framework within which public goals are pursued. In addition, modernist and traditionalist disagreements over how Christians should see the world have been very relevant to their attitudes toward the state. In this connection, Horwitz discusses the distinction between postmillennialist and premillennialist versions of evangelical Protestant theology. Both views looked forward to a thousand-year reign of Christ before the end of the world, although the number of years wasn’t always taken literally. Postmillennialists thought that the second coming of Christ could occur after Christians had created an era of goodness through their good works in the world. Premillennialists thought that Christ had to come before goodness could prevail. The first view supported a more optimistic, modernist approach to the world, associated with the Social Gospel movement to improve society, often through political reform. The second view supported a more pessimistic, traditionalist approach, one that encouraged withdrawal from a sinful world and reliance on God, not government. “Traditionalists viewed the Social Gospel’s emphasis on good works and serving the poor as undercutting the elemental concern for repentance from sin and the dependence on God’s grace.”

In the nineteenth century, John Nelson Darby expounded an influential version of premillennialist theology that remains popular to this day:

Darby described Christ’s second coming as at the end of an apocalyptic period of “tribulation,” a period of war, famine, and social chaos during the seven-year rule of the Antichrist. The final battle of Armageddon focuses on the Jews and takes place in the biblical land of Israel. As the “end-times” unfold, true Christian believers and innocents are pulled from earth to heaven in the “Rapture.” Following Armageddon, Christ returns to establish a kingdom in Jerusalem, where he will reign for a thousand years.

Evangelical conservatism was especially strong in the South, perhaps because abolitionism was one of those liberal social movements that appealed more to religious optimists. Southern preachers countered that with a Biblical justification of slavery. If God allows slavery, who are we to change it?

Religious conservatism can provide a rationale for disengagement from the evil world and its politics, but also at times encourage active engagement to counter perceived threats to Christian culture. After failing in the early twentieth century to stop the spread of modernism in many denominations, traditionalists left them to start their own more independent churches and schools. They also took to the airwaves, coming to dominate Christian radio and television. They became very engaged in the crusade against communism, and many of them also crusaded against civil rights legislation, which they saw as communist-inspired. In the 1960s and 70s, they reacted against the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, which they perceived as destroying the traditional Christian family. As the government increasingly declined to enforce Christian standards of behavior–by legalizing abortion, allowing pornography, and prohibiting prayer in public schools–hostility toward government grew.

Republican political operatives then saw an opportunity to recruit religious conservatives to their party. One of those operatives, Richard Viguerie, maintains that the issue that most helped him do so was the racial desegregation of private schools. Most of the private Christian schools had been created after the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, and in the 1970s, the IRS began denying tax exemptions to schools that still discriminated. Christian conservatives interpreted this as an assault on religious liberty.

Catholics had stronger ties to the Democratic Party than Protestants, since they were historically more urban and working-class, but they too had turned majority Republican by 1980. They shared certain moral concerns with Protestant conservatives, especially abortion, but they also responded to a second, somewhat less religious movement toward the right, which was neoconservatism.


The term “neoconservatism” is probably most associated today with the architects of the Iraq invasion within the George W. Bush administration, but it is a much broader and older movement. Horwitz distinguishes between two generations of neoconservatives. The first includes people like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. They had generally been supporters of liberal social reforms, but by the late 1960s they were becoming more pessimistic about government efforts like the War on Poverty. They began to emphasize the limits that the prevailing culture places on government. Moynihan, for example, argued that the matriarchal structure of the poor black family (strong mother, weak husband) was an obstacle to black advancement. [When he first made that argument he still believed that government income support could strengthen the black family, but he turned against such programs when he discovered that the support could enable some poor women to leave their husbands! Liberals wanted to keep the focus on fighting poverty, not promoting patriarchy.]

Part of the neoconservative critique of government social programs was the idea of the “New Class.” Max Schachtman had criticized the new class of self-serving bureaucrats that he believed had corrupted socialism in the Soviet Union. Neoconservatives now applied this pejorative term to the designers and implementers of federal social programs, who were allegedly doing more to create power and income for themselves than actually solve social problems. This fed the anti-establishment hostility toward the government “elite” who enrich themselves at the taxpayers’ expense, not to be confused with the hardworking business leaders who create real jobs and real economic value.

In foreign policy, neoconservatives reacted against the loss of the Vietnam War and the Democratic nomination of the peace candidate, George McGovern, in 1972. They called for strengthening the military to deal with the Soviet threat (later revealed to be greatly exaggerated), and considered the use of more aggressive tactics such as a nuclear first strike. When the Cold War ended with the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, “the first generation of neoconservatives…drifted back to a more reserved foreign policy realism and began to advocate a more modest American presence in the world.”

However, a second generation of neoconservatives, including such figures as Richard Perle, William Kristol, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz and Francis Fukuyama, responded to the end of the Cold War with a call for a more moralistic and idealistic foreign policy. America’s position as the sole remaining superpower was an opportunity to make the twenty-first century the “American Century,” bringing the benefits of American-style democracy to the rest of the world, by force if necessary.

In practical terms, this translated into calls for substantial increases in the military budget, support for missile defense systems, and a foreign policy dedicated to transformation, not coexistence; for “regime change,” not mere stability and containment; for an aggressive unipolar internationalism rather than a balance of power realism. The fall of the Soviet Union created the possibility of a unipolar peace, a Pax Americana. Because American interests were tied inextricably to universal liberal values, any transformation of bad political regimes was a blessing to the world as well as a benefit to the United States.

Both the religious right and neoconservatism expanded their control over the Republican Party from the 1970s to the 2000s, reaching their greatest influence to date in the presidency of George W. Bush. Views that had been anti-establishment became much more established. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Bush channeled popular anger into military actions he characterized as a war against an “axis of evil.” Horwitz points out this irony: early neoconservatives emphasized the limitations of government action to change our own society, but later neoconservatives made extravagant claims about the ability of our government to change other societies, such as Iraq. We couldn’t eliminate poverty at home, but a brief military intervention was all that was necessary for democracy to flower abroad. The results of the Iraq war were sobering in that respect.

Although neoconservatism is a much more secular movement than conservative Christianity, they do converge in certain respects:

More deeply, they share a utopian, dogmatic approach to the world: an insistence on the palpable, embodied existence of evil, a tendency to demonize Islam as an inherently violent religion, an unquestioning support of Israel, a hatred of liberals, an insistence on American exceptionalism, a conviction that American power can positively remake the Middle East, and an embrace of military force that reflects reverence for a particular version of masculinity and an impatience with ideas or positions that feel feminine. But these features are anathema to the give and take of democratic politics.

My final post on Horwitz’s book will describe the Tea Party in particular, and then discuss that last point. Anti-establishment conservatism is deeply rooted in our political and religious traditions. But how much power can it acquire before it becomes a danger to itself and to democracy?


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