A new book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell (which I haven’t read but is reviewed in Christianity Today), argues that social conservatism (i.e., the Religious Right) is “the application of natural law to politics — the self-evident truths of the Declaration — rather than as a political manifestation of religious revelation.” Bell apparently argues this way in order to counter the trend of evangelicals increasingly moving left. According to Andrew Walker, the reviewer, “Liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis insist that younger evangelicals have moved beyond abortion and gay marriage to matters of immigration and economic justice. Many mainstream Republicans complain that social conservatives hold the party hostage to a divisive agenda. Happy to court social conservative votes, they sweep social conservative causes under the political rug once victory has been attained.” Bell’s book, then, appears to be a way of rallying evangelicals to remain conservative. His reading of the Declaration of Independence, the British Enlightenment, and American politics all point to evangelical convictions as basic to the United States’ character.
The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions. In the antebellum era, appeals to natural rights could be used against states’ rights in order to assert one national norm and go around the powers of local governments. But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits. Pitting individual liberty against governmental regulation is not a conservative argument. In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.
For this reason, if Bell’s book gains traction among evangelicals it will further direct born-again Protestants from any sustained consideration of genuine American conservatism, the kind that takes seriously not some abstract rights of individuals in some nether world, state of nature, but the real laws and institutional arrangements that informed decisions to form a federated republic under the norms prescribed in a national constitution.
This is why it would be much better if evangelicals would turn to writers like Noah Millman, who blogs over at the American Conservative, and understands well the radicalism inherent in appeals to abstract ideals of individual liberty. In a post about the impossibility of religious liberty, he writes:
Winnifred Sullivan’s book argues, in a nutshell, that religious freedom, for individuals, means freedom from religious authority as well as freedom from governmental restriction on religious practice. So, you can’t ask a Catholic prelate whether this or that practice that the law would prohibit (say, putting statues on angels on graves, which is the main example in her book) is actually a formal part of Catholic religious practice, because the prelate has no standing, in a secular court, to rule on the question. If the grieving family feel that it’s an essential that Dad get guarded by a statue of an angel, then that’s their religious practice by definition, and if you want true freedom of religion you have to protect it. But this way, needless to say, lies chaos. Hence the impossibility of religious freedom.
In encourage people to read the book; a one-paragraph summary doesn’t do justice to the argument.
What I’ve argued in the past is that, regardless of where Constitutional doctrine winds up, we should strive to maximize (within reason) the zone of autonomy for religious institutions, because we should view that autonomy as a positive good, not as an absolute “right.” Hegemonic liberalism should be humble enough to accept that it doesn’t know the only ways of knowing, and that there is value, therefore, in having robust voices that claim other modes of knowledge – religious voices being preeminent examples.
Which is why I’ve argued simultaneously that I think the Constitutional objections to the HHS mandate don’t convince me, but that the mandate was a mistake – not a political mistake (it may or may not have been that as well) but a substantive policy mistake. Not because Catholics can’t freely practice their religion if the HHS mandate exists (they clearly can – indeed, it’s really easy to construct workarounds that don’t directly implicate the employer in providing the coverage, in which case I don’t see what the religious objection might be) but because we actively do want the Catholic Church out there living, in its institutions, a worldview with which the majority of the country disagrees, precisely because it has a long and profound history and the majority of the country disagrees with it. This is the kind of situation where “diversity is strength” has some actual meaning in the political ecology.
Important to note is the contrast Millman makes between individual and institutional freedoms. I agree with him that a true diversity would encourage greater resilience for church authorities like the Roman Catholic hierarchy and I would hope that such encouragement would extend to the assemblies and synods of Reformed and Presbyterian communions. But what is striking is that the protection of religious liberties for individuals is a very different matter than such protection for religious institutions.
The reason that evangelicals do not see this distinction, or use it in their political reflections, I suppose, is that their religious devotion is largely personal and individual — the believer’s experience — and not institutional or under the oversight and norms of an ecclesiastical body. It is no wonder, then, that evangelicals, long on individualism and short on ecclesiology, will try to find roots for social conservatism in a document that has no legal standing in America’s laws and that celebrates the individual (at least for a few lines).