Steven M. Warshawsky has a fascinating editorial on why the critiques of Christian conservatism misunderstand the nature of American conservatism. Warshawsky rebuts a piece by Christopher Orlet arguing that Religious Right is a negative force in the conservative movement. Warshawsky finds that argument less than persuasive:
At its most basic level, American conservatism aims at preserving what I will refer to as “the American tradition.” By this, conservatives generally mean the core values and principles upon which our nation was founded and prospered. Granted, there is room for debate here. However, I don’t see how Christianity can be excised from this equation. While we never have had a theocracy in the United States (despite what ignorant and hysterical people might say about George W. Bush), the Christian religion always has played an important role in the private — and public — lives of our people. As a conservative, despite being non-religious, I believe this role must be respected and preserved.
In my view, the attack on Christianity in this country (like the attack on capitalism) is contrary to the American tradition. It was not until after World War Two, and especially during the 1960s, that American elites started to cast a jaundiced eye toward the role that religion played in American life. Perhaps the watershed moment was in 1962, in the Engle v. Vitale case, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that reciting a nondenominational prayer in public school violated the First Amendment. To borrow a line from Jay Nordlinger of National Review, I refuse to accept the notion that for our entire history prior to the 1960s, the American people were living in violation of the Constitution. This is a preposterous idea. Yet this is the direction we have been moving ever since when it comes to matters of religion.
Historically, he’s right. The American experience has been shaped by Christian thought from the very beginning. The revisionism that the Founders were somehow trying to create an atheistic state only holds if one ignores their own writings, thoughts, and actions. The United States was founded as an inclusive society that was nevertheless built upon a foundation of Christian thought — or at the very least thought which was deeply inspired by Christian principles.
To try to ignore or wipe away that tradition is to erase one of the foundations of American political thought. Using such cheap slurs as “Christianist” to describe a large swath of the American electorate won’t advance the conservative movement, but alienate its core. By the definitions of that term offered, the abolitionist movement would have been a “theocratic” movement attempting to force Christian views down the throat of the American people. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been a “Christofascist theocrat” for trying to make the American people adhere to Biblical principles. To argue that people justifying policy based on Judeo-Christian values is an affront to American constitutionalism is not an argument that can be reasonably justified in American political history.
The often-shrill attacks on religion ignore the truth that American culture is deeply tied with the Christian tradition, and trying to isolate those two strands cuts against grain of American history. Ultimately, such rhetoric alienates more people than it attracts. If conservatism is to continue to succeed as a political movement, it cannot do so by turning its back on its own first principles. Conservatism is an open movement — certainly there is more than enough room for Jews, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and others. However, to argue that the conservative movement should not celebrate or even acknowledge its Christian influences is to deny some of the core principles of the movement.
As Warshawsky astutely observes:
Orlet, like so many other critics of the Religious Right, fundamentally fails to account for the central role of Christianity in Western and American history. Most, if not all, of the values and principles that we hold dear — the dignity of the individual, freedom of conscience, political and economic liberty, representative government, and so on — are inextricably intertwined with the Christian culture that produced, developed, and/or sustained them. Sure, there were other cultural sources and influences that played important roles. But to suggest, as Orlet does, that ancient Greek and Roman civilization, let alone the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Babylon, played as great a role as Christianity is, quite frankly, ridiculous. To see the main roots of our culture in ancient civilizations that ended thousands of years ago — instead of in the religious and philosophical framework that has dominated the West for the past 1,000+ years — is to abuse history and defy logic.
While we owe much to the Greeks and to the Romans, our most important forebearers were the thinkers of the Christian Enlightenment. What conservatism seeks to conserve is an idea, revolutionary today as it was then, that God has given us inalienable rights which no government has the right to touch. The reason why we are free and prosperous today is precisely because of the negative liberties of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We do not have freedom of speech because the State deigns to grant it to us, we have freedom of speech and the State may only infringe upon that innate right when it acts to protect others from harm. We have a right to equal justice under law not because the State says we do, but because one of the first principles of our Founding was that every man, saint or sinner, is equal in the eyes of God.
We needn’t apologize for those principles, nor should we. If that be “theocracy” than America has always been a theocracy. Clearly it is not. Our values inform who we are, and more importantly they inform the principles upon which the problems of our time may be solved. We cannot turn our back upon them without turning our back on ourselves. The values of the Christian Enlightenment are American values, to the benefit of all, and they are values worth defending and enshrining even today.