Ethics & Public Policy Center

Remarks by Wilfred McClay: American Culture and the Presidency


American Culture and the Presidency

George W. Bush’s Evangelical Conservatism:

Or, How the Republicans Became Red

 Wednesday, February, 23, 2005

 

American Culture and Democracy: Fall 2004 Lecture Series

To hear an audio version of this lecture, including the subsequent Q&A, click here.

 

Wilfred M. McClay

Wilfred McClay: Thank you very much, Ed, and good evening to all of you. I am glad that we were finally able to hold this lecture, after being defeated twice in our earlier attempts. The delay probably has worked to my advantage, since the more distance that’s put between me and the other speakers in this series, the less I will suffer by comparison to them. It is indeed a daunting matter to have to follow on after Justice Scalia, Richard Neuhaus, Hadley Arkes, Bill Kristol, Eric Cohen, and so on. At least this way, I don’t have to follow them in close-order drill, but more as a straggler bringing up the rear.

One other advantage of delay — though a mixed advantage to be sure — is that I was able to keep on gathering material and rethinking this talk. That has meant its becoming transmuted into something a little different from what I set out to do at first. I was initially drawn to think about the role played by the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son — which is, in my opinion, one of the deepest and most thoroughly ingrained moral patternings in our redemption-haunted culture — with particular reference to the personae and public perceptions not only of President Bush and his opponent in the 2004 presidential campaign, but of Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and the whole succession of modern, highly personalized American presidencies. For what it is worth, I planned to argue that John Kerry would likely lose the election because he — unlike Bush, and unlike Clinton before him — did not know how to join the story of his own life, with its twists and turns, to that deeply American, and deeply Biblical, story of the Prodigal Son — a story that, in a sense, can be said to encapsulate many of the essentials of the Christian faith, particularly in its evangelical Protestant form. Since it is no great achievement to predict an event that has already happened, I obviously won’t pursue that same line of inquiry. But the larger question of the role of certain deep stories in providing our culture with an enduring account of itself, an account that structures our political and moral imaginations, remains central to what I want to talk about tonight.

There is always a temptation to be entirely topical and present-minded in approaching such a subject, finding dramatic changes in the flow of current events. Certainly President Bush’s extraordinary Second Inaugural Address and subsequent State of the Union Address, both barely a month ago, continue to reverberate in Washington and the country, and their contents and effects form a natural part of my subject. But the matters I want to address are longer-term in their gestation and development, and in no way dependent on these two remarkable speeches and their after-effects. In fact, I’d contend that anyone who has been paying attention to the public words of George W. Bush already knew that these speeches did not contain a great deal that was entirely new. I say that not to be dismissive, but simply to emphasize the consistency in the President’s long-term direction. Take for example the National Security Strategy of the United States, promulgated in September 2002. Judging from the reporting on it, you would think there was nothing much of interest about it, aside from the section on preemptive warfare. But it is absolutely clear, from the start, in basing itself on “a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests,” that aims to “make the world not just safer but better” by promoting political and economic freedom, and that insists “America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.” All these rather sweeping and significant statements went largely unnoticed amid the frenzy over the document’s discussion of preemption. But they were there, and very prominently so.

What I want to look at is, specifically, how the administration of George W. Bush seems to have marked a sea change in the evolution of Republican politics, in conservatism, in the present and future alignment of our political parties and ideologies, and the role of religion in our public discourse and public action. In addition, however, I want to talk about the ways that, taking a longer-range historical view, what looks like a sea change may in fact merely be the process of this administration and the political party it leads rejoining itself, consciously or not, to certain longer traditions of American political and social reform. And I will also want to ask, in the end, whether these changes or reorientations are entirely a good thing, or whether there are aspects of them that should give pause to Americans in general, and to conservative Americans and evangelical Americans in particular.

*****

Let me ease into the subject with an anecdote, meant to illuminate the meaning of my subtitle. Toward the end of April in 2001, I found myself on a business trip to New York, and thought that I would use the occasion to have lunch with a friend, one of those people one deals with for years by phone and email without ever having met in the flesh. I should add, too that this was and is someone with her feet planted firmly and intransigently on the political Left, with the most dismissive and contemptuous attitude imaginable toward Republicans in general and George W. Bush in particular — but an otherwise charming and intelligent person who tolerates me as a harmless eccentric. We arranged to meet for lunch at a little place off Union Square. After we’d firmed up the arrangements by phone, she concluded with the following instruction: “Now remember, it’ll be May Day, so be sure to wear a red tie.”

Not wishing to offend, I obliged. But I wondered at the request, which struck me as a bit absurd. I thought I detected in it the scent of nostalgia for a bygone era. It was as if we were still living in those heady days when a May Day visit to Union Square might mean an encounter with fiery labor organizers, or German-speaking radical anarchists, or a garment-workers’ rally — or maybe an earnest, rousing speech by Eugene Debs or Emma Goldman or Norman Thomas — instead of an encounter with a swarming beehive of commercial activity, around a Square which now offers the full array of franchise outlets that one would likely find anyplace else in America — Staples, Barnes and Noble, CVS pharmacy, and so on — all accompanied by the deafening noise of seemingly incessant construction. And I somehow doubt that “Red Emma,” were she to show up, would regard my red tie as a very impressive sign of my solidarity with the workers of the world.

I can understand a certain nostalgia for the Left’s glory days — for a time when there was still a plausible sense that it was the Left that stood for the common man and the human prospect, over against the dehumanizing forces of industrialism and finance capitalism and murderous nation-state rivalries and militarism and racial subordination and class arrogance and massive economic inequality, and all the other evils in the long parade of human folly. I’m far from immune to the pull of such concerns myself, as I think many decent people find themselves. It seems to be an especially bitter experience for those who have experienced such glory days to realize that times change and one can’t draw on their moral and intellectual capital forever, which may explain why that realization has been so slow in coming to the aging leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Vietnam-era boomers who currently dominate the major media and the universities.

But how, I wondered, could anyone who had just lived through the 2000 presidential election, and its endless maps of America by state and county, still associate the color “red” with the Left? Particularly when, nearly four years later, after another presidential election and after exposure to another endless succession of maps, the association of “red” and “Republican” seems to have become firmly rooted in our discourse, embraced by both parties. Now we are even treated to learned disquisitions by intrepid reporters from our major daily papers who have donned their pith helmets and ventured out into the far hinterlands, trying to find and comprehend the inner essence of that exotic thing, Red America.

Someday the precise story will be told, by a historian more patient than I, of how the Republican party came to be assigned the color “red” in the mapping of the 2000 electoral results. From what little I have been able to determine, the change seems to have happened gradually, and with no visible conscious intent, and considerable inconsistency along the way. As recently as the 1980 election, the late David Brinkley, then still an anchor at NBC News, was drolly comparing the map representing Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory to a suburban swimming pool — solid blue, in other words. Time magazine somewhat more generously referred to the 1980 map as “Lake Reagan,” and stuck with a blue-Republican and red-Democratic scheme all through the 1990s. Other networks and news outlets used different color schemes during those years, sometimes replacing blue with white, and even reversing the coloration more or less at will. (I distinctly remember watching the 1980 returns on ABC, and hearing Frank Reynolds turn to Ted Koppel and say, “The country’s going Red, Ted!”)

How and why most of the major media outlets (with the exception of Time) fixed upon the red-Republican and blue-Democratic schema in 2000 remains somewhat mysterious. When a New York Times graphics editor was asked for his paper’s rationale, he responded simply that “both Republican and red start with the letter R.” So chalk one up for Sesame Street.

Of course, for anyone who knows even a smattering of modern European history, this is a truly an astonishing turn of events, whose significance is only barely hinted at by Frank Reynolds’s wisecrack. It’s amazing how willing the democratic Left has been to acquiesce in the loss of one of its most permanent, most universal, and most beloved symbols — the color Red — without serious protest. I am not talking here about yielding some of the more or less primordial symbolic meanings ascribed to Red, though those too would seem to be worth hanging on to. Red is the color of life, of love and fidelity, of warmth, of emotional intensity, of power and grandeur. Any political movement or party worth its salt would like to lay claim to such things. But I am thinking more specifically of the political meanings of Red, which may draw upon these more primordial meanings, but also link them to specific historical events and causes and traditions and aspirations. We Americans tend to think, in our own times, of Red in this sense referring exclusively to the history of Communism, but that is a vast oversimplification. Let me be clear in what I’m saying here. I don’t want to be associated with the view that Communism was merely “liberalism in a hurry.” But by the same token, I do want to insist that the range of historical referents to Red would be better described as different expressions of an energetic and idea-driven commitment to systemic progressive reform, expressions that can and do vary widely in the extent of their liberalism or illiberalism, but that have in common a commitment to the general cause of human freedom and human liberation.

Those political meanings of Red emerged fully in the French Revolution of 1848, when socialists and radical republicans adopted the red flag as a symbol of their cause, in contrast to the white flag of the Bourbon monarchists and the more moderate tricolor flag of the liberal Second Republic. From then on, the red flag became firmly associated in French political culture with the progressive socialist cause. Later the softer and more humane image of the red rose would be adopted as a symbol of the French Socialist Party, and was used to especially good public effect in recent memory by Francois Mitterrand. Its enduring power was manifest at Mitterrand’s funeral nine years ago, when throngs of mourners arrived at the Notre Dame Cathedral bearing red roses in their hands.

Similarly, the British Labor Party used a red flag, followed by a red rose, as its symbols. The party early on adopted as its anthem the song “The Red Flag,” which describes the “scarlet standard” as “the people’s flag,” “the hope of peace,” the banner and symbol of “human right and human gain.” Similarly, the color Red (and usually also the red rose) is strongly associated with the Australian Labor Party, the Canadian Liberal Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the Dutch Socialist Party, the Party of European Socialists (located in Brussels) and the Socialist International. Just out of curiosity, I paid a visit to the current websites of each of these organizations, and believe me, you have never seen so much red, and especially so many red roses, outside of the city of Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

So there is a strong and enduring historical association, at least within modern European political culture, between the color Red and the most strongly progressivist, activist, reformist movements in European political life. But, you may well be asking, so what? This is all very interesting, I suppose, but what earthly difference does it make, so far as the United States and the Republican Party are concerned? Isn’t it possible, for example, that American disregard for European color rules is precisely a sign of our superiority, and our exceptionalism?

A reasonable question. My answer would be this. The mutation in the political meaning assigned to the color Red in America seems to have come about largely by chance and careless inattention. Nobody — not even the devious, all-knowing, and all-powerful Karl Rove — sought to induce or manipulate this change. But I believe one can make a very strong and suggestive argument that, in fact, this shift in symbolic meaning, even if entirely unintended, is extraordinarily meaningful, and fits in utterly unexpected ways with the historical situation in which we find ourselves. Hegel spoke of the “cunning of reason” in history, a term that indicated the ways in which the concatenation of seeming coincidences and random irrational events in history ends up furthering the cause of great, consequential, and intelligible change. Just such cunning may in fact be in evidence in this instance.

What I am saying, then, is that there is a sense — a limited sense, but a real sense — in which the Republican Party of George W. Bush has indeed “become Red” — if by “being Red” one means, rather than being the standard bearer for the specific agenda of socialism, instead standing for a grand commitment to the furtherance of certain high ideals and goals, an agenda of progressive reform meant not merely for the sake of the nation, but for the general good of humanity. Such are precisely the sort of larger causes that socialism nearly always has championed. But they can no longer be regarded as the exclusive property of socialism, or more generally of the Left. Bush’s administration may well represent the culmination of a change that has been in the works for a quarter-century or so — perhaps dating back to the days of Reagan, who loved to quote one of the quintessential Red thinkers, Thomas Paine — an effort to capture the mantle of progressive change for the benefit of the conservative party. These efforts have not been a notable success in the past, and even the most plausible of them, Newt Gingrich’s notion of a “conservative opportunity society,” foundered on the rocks of its creator’s problematic persona. Yet it may be clear to future historians that events of the past quarter-century have slowly been weaving a possible new guiding narrative for the Republican party.

As a result, it entirely plausible, I think, for Republicans to assert that the conservative party in America today is the party of progress, of human liberation, of national and international purpose. And Democrats who snicker at such an assertion do so at their own risk, for it is even more plausible to state that the liberal party is the party of opposition to change — the party of entrenched interests, of public bureaucracies and public-employee unions and identity-politics lobbies, the party that opposes tax reform, opposes tort reform, opposes educational reform, opposes Social Security reform, opposes military reform, opposes the revisiting of Supreme Court rulings, opposes the projection of American power overseas, opposes the work of Christian missionaries, opposes public accountability for the work of the scientific research community, opposes anything that offends the sensibilities of the European Union and the United Nations, and so on. Indeed, there are times when it seems they are on the verge of adopting the National Review’s famous slogan, about standing athwart history and yelling “Stop.”

Now some of these things may be worth opposing, and I am not here this evening to endorse or condemn the whole slate of either party. But it seems clear that such a shift of party identities may now be upon us, and that the shift of the color Red to the Republican side may provide an interesting symbolic representation of it.

Clearly, too, as a corollary to the above, one would want to point out that Bush came to this position from a route entirely distinct from the route taken by European socialists. The influences on his thinking are various, of course. As an American, he is heir to the traditional American commitment to the concept of universal natural rights that permeates certain documents of the nation’s founding, and the struggles and travails of its subsequent history. Such sentiments are not unheard of in the party of Lincoln, and Bush, though a proud Texan, seems to have had almost no attraction to the vestiges of traditionalist Southern conservatism. And I don’t doubt for a minute that Bush has been greatly influenced by the neoconservative advisors and theorists in his administration, whose advocacy for the preemptive use of force, democratic nation-building, and the active use of American power in pursuit of a universal human-rights agenda dovetails so well with many of his own instincts (even if they also represent a departure from avowed positions of the 2000 campaign).

But to stress these things is to leave out the key element driving Bush’s moral agenda, which has taken on growing saliency in his administration since 9/11, but was there to see all along for those with eyes to see, going back to his days as governor of Texas. And that is its grounding in Bush’s evangelical Protestantism. It is his evangelicalism that has broadened and softened his younger tendencies toward harder-edged oil-and-gas business conservatism, fired his moral concerns, given him a sense of political mission, and given him the energy, force, and staying power to pursue it. Many of the very positions that make some of his fellow conservatives suspicious of Bush — his “compassionate conservatism,” his relatively favorable view of many Federal social and educational programs, his sensitivity to issues of racial injustice and reconciliation, his softness on immigration issues, his promotion of the faith-based initiative, his concern with issues of international religious liberty, his African AIDS initiative, and above all, his enormously ambitious, even seemingly utopian, foreign-policy objectives — are positions that are best explained by the effects of his evangelical Christian convictions, and by his willingness to allow those convictions to trump more conventional conservative positions. It is strange that, of all the things liberals loathe about Bush, his religion seems to be at the top of the list. For it is precisely the seriousness of Bush’s commitment to his evangelical faith that has made him more “liberal,” in a certain sense, than many of his party brethren.

It is, then, quite legitimate to ask whether Bush is even rightly understood as a conservative. Clearly, this question can involve us in an endless semantic game, and I don’t want to spend our time doing that. But the fundamental dynamic at work is, I think, pretty clear. Although many secular observers seem not to understand this, evangelicalism, by its very nature, has an uneasy relationship with conservatism. To call someone both an evangelical and a conservative, then, while it is not to utter a contradiction, is to call him something slightly more problematic than one may think. Of course this is, or should be, true of all Christians, who have transcendental loyalties that must sometimes override their political commitments, even very fundamental ones. But it is especially true of evangelicalism. As a faith that revolves around the experience of individual transformation, it inevitably exists in tension with settled ways, established social hierarchies, customary usages, and entrenched institutional forms. Because evangelicalism places such powerful emphasis upon the individual act of conversion, and insists upon the individual’s ability to have a personal and unmediated relationship to the Deity and to the Holy Scriptures, it fits well with the American tendency to treat all existing institutions, even the church itself, as if their existence and authority were provisional and subordinate, merely serving as a vehicle for the proclamation of the Gospel and the achievement of a richer and more vibrant individual faith. As such, then, evangelicalism, at least in its most high-octane form, may not always be very friendly to any settled institutional status quo. In the great revivals of earlier American history, it nearly always served to divide churches and undermine established hierarchies, a powerful force for what Nathan Hatch called “the democratization of American Christianity.”

True, evangelicalism can also be a force of moral conservatism, in insisting upon the permanence of certain moral and ethical desiderata, particularly if those are clearly stated in the Bible. But it can also be a force of profound moral radicalism, calling into question the justice and equity of the most fundamental structures of social life, and doing so from a firm vantage point outside those structures. David Chappell’s excellent recent book on the Civil Rights Movement, A Stone of Hope, very effectively made the point that it was the power of prophetic evangelical Christianity that energized the Civil Rights Movement and gave southern blacks the courage and fortitude to challenge the existing segregationist social order. And one could say similar things about many of the great nineteenth-century American movements for social reform, notably abolitionism, a rather unpopular cause in its day which would have made little headway without the fervent commitment of evangelical Protestants who believed the country was being polluted and degraded by the continued existence of slavery.

I am not claiming that Bush is a radical reformer. I don’t think anyone, other than an opponent straining for partisan advantage, would do that. But I am pointing out that the religious vision that energizes him is not always compatible with conservatism as conventionally understood, and may not, in the long run, be easily contained or constrained by it. Yes, Bush is a conservative, but he is a conservative whose conservatism has been continuously informed, leavened, challenged, reshaped, and reoriented by his religious convictions; and many of his closest aides and advisors have undergone a similar process. To capture this distinctive, I’m going to use the term “evangelical conservatism” to describe his position. I should hasten to add that there is a very great difference between “evangelical conservatism” and “conservative evangelicalism,” the latter of which refers to a theologically conservative position which may or may not translate into conservative political views. What I’m calling “evangelical conservatism” is better understood as a form of conservatism, then, and not as a form of evangelicalism — a political, rather than a theological, term.

The question remains as to whether or not Bush’s evangelical conservatism is still conservatism at all, or rather a departure from conservatism, and if so, whether it is a wise, coherent, or justifiable one. That is an interesting question. But it might be better first to ask whether what I am calling “evangelical conservatism” amount to little more than a strange little blip on the screen of American history, the latest flavor in reformism, a mere passing reflection of the idiosyncrasies of one man — or whether instead it finds echoes, in the form of antecedents and precedents, in the American past. As the historian Ronald G. Walters sadly observes in his history of reform movements in antebellum America, nothing so characterizes the history of American reform as its discontinuities, its inability to build traditions and institutions that can stretch across the generations. But this need not be the case. The historical record itself suggests that Bush’s evangelical conservatism, rather than being a radical innovation, may represent the recovery of a once well-established, and distinctively American, approach to social and political reform.

*****

The specifically evangelical tinge to Bush’s conservatism is equally visible in both his domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, one could argue that — within the limits that political prudence and expediency always place upon ideological consistency — these two aspects of policy form something of a seamless web. And the principle that unifies them is the characteristically evangelical emphasis upon the ultimate value of the self-governing individual. The administration’s zeal for the promotion of freedom, and particularly for the causes of global human rights and religious liberty, clearly owes a great deal to the moral influence of evangelical Christians (and also certain very committed secular Jews, such as Abe Rosenthal and Michael Horowitz, who have taken a powerful interest in the cause of religious liberty). And its domestic conception of the “ownership society,” which is a further elaboration of ideas that were already adumbrated in the “compassionate conservatism” that Bush advanced as governor of Texas and in his 2000 campaign, is also aimed at the formation and empowerment of self-governing individuals. Both depend upon a certain anthropology of the human person, a constrained individualism which understands human flourishing as requiring both the political and social freedom to pursue the good, and the moral discipline to live responsibly within the constraints that reflect the highest properties of human nature. Self-government is not possible under the yoke of political or religious tyranny. But neither is it possible in a world in which the formation of character is ignored, and the linkage between our efforts and our results is erased. Hence the two facets of the Bush agenda are conjoined.

Such a formulation bears a strong resemblance to the outlook of so much nineteenth-century American reform, which held up as a social ideal the freely choosing individual who was constrained (and thereby made genuinely free) by the disciplining influences of education, religion, and formative moral training. From the time of the Founding up to the end of the 19thcentury, the ultimate goal of social reform was the creation of the optimal conditions for what historian Daniel Walker Howe calls “the construction of the self.”. It was an era that still unabashedly extolled the “self-made” man, in which “self-improvement” was regarded as a moral imperative, and in which the concept of “individualism” was not understood as a synonym for narcissism or footloose irresponsibility, but rather as a highly desirable condition — a condition, though, which could NOT be properly understood or sustained apart from the existence of an objective moral order. And it was not enough for those constraints to be applied externally, like so many fences and leashes. They needed to be completely internalized as well. The responsible democratic self would need the help of institutions — family, church, neighborhood, and polity — with an interest in character formation. But the goal was not to remain in a state of tutelage, but to become transformed internally in the direction of self-sufficency, and thereby become more or less autonomous or self-constrained.

The relationship between the self-governing polity and the self-governing soul appears again and again — for example, in the thought of public-education pioneer Horace Mann, who saw the role of education as that of implanting the tools of self-regulation, so that naturally anarchic individuals would be fit for the task of self-control and self-direction. The clergyman William Ellery Channing, whose 1838 lecture “Self-Culture” became a classic brief for the endless human capacity for self-improvement, argued that God had endowed the human race with the extraordinary power “of acting on, determining, and forming ourselves.” One could argue that neither of these men was, in the strictest sense, an evangelical. But in this respect, there was little difference between them and their contemporaries, such as the arch-evangelical Charles Grandison Finney. As historian Daniel Walker Howe has put it, the essence of the evangelical commitment was that it was “undertaken voluntarily, consciously, and responsibly, by the individual for himself or herself,” by those “who have consciously decided to take charge of their own lives and identities,” and who are willing to embrace a discipline that is “at one and the same time liberating and restrictive.”

This ideal of the self-governing individual stands behind many of the great reform movements of pre-Civil War America — temperance, women’s rights, health faddism, and of course, antislavery. That ideal is at the heart of the evangelical-Protestant moral critique of slavery. Slavery was a systemic affront to the ideal of self-governance. It not only prevented slaves from being self-governing and fully realized individuals. It just as surely prevented masters from achieving that same status. It corrupted both, and in the process had a corrupting effect upon all that came into contact with them, a contention that the economically backward state of the South seem to prove. This was a critique that, of course, went back as far as Thomas Jefferson’sNotes on the State of Virginia, but it took a religious movement to provide the energy to act on it.

It would take a lecture longer than this already over-long one to trace the ways that this 19th-century Whig-evangelical model of social reform through individual transformation under the tutelage of morally authoritative institutions came to be supplanted by philosophies of reform that dealt in the behavior of social aggregates rather than the reformation of individual hearts and minds. But it is certainly seemed clear, by the end of the 1970s or so, those approaches had fallen far short of unambiguous success; and with the sweeping welfare-reform measures of a decade ago, Federal social policy has begun to reject approaches to social reform that fail to take into account the dynamics of individual character formation. This is clearly where Bush’s heart is, and in that sense, his approach picks back up where the reformers of the 19th century left off. Here too, one can see how his own perspective dovetails so nicely with that of neoconservative critics of the welfare state, but even so is different, given its roots in a certain religious anthropology.

*****

It may be that I’m failing to give adequate attention to the other side of the story here. Which is to say that the Republicans have become Red less because of their strengths than because of the Democrats’ weaknesses. Something like that analysis is put forward, in the most compelling form I’ve yet seen, by Martin Peretz in the current issue of the New Republic, in an extremely intelligent article titled “Not Much Left.” Liberals, he argues, find themselves today where conservatives were a half-century ago, without ideas, without a vision of the good society, bookless, forced to feed on stale ideas from the 60s, and therefore, dying.

I think there is considerable merit in Peretz’s analysis, and I think the appalling situation currently unfolding at Harvard is a window onto why the absence of fresh ideas on the Left may be a much more difficult problem to solve than even he posits. Conservatives had the benefit, in retrospect, of being in the wilderness, and having to invent and sustain their own institutions. The Left might be far better off, in the long run, if it didn’t have the Harvards of the world in its pocket, because it might be less inclined to control discourse rather than stimulate it.

But there’s one thing that Peretz mentions in passing that also summarizes what makes me uneasy about the Bush agenda, and it’s packed into one sentence: “The most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke and listened, perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature.” One could say the same about the older conservatism, which also once found Niebuhr a compelling figure but now finds it easy to dismiss him.

There is not much of Niebuhr, or original sin, or any other form of Calvinist severity, in the current outlook of the Bush administration. That too is a reflection of the optimistic character of American evangelicalism, and therefore of evangelical conservatism. It certainly reflects the preference of the American electorate, which does not like to hear bad news, a fact that is surely one of the deep and eternal challenges to democratic statesmanship. And it is, by and large, an appropriate way for good leaders to behave. It is, in some respects, a political strength.

But conservatism will be like the salt that has lost its savor, if it abandons its most fundamental mission — which is to remind us of what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision” of human existence, which sees life as a struggle, with invariably mixed outcomes, full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible people, a world in which the legacy of the past is usually more reliable than the projections of the future. As the example of Niebuhr suggests, such a vision need not reject the possibility of human progress altogether — which, by the way, has never been characteristic of traditional conservatism either, from Edmund Burke on. But it does suggest that it is sometimes wise to adopt, so to speak, a darker shade of red, one that sees the hand of Providence in our reversals as well as our triumphs. To do so is as needful for American evangelicalism as for American politics.

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