Bush: Evangelical conservative… or blue-blood moderate

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Written By Red Phillips

Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, recently wrote a column for American Enterprise Online in which he attempted to explain President Bush’s unique brand of conservatism. In the wake of the failed Meirs’ nomination, out of control Katrina spending and our hemorrhaging borders to name just a few of Bush’s conservative transgressions, many previously loyal conservative Bush supporters, or at least those previously willing to suffer in silence, have now made public their unhappiness with Bush’s many betrayals. Professor Knippenberg mentions, for example, four new critics who have joined the fray, Robert Bork, the Claremont Institute’s Charles Kesler, Poweline’s Paul Mirengoff, and National Reviews Jonah Goldberg. (Mr. Goldberg’s comments are more of an attempted explanation than a real critique as he seems, not surprisingly for those familiar with his writing, more sympathetic to Bush’s moderation than the others.)

Bush’s new critics suggest alternately, but not necessarily mutually exclusively, that Bush was never really that conservative to begin with, that his “compassion” trumps his conservatism, that he is guided more by pragmatism than ideology, or that his Christian beliefs modify his conservatism. All of these suggestions have some merit. Professor Knippenberg, however, latches onto the religious explanation for Bush’s brand of “compassionate” conservatism. He calls it, in the words of Wilfred McClay, “evangelical conservatism.” He suggests that Bush’s less than hard line stance on immigration and affirmative action, for example, as well as his willingness to increase expenditures for AIDS, education, prescription drugs, etc. are a reflection of a conservatism that is heavily tempered by his Christian concern for humanity and goodwill.

You have to give it to Professor Knippenberg. He is trying very hard to portray Bush’s actions in the best possible light. It is much harder to fault Bush, even if he is wrong, if we believe his actions are guided by a sincere but mistaken application of Christianity to his political beliefs. But this explanation stretches the benefit of the doubt well past the breaking point. While I recognize there is some danger in a novice armchair pundit like myself challenging the conclusion of a professor of politics, I think his explanation is fanciful at best.

Is Bush Really an Evangelical?

Let me make it clear that I do not question the sincerity of President Bush’s profession of faith. The state of his immortal soul is between him and God. I am, however, highly skeptical of any claim that Bush acts the way he does politically primarily because he is guided by Christian principles. I believe there is a much more plausible explanation, one that suggests to the contrary that Bush is, in fact, hostile to faith playing an overly important role in public policy.

First, it is not unfair to ask if President Bush can even accurately be characterized as an evangelical. He was raised Episcopalian and Presbyterian (USA) and began attending a United Methodist church when he followed Laura, who was a Methodist, to her church. The Episcopal Church is certainly a mainline denomination. The Presbyterian (USA branch) and the United Methodist churches are also generally considered mainline and are not usually thought of as evangelical. Both have a leadership and support seminaries that are theologically liberal and both tolerate grossly liberal congregations, pastors, and seminary professors. Primarily in the South, the rank-and-file layman in both denominations have resisted to some extent the leftward drift of their leadership, and it is true that some local congregations could fairly be described as evangelical or at least evangelical like, but both are well within the tent of the declining mainline denominations.

While the Presbyterian (USA) Church and the United Methodist Church are superficially similar in style and practice, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum on a very fundamental historic debate within Christianity. Presbyterians are Westminster Confession Calvinist and Methodists are Wesleyan Arminians. It is also fair to ask how President Bush so easily made the switch to Methodism when he came from a very different theological background. Was he persuaded to the Arminian viewpoint? Is he still a Calvinist but attending a Methodist church for the sake of family unity? But if that is the case, why did he not insist that Laura become a Presbyterian instead? Or, more likely, has he never really given much thought to this fundamental theological issue? It is even possible that he was unaware of the difference. The point of this seeming diversion into theological minutia is this; if Bush was so accommodating on the historically divisive issue of predestination, is it likely he is thoughtfully applying Christian doctrine to his public policy decisions? On an even more basic level, given Bush’s statements about Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God and the possibility of other faiths going to Heaven, it is questionable if Bush even understands basic Christian orthodoxy.

Bush’s conversion was prompted by an evangelical, Billy Graham, and he speaks of his conversion to Christianity in a way that is familiar to evangelicals. (Some cynics might suggest that even his conversion story was coached so as to play better with the party base. Again, I accept the President’s testimony at face value. But it is clearly on the record that his father was coached that he could not reply in the negative to the question, “Are you born again?” “Born again” being terminology familiar to evangelicals but not familiar to many traditional mainline church members.) Perhaps, his familiar conversion story has contributed to some of the confusion, but he did not following his conversion seek out a conservative evangelical church to start attending. A case can be made for good conservative Christians remaining in the mainline denominations and attempting to reclaim the hierarchy from the apostate left. I am not arguing either for or against that strategy here. My point is that he neither changed his denominational affiliation nor is he ever on record publicly, as far as I know, of advocating that theologically conservative elements retake the liberal church hierarchy. The Methodist Churches that he attended in Austin and Dallas are considered moderate and not conservative. It is also significant that it is an open secret in Washington that President Bush does not regularly attend any church in D.C. Again, this does not suggest someone who is overly guided by deep theological concerns.

Bush is an Upper-Class Blue Blood

Second, it is also fair to point out that President Bush is not an indigenous product of conservative, Bible-belt Texas. While for political purposes he plays up his Texas roots, and some Texas influence probably accounts for his swagger and some of his more conservative instincts, let us not forget that there is a heaping helping of blue blood coursing through George W.’s veins. He is the son of privilege, the son of a US President who was a Connecticut Yankee who immigrated to Texas to make his fortune in oil, and the grandson of a US Senator from Connecticut. (Would it be a cheap shot to point out that anyone who is just two generations removed from someone named Prescott must have a little Blue Blood in the pedigree?)

President Bush’s entire life history from his unmerited acceptance to the Ivy Leagues, to his Skull and Bones membership, to National Guard pilot, to businessman, to a very sweat deal as a Texas Rangers co-owner, to governor of Texas, to his virtual coronation as the Republican nominee in 2000, all point to someone with friends in high places. Bush is a thoroughbred member of the American upper class, and his life has been clearly aided by the helping hand of the Old Boy Network. My intent is not to bash the Old Boy Network. In fact, I find something refreshingly un-egalitarian about it, but we must realize that Bush is not first and foremost a Texas good ol’ boy although he does a fairly good job of playing one on TV. He is a blue-blooded member of the upper class, the son of a Connecticut Yankee.

Paul Fussell, in his controversial book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, points out that within the American class system, the upper class has traditionally been very averse to extremes in either politics or religion. In America, firm religious commitment and strongly help political views, either right or left, have generally been the domain of the middle and working class. This is why the upper class has generally remained within the mainline denominations while others have been fleeing in droves. Evangelicalism in America is demonstrably a largely middle-class phenomenon. Right-wing figures such as Father Coughlin, Sen. McCarthy, and even Ronald Reagan and right-wing causes such as gun rights, abortion restrictions, and immigration control have found their base among the middle class and have been viewed very skeptically by the gentry. (Many in the establishment supported Bush Senior in 1980 against Reagan. In fact, many believe Bush I entered the race primarily to scuttle the Reagan nomination.) Left-wing causes such as communism have also been, by and large, championed by the middle or working class. This is entirely understandable, since the upper class is likely to view fervent religious and political convictions as a threat to the status quo, a status quo that has been very good to them.

As a brief aside, Fussell’s book was controversial primarily because many people like to believe that America is a relatively class free society. America, however, has the one key ingredient that makes it inevitable that it will be effected by class, although admittedly less so than our English cousins. It is made up of human beings.

Bush Has Not Supported Evangelical Policies

The particular issues that President Bush has chosen to advocate, and equally importantly those he has chosen not to, also make it very unlikely that it is primarily his Christian faith that is guiding him. Where was Bush when Judge Roy Moore needed his support? He was busy nominating one of Judge Moore’s persecutors, Bill Pryor, to the Federal Court. Has Bush de-funded the National Endowment for the Arts? Has he de-funded population control advocacy at the UN? Has he, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, ridden heard on the PC police in the military who are hounding Chaplains for praying in “Jesus name” or service members who are sharing their faith? Did he not in his lavish spending on AIDS, include monies for AIDS prevention education, in other words safe sodomy? While he rhetorically embraced a Constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriages in time to rile up the base for his re-election bid, he did very little to advance it, and he realized it was very unlikely to pass anyway given the make-up of the Senate. But he counseled against the much more attainable and wisely conceived effort to limit the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction on the matter of same-sex marriage. In fact, one is tempted to suspect that it was precisely the fact that it was potentially attainable, and hence likely to cause political repercussions on the left, that it was not pursued. This is a President who has displayed a willingness to use hardball arm-twisting and political intimidation to enact a Medicare drug entitlement. Where were these hard-ball tactics when he was “advocating” for a same-sex marriage amendment?

Is it a coincidence, that the issues where it is alleged that President Bush’s faith tempers his conservatism, such as his soft stance on affirmative action and immigration, are also areas where he runs the risk of being called bad names by the other side and rocking the boat if he were to be more hard line? Is it a coincidence that programs that he chooses to spend other people’s money on in the alleged name of Christian compassion such as AIDS, education and prescription drugs also curry favor on the left and somewhat insulate him from charges of being a “cold-hearted Republican?”

Bush’s foreign policy deserves an article all its own, but admittedly, it is the one area that doesn’t exactly fit this “don’t rock the boat” paradigm. Here he has chosen a course that has not been the easy one and has invoked the ire of the left. However, to the extent that it is motivated by Bush’s alleged evangelicalism, it is a gross misapplication of Christian principles at best. His preemptive war against Iraq, as well as the idea of preemption in general, clearly violates a well established Christian consensus on “just war.” It is not evangelical or Christian properly understood, although it does border on messianic, with the United States playing the role of savior of the world. As such, it fails to recognize the limits to which man can be perfected by the State. America’s traditional recognition of the limits of human capacity is based on the Christian understanding of original sin, total depravity, and man’s need for a Savior. McClay made this point in his speech. It is as if Bush is an evangelical “democratizer” instead of an evangelical conservative.

Regarding the focus of the President’s compassion, it is highly debatable to assert that Christian compassion and charity should be a government function anyway. The Bible clearly commands giving to those in need (widows, orphans, and the infirm). Few Christians would dispute that. Put those are clearly commands given to Christians and the local Church, and many would dispute that compulsory charity via the government is supported by the Bible. In fact, many would argue that government welfare is a violation of the commandment against theft and the commandment against envy and contrary to the sentiment expressed by Paul that if “you do not work, you do not eat.” While Catholics have traditionally acknowledged a government duty to care for the needy, conservative Catholics generally argue based on the concept of subsidiarity that it is best done at the lowest possible administrative level. That is clearly not at the federal level which is the source of all the money Bush is lavishing. Some sincere Christians, mistaken in my opinion but admittedly sincere, believe that the government should redistribute wealth to aid the poor. That is clearly the official position of the United Methodist Church to which President Bush belongs. But again, is it a coincidence that Bush sides with the mainline Methodists instead of more conservative Christians on these matters?

Also, Christians are clearly commanded to obey oaths they take. While a sincere Christian President could believe that the federal government ought to redistribute the wealth to aid the poor, nothing in the Constitution that he is sworn to uphold grants the federal government the authority to do so. Poor relief is not one of the specifically delegated powers granted to the federal government. So is not President Bush violating his oath of office when he plays fast and loose with other people’s money in the name of compassion and allegedly high-minded Christianity? Scott Whiteman has made this point at the American View website.

Evangelicals Are Not Progressives

McClay seems to assert that the modern evangelical political movement, what we might call the religious right, is a direct lineal descendant, or nearly so, of the old progressive movement, the movement that brought us Prohibition, women’s suffrage, and compulsory public education among other things. He clearly indicates that it was “evangelical Christianity that energized the Civil Rights Movement.” He even goes so far as to connect it back to the abolitionists. It is not clear that Knippenberg endorses this, but he clearly suggests that there is an anti-tradition (progressive) element to evangelicalism. They are not alone in this assumption. I have had this same argument over and over again with my friend, Mike Seigle, who is a long time Republican activist on social issues and a former candidate for the Georgia State House. But the fact that many intelligent people believe this genealogy does not make it any less false. The problem with this assertion is that it does not conform to historic reality. It seems more like an exercise in wishful thinking by relatively modernist conservatives attempting to claim the progressive mantel.

First, the Black Churches that promoted civil rights have often been criticized by conservative White evangelicals as preaching a form of the social gospel instead of the Gospel of Christ. When was the last time you heard Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton tell someone he needed to get “saved” and turn from his life of sin? Instead, both are marching in the front of pro-abortion and gay-pride parades. Surely the White evangelicals have little sympathy for the propensity of Black Churches to vote Democrat on racial and economic issues at the expense of social issues like abortion and homosexual rights. Despite the fact that some Black Churches might theologically be similar to evangelicals, it is a stretch to suggest that evangelicalism as it exists as a political movement “energized” the Civil-Rights Movement.

Also, while evangelicalism is an affront to tradition, as Knippenberg suggests, for the Catholic, Protestantism has always been the primary expression of Christianity in America. So it is not anti-tradition from an American standpoint. I concede there is probably some similarity between crusading against alcohol (Prohibition) and crusading against a local gentleman’s club, but beyond that the similarities break down. (Even Prohibition was not entirely made up of Bible- thumping teetotalers. There was a large progressive element as well of people who believed not so much that alcohol was a sin, but that it was bad for society, particularly women and children who suffered at the hands of drunken husbands and fathers.)

Remember, evangelical Christianity as it is currently conceived is a relatively modern phenomenon. It is the less separatist and more ecumenical face of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism arose around the turn of the last century as a reaction to the liberal apostasy that was arising within many Christian denominations. Many would date the emergence of a distinctive conservative Christian political force to sometime shortly after the failed Goldwater campaign of 1964. The Progressives on the other hand are best thought of as lapsed Yankee Puritans who exchanged the Gospel of Christ for a Unitarian social gospel. (Not all were Unitarians, but many were.) In fact, one of the primary impetuses behind the progressive drive for universal public education was an attempt to re-educate those “ignorant” Southerners who persisted in their orthodox Christian beliefs.

While there is much denominational and theological variety within evangelicalism which could be interpreted as a form of anti-traditionalism (it is by Catholics), on the “fundamentals” of the faith it has remained very orthodox. The term “evangelical” is a reference to the movement’s emphasis on evangelizing the lost. The need to evangelize is based on Divine command, but it is also a reflection of the movement’s belief that Jesus is the only way to Heaven. This is an exclusive belief. It runs entirely counter to modernist moral relativism that virtually forbids the making of moral distinctions. How is insisting on a fixed moral standard in any way progressive? Keep in mind that this is high praise coming from me and not an indictment as it is from critics on the left. Unfortunately, many liberals seem to better understand the true nature of conservative evangelicalism than do its would-be conservative defenders. Look at some liberal commentary. You will observe that for many the primary focus of their anger is not big business or corporate polluters or any of the other litany of left-wing villains. It is Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson et. al. and their unassuming followers. The left recognizes the truly anti-modern, counter-revolutionary nature of an enthusiastic embrace of traditional Christian morality and know that it, not polluters or greedy businessmen, are the primary obstacle to the “progress” they seek.

While some in the Religious Right leadership like to misguidedly tout “progressive” sounding policy proposals like faith based initiatives and money for marital counseling, these are not the issues that move the rank-and-file. In fact, they are barely on the radar screen of the average Christian conservative spear carrier. They are much more concerned about Janet Jackson baring her breast on prime time TV than they are about the wonkish and meaningless progressive initiatives proposed by the leadership who, like all political lobbies, like to have some “positive” policy proposals to peddle. The movement has never been primarily a progressive movement. In fact, at its core it is downright reactionary. (Again, coming from me this is high praise.) It does not seek progress, but instead, as its detractors would say, it seeks to turn back the clock. It is primarily against things. Against removing prayer and Bible reading from public schools. Against regulation of private schools. Against abortion. Against the growing acceptance of homosexuality. Against secular humanism. Against cultural decay. Against evolution being crammed down their children’s throat. Look at the spectacular growth of home schooling. This is a blatant act of cultural secession, not some starry eyed progressive fantasy.

Admittedly, fundamentalism and the historic Progressive movement share a common leader, William Jennings Bryan, but that alone does not make the supposed linear connection valid. Bryan’s progressivism was largely confined to economic issues, and on matters of religion he was certainly no modernist. His role in the Scopes trial against the progressive teaching of evolution illustrates this. Unlike Bryan, many progressives, as I stated above, were motivated by a liberal social gospel. Many were outright Unitarians. The movement was much more Northern and Mid-Western than the current religious right which finds its primary base in the Bible-belt South. Gary Bauer tried to play the “progressive,” reform minded Christian card in the 2000 GOP primary and you can see how far it got him.

I also concede that many evangelical churches, which are separate from but obviously not unrelated to the Christian conservative movement, have embraced modernity in such things as their choice of modern music and concerns about “seeker sensitivity.” Unfortunately, the evangelical church is also as frightened of running afoul of the PC police as is almost every other segment of modern America. Also unfortunately, the movement is conventional in its approach to politics which has led it to too often cheerlead for the GOP, when the Republicans were obviously not serving the social conservatives well. But despite a troubling tendency to carry water for the GOP, the actual political objective of the movement remains primarily one of trying to stem the tide of advancing modernity. In that, it is more closely related to the Southern Agrarians or George Wallace supporters, for example, than it is the progressive Women Suffragettes, the Yankee Unitarian compulsory education advocates or Civil Rights activists who were attempting to overturn the old established social order in the name of progress.

Evangelical or Moderate: You Decide

Given these observations, a healthy skepticism that evangelical Christianity would motivate a progressive political agenda, even if we concede that Bush is an evangelical, is warranted. So then is George Bush’s political behavior better explained by his “evangelicalism” moderating his conservative hard edge, or is he just behaving true to his blue-blood moderate roots? With the exception of his grandiose foreign policy, the facts much better fit the later explanation. Contrary to what naive and wishful thinking conservatives projected onto him, Bush is a man of the center and always has been. Bush is not hostile to pliable “mainstream” conservatives as some have suggested. I suspect Bush finds them to be useful idiots. He is, however, hostile to dogmatic conservatives who interfere with his ability to get along in moderate, don’t rock the boat fashion, such as those who protested the Harriet Meirs’ nomination. Bush’s prickliness and barely suppressed anger at those who questioned her nomination was directed at conservatives who were presenting obstacles, but also reflected his anger that anyone dared question his judgment. (This anger at being questioned is also evident when he discusses the Iraq War.) This is entirely consistent with the sense of entitlement that often accompanies those of fortunate birth, another evidence of the essentially blue-blooded nature of the President. “Conservatives,” such as Hugh Hewitt and Jay Sekulow, who parroted the Bush line remained in good stead.

Somewhat paradoxically, Jonah Goldberg is also correct to characterize Bush as anti-left. Bush seemed to have little tolerance for Kerry’s brand of Democrat liberalism either. (This is, for the sake of this argument, conceding the political spectrum as it unfortunately exists today. I recognized that today’s anti-left is yesterday’s socialist.)

Contrary to the protests of his conservative apologists and his leftist detractors, Bush is a man entirely comfortable with the middle and uncomfortable with extremes in either direction both politically and religiously. I submit that this is an easily identifiable product of his American upper-class status, and is in no way a reflection of his “evangelical” faith despite Dr. Knippenberg’s and Mr. McCray’s best efforts to prove otherwise. I will leave it up to the reader to decide who makes a better case.



Published originally at EtherZone.com : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.”

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