Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Fusionism, Religion and the Tea Party

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Fusionism, Religion and the Tea Party

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article aims to explore two different but interrelated problems. The first objective, the more abstract one, is to discuss the plausibility of fusionism as a theoretical project of bridging the philosophical gap between libertarianism and free-market conservatism. Our thesis is that while fusionism could succeed, as a strategic alliance, in promoting specific policies, the differences between libertarianism and conservatism are irreconcilable at the level of fundamental intellectual assumptions. More precisely, starting from Hayek's objections to conservatism, we argue that the crucial divide is that between two conceptions about the prerequisites for social order. The second objective is to show how the differences between the policy prescriptions endorsed by conservatives and libertarians within the Tea Party (mainly with regard to religion-related issues) are illustrative for the theoretical point defended in the first sections.

Key Words: libertarianism, conservatism, religion and politics, social order, fusionism, Tea Party.

In American political culture, "fusionism" has become the label for a philosophical and political project aiming at the unification of the two major trends within the political right in the USA: conservatism and libertarianism1. According to most commentators, the project started with the establishment of the conservative journal National Review in 1955 by William Buckley2. While the highly energetic and polemical Buckley assumed the role of promoting fusionism on the political scene, it was senior editor Frank Meyer's task to attempt constructing a political theory that was supposed to accommodate the major tenets of both conservatism and libertarianism3. However, a historical account of the way fusionism fared over the past half-century is beyond the scope of our article (although we shall appeal to the recent history of the movement to provide relevant background for more conceptual points).

Rather, we aim at reaching two different objectives. The first and the more theoretical one is to discuss some of the sources of tension between free-market conservatives and libertarians that pose a serious challenge to fusionism. The thesis we defend is that while fusionism can work as a functional alliance on specific policy issues, there is a deep division at the level of fundamental presumptions that make its success doubtful as a unification project. A second objective is to illustrate this conceptual point by considering the Tea Party movement. More specifically, we will show that the differences with regard to policy prescriptions in certain areas (mainly religion-related areas) held by conservative and libertarian tea partiers are just symptoms of the fundamental divide.

Reaching for the libertarian voter?

For its promoters, the stakes of fusionism are huge, on both theoretical and political levels. Libertarians are the direct philosophical descendants of the classical liberals whose ideas have helped shape the American society in its early stages, so getting their intellectual support for free-market conservatism could provide a very useful legitimacy boost. A less abstract (but not less important) reason is given by the big impact that the libertarian vote had over elections in the U.S. in the past 20-30 years.

At least one major difficulty needs to be addressed before moving on to a more in-depth analysis: what does the term "libertarian"4 stand for in this context? It might not be easy to find a common denominator for clusters of theories and attitudes that cover a wide spectrum and are quite often all labeled as libertarian: from the anarcho-capitalists of the Austrian School to the supporters of the minimal state such as Robert Nozick and then beyond, to the admission of (some) positive role for the government in the production of public goods (by, e.g., Milton Friedman or James Buchanan); from the natural rights approaches in the Lockean- Kantian tradition to all forms of utilitarianism or to a milder version of the Humean non-aggregative consequentialism etc. …

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