Class, Political Conservatism and Jesus

Article excerpt

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor. (LK. 4:18).

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.... But
woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke
6:22, 24)

In recent years conservative politicians have met with great success in their quest to identify their conservatism with Christianity itself. Indeed, a number of conservative politicians explicitly claim that their policies and political rhetoric are the direct result of divine guidance or intervention. For instance, Stephen Mansfield reports that in the early days of his campaign for the Oval office Bush repeatedly asserted, "I believe God wants me to run for president ... God wants me to do it." (1) According to the Jerusalem daily Haaretz, Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, "God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did...." (2)

In a March 2005 speech to the conservative Family Research Council, the embattled House Majority Whip Tom DeLay rationalized his politicization of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Terri Schiavo life-support case with the assertion, "one thing God has brought us is Terry Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America."

Statements like this and oft-repeated public confessions of Christian faith by conservative politicians across America are clearly meant to equate the focus and thrust of their politics and policies with biblical faith itself. This is the face conservative politicians have presented to the American public. Yet is this true? Are the precepts and policies of political conservatism consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the biblical tradition?

The Tenets of Conservatism

With the decisive victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal liberalism, by the end of the 1940's observers like the Harvard political science professor Louis Hartz and literary critic Lionel Trilling were claiming that liberalism was not only the dominant intellectual tradition in America, but the sole intellectual tradition, which was really another way of saying that conservatism as a political force in America was dormant, if not dead. Conservatism might have been dormant, but it certainly was not dead. After several years of relative quiescence, the demagoguery and "Red-baiting" by Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon in the 1950's began a resurgence of political conservatism that has culminated in its powerful position on America's political scene today.

Despite the publicity and public affirmation generated by the witch-hunts of McCarthy and Nixon, most conservative commentators trace the roots of America's awakened political conservatism after its trouncing by Roosevelt to another source: the 1953 publication of Russell Kirk's study, The Conservative Mind. (3) Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a major conservative think tank, declared in a 2003 lecture, "With one book, Russell Kirk made conservatism intellectually acceptable in America." (4) Edwards told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Kirk gave the conservative movement its name." (5) This is reflected in the paucity of public use of the term "conservative" before Kirk's book. For instance, when William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, he called himself not a conservative, but an "individualist." And when Barry Goldwater was elected to the Senate a year later, his preferred terms of self-reference were "progressive Republican" and "Jeffersonian Republican."

The most significant contribution of Kirk's work, however, is that it energized conservatism by giving it the historical and philosophical heft and reflective self-understanding it had lacked. More importantly, it offered a coherent rationale for the values underpinning conservatism's world view. A sense of the influence of The Conservative Mind can be gleaned from its use as an ideological touchstone by political conservatives from the old-guard William F. …