The Republicans' Common Heritage

By Gray, C. Boyden | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Republicans' Common Heritage


Gray, C. Boyden, The World and I


The tension between the "religious right" and the "supply-side" components of the Republican coalition is fragmenting the coalition and threatening the party's future. That much is clear.

Perhaps less obviously, this tension reflects a betrayal of the historical forms that have produced modern conservatism and, if not relieved, jeopardizes the integrity of each component of conservatism every bit as much as the whole.

The fact is that cultural and market conservatism derive from a common heritage--namely, the devotion to individual rights and suspicion of big government shared by the Founding Fathers and their intellectual mentors, whose desire to separate church and state did not include an elimination of religion entirely from public discourse. After all, it is a supreme being, not the state, that has endowed all of us with inalienable rights. Yet this fact is frequently brushed aside.

Less well known is the common heritage of free-market economic thought as expressed by the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century and the fundamentalist mots of today's evangelicals, which have their origins in the religious and political struggles of early nineteenth-century England.

The Industrial Revolution spawned great new wealth among the merchant classes, especially in the industrial midlands, that posed significant political, social, religious and cultural challenges to the established landed aristocracy.

Church membership in the first part of the nineteenth century often broke along class lines: The early entrepreneurs, merchants, and industrialists were not members of the Church of England but evangelical Protestants such as Baptists, Presbyterians, or Methodists, who were collectively described as radical nonconformists.

Though not radical by today's political standards, those religious denominations faced clear employment and educational discrimination by Anglicans, such as being barred admission to Oxford or Cambridge. War against barriers of this kind helped produce the classical liberalism of the era, which was the foundation of the great Liberal Party and the explosive growth of the British economy and ultimately the empire itself.

Max Weber's famous treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism captures the interplay between religions and economic forces. While not an evangelical himself, Adam Smith understood that a market economy depended on Judeo-Christian ethical values.

In the United States, this same interplay was encapsulated in the life of a deeply religious, evangelical Baptist named John D. Rockefeller, described by his most recent biographer as the very embodiment of Weber's thesis.

Obviously, something happened to the synergy between the entrepreneurs and the religious radicals, because the Liberal Party began to lose its force around the turn of the century and was spent by the end of World War I.

World War II would probably have been averted if the Liberal Party had been strong enough to act upon the prescriptions in Keynes' famous Economic Consequences of the Peace, a description of the "starve-Germany" mistakes of the post-World War I period that were wisely prevented after World War II by the Marshall Plan. The collapse of the Liberal Party paralleled the decline of England's economy and its empire, which was interrupted but not stopped by England's and Winston Churchill's great performance in World War II. It wasn't until Margaret Thatcher's revolution of the 1980s that England's economy and international fortunes got back on track. What happened to the once felicitous alliance between religious and entrepreneurial fervor? Complacency and social change may be the simplest explanation. As the entrepreneurs and merchants grew more and more prosperous, they began to forget their roots in nonconformity and took on the airs and institutions of the aristocracy they had competed with for a place at the table, often leaving their evangelical churches to join the Church of England and leaving the Liberal Party to join the Conservative Party. …

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