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Protestants and American Conservatism:
A Short History

by gillis harp
oxford, 336 pages, $36.95

Today, conservative critics of liberalism tend to be Catholic. Pundits warn of “‘post-liberal’ ferment among a coterie of mostly Catholic writers,” or report on the “network of Catholic intellectuals” making “the case against liberalism.” “Mostly these new traditionalists are Catholic,” Mark Tooley observed recently. “None are Protestant, which maybe isn’t surprising, since arguably classical liberalism and modern capitalism are Protestant projects.”

But it should be surprising. As Gillis Harp demonstrates, there is a long tradition of American Protestant criticism of liberalism and promotion of a common good–oriented politics. His concise history of the relationship between Protestants and conservatives in this country is studded with quotations from Protestant leaders who viewed government as a moral agent, with a duty to seek the common good and encourage virtue. Defending religion’s public role, these Puritans and Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Anglicans, rejected Lockean thought, liberal individualism, and value-neutral politics as incompatible with Christianity. “There may be danger,” the Puritan Mercy Otis Warren warned in 1805, “that in the enthusiasm for toleration, indifference to all religion take place.” Her words proved prophetic. Today, “toleration” has become “viewpoint neutrality,” which has produced not indifference to Christianity but outright hostility. If we wish to change course, we should consider the ­communitarian politics of American­ Protestants.

Harp’s narrative begins before “conservatism” per se existed—with the Puritans, who “stressed that government should be vigorous in seeking the common good of the public.” Cambridge pastor Jonathan Mitchell taught that colonial governors should discern what is “for the common good, and what not.” John Winthrop distinguished between liberty and license. License, or “natural liberty,” is “common to man with beasts and other creatures,” whereas true liberty, the freedom to do right, requires accepting a higher authority.

This vision of a Christian commonwealth was, of course, not the vision of Jefferson. It was one current within the broader stream of American thought. Some, influenced by Louis Hartz, have spoken as though all Americans were Lockeans from the Revolutionary era onward. But Harp shows otherwise. He reminds us that seven of the nine states with formal religious establishments kept those establishments even after ratification of the Constitution. In 1788, most of the thirteen states still required officeholders to take religious oaths, and a third of them still sent tax dollars to churches.

Harp’s richest chapter examines antebellum resistance to liberalism. Though historians have “neglected” them, a number of Protestant ministers and ­intellectuals continued to promote what Harp calls a kind of “quasi-theocratic,” common good–oriented politics in the nineteenth century, a “conservative counterattack [that] often struck at the liberal foundations of the post-Revolutionary order.” These figures

rejected liberal individualism, affirmed the social character of humanity, dismissed a contractual understanding of the origins of political society, attacked what they construed as an inordinate concern for individual rights (­especially as found in Jefferson’s writings), and argued for the divine origins and authority of the state and of law. [They] took for granted that the natural concord of society could be reinforced by the state.

Among them was classicist ­Tayler Lewis, who warned Christians against Enlightenment ideology. He denounced Locke’s natural rights philosophy (“Nothing can be more alien to the spirit of the Bible, than the modern din about the inalienable rights of man”) and social contract theory, emphasizing instead that government had a moral duty to promote virtue, so that the “superior part of [man’s] nature may be cultivated.”

Protestants in this period supported Sabbath blue laws, public days of prayer and fasting, and bans on ­blasphemy. Harp’s account is replete with anecdotes that indicate our American predecessors were far more “illiberal” than we imagine them to be.

When John Ruggles publicly declared Christ a bastard and Mary a whore, New York state chief justice James Kent ruled against him—though Ruggles’s lawyers argued that New York’s religious liberty guarantee protected his blasphemy. “Whatever strikes at the root of Christianity tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government,” Kent’s decision stated. “The case assumes that we are a Christian people.” In the 1820s, Presbyterian elder Josiah Bissell Jr. established a General Union for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath, in an attempt to ban Sunday mail delivery. New Jersey senator Theodore ­Frelinghuysen supported the cause: “Let us, by arresting this national profanation, reject the miserable wealth that is amassed by labor pursued on a volunteer Sabbath.”

Even in the Gilded Age, a few Protestant academics advanced traditionalist arguments against laissez-faire individualism. “A state is a body, a community, not merely a whole made up of parts each having a particular interest,” said Yale president ­Theodore Woolsey, “but a whole having one interest.” Some, like ­Princeton professors Lyman ­Atwater and A. A. Hodge, argued for prayer and Scripture reading in public schools. (“The fool may say in his heart there is no God,” ­Atwater said, “but is that a reason for the state’s adopting a method of education for its children which discards or ignores the crown of their ­humanity?”)

Conservative religious critiques of liberalism are not novel. They are not fascistic departures from the American heritage, or foreign arguments brought over with Catholic migrants. They are part of a longstanding American tradition. Many of our Protestant forebears preached against Enlightenment philosophy and condemned liberal ­principles. Indeed, today’s “postliberal” proposals—­regulating pornography, shuttering drag queen story hours—sound far less “illiberal” than do the ideas of earlier generations of ­Americans.

So whither the Protestant traditionalists? Why, as Mark Tooley notes, are the new traditionalists mostly Catholic?

Not, it seems, because Protestant theology inevitably leads to liberal politics. The second half of Harp’s narrative examines a shift, beginning with the Gilded Age. Amid the changes of the Second Industrial Revolution, individualism gained prominence. Andrew Carnegie and the sociologist William Graham Sumner represented a new school of more secular conservatives who endorsed unbridled capitalism and laissez-faire autonomy. As progressivism emerged, “conservatism” gradually came to mean unqualified defense of free trade, opposition to state intervention, and a liberalism guided by Enlightenment thought rather than Christianity.

As time went on, often conservative Protestants adapted to this new environment, baptizing classical liberal ideas and a minimalist model of the state. Harp notes several factors that contributed to the disappearance of more theologically rooted traditionalist voices, including but not limited to: a public square increasingly hostile to religion; clerics too busy battling theological liberalism in the churches to worry about liberalism in politics; the influence of pietism, which emphasized personal ­spirituality rather than public action; and what he considers the “more ­informal populist ethos” and “weaker historical consciousness” of fundamentalist and revivalist evangelicals.

Preachers such as the Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher attempted “to accommodate laissez-faire principles and socially conservative evangelical Protestantism” in the late nineteenth century. Among fundamentalists in the early twentieth century, Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen pulled evangelicals toward more libertarian views of the state. A tentative alliance formed between secular figures and conservative Protestants, a precursor to sixties-era fusionism. As Harp observes, they appear “to have forgotten that their Protestant predecessors had earlier subscribed to more statist and ­interventionist views.”

By the postwar era, then, the groundwork had been laid for Cold War fears of communism to draw libertarians and Christian conservatives together. The fusionist coalition of the sixties was only possible, Harp writes, if one conflated “different Enlightenment and Christian ideas of freedom.” Organizations such as Spiritual Mobilization boosted laissez-faire principles among clergymen and encouraged businessmen to get involved in churches; books such as Rus Walton’s One Nation Under God (1975) declared that “spiritual freedom and economic freedom are two sides of the same coin.” What now passed for liberty among conservative Protestants bore little ­resemblance to Winthrop’s definition.

In 1962, L. Brent Bozell Jr.’s “Freedom or Virtue?” attacked the fusionists’ premise in the pages of National Review. Whereas Frank Meyer insisted that libertarians and traditionalists could unite around the “primacy of freedom,” Bozell argued that their goals were fundamentally at odds. “The chief purpose of ­politics,” he wrote, “is to aid the quest for virtue”—not to secure ­individual autonomy.

Bozell was Catholic. Yet “ironically,” Harp observes, he was adopting a position that “Protestant traditionalists had once championed.” The traditionalist Catholic had “returned to the Christian communitarian argument once articulated by the Puritans and by their New England descendants.”

The same holds today. Among social conservatives, the loudest opponents of liberalism are often, like Bozell, converts to Catholicism. This might lead one to conclude that Protestants are inherently liberal, and Catholics naturally anti-liberal, but the historical record presents no such clear-cut divisions. In truth, Catholic common good conservatives are upholding in new form an American tradition pioneered by Protestants. 

Ramona Tausz is associate editor of First Things.