Wilfred M. “Bill” McClay, who graces this blog with a line or two now and again, gave a lecture Wednesday night at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he also serves as a senior fellow.
It’s a crime or shame (or something) that lectures usually are not as light-hearted, informative, and wise as McClay’s George W. Bush’s Evangelical Conservatism: Or, How the Republicans Became Red.
He begins by trying to figure out how, starting with major network coverage of Election Night 2000, the Republicans became the symbolically crimson party and the Democrats got the blues after decades of the reverse (I’m glad not to be the only television viewer who’s been wondering what happened.)
What follows this is a history of progressive movements of old liberal reform in Europe and America, how Evangelicalism has participated in and influenced the American ones, and to what extent the Bush presidency and (since Ronald Reagan) the Republican party’s infectious optimism about freedom and the human spirit are adoptions of what McClay calls a political form of “evangelical conservativism.”
As I say, plenty of controversy and fun for everyone. McClay ends on a cautionary note, appealing to a twentieth-century American theologian out of vogue with the political Left and Right, Reinhold Neibuhr—quoting from a recent article by Martin Peretz in The New Republic, “the most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism … [Neibuhr] is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke … perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature.”
McClay, who acknowledges the political strength of the American tradition of optimistic leadership, nevertheless concludes:
But conservatism will be like the salt that has lost its savor, if it abandons its most fundamental mission—which is to remind us of what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision” of human existence, which sees life as a struggle, with invariably mixed outcomes, full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible people, a world in which the legacy of the past is usually more reliable than the projections of the future. As the example of Niebuhr suggests, such a vision need not reject the possibility of human progress altogether—which, by the way, has never been characteristic of traditional conservatism either, from Edmund Burke on. But it does suggest that it is sometimes wise to adopt, so to speak, a darker shade of red, one that sees the hand of Providence in our reversals as well as our triumphs. To do so is as needful for American evangelicalism as for American politics.
Thanks to Winfield Myers of the Democracy Project for bringing this talk to our attention.