Elephantembryo

Is evangelical conservatism an oxymoron? I don't think so - as long as the evangelical's primary political impulse is to keep government at bay from his or her religious freedom - and others' freedoms as well. But when a progressive, benign, big government evangelicalism emerges, it is a threat to true conservatism, not a support. That's the basic case of my book, and it's one theme of this challenging lecture given in February last year at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author, Wilfred McClay, even wonders whether the shift of Republican color from blue to red isn't somewhat symbolic of this shift. The color red, after all, has always been associated with progressive, collectivist, utopian impulses. And what is Christianism if not a progressive, collectivist, statist movement? Money quote:

There is not much of Niebuhr, or original sin, or any other form of Calvinist severity, in the current outlook of the Bush administration. That too is a reflection of the optimistic character of American evangelicalism, and therefore of evangelical conservatism. It certainly reflects the preference of the American electorate, which does not like to hear bad news, a fact that is surely one of the deep and eternal challenges to democratic statesmanship. And it is, by and large, an appropriate way for good leaders to behave. It is, in some respects, a political strength.

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.

Much more politic than my own bluntness. But the same point underneath, I think.

(Photo of embryonic elephant from an upcoming documentary made by Pioneer Television.)

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.