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October 17, 2013 5:26 PM Constitutional Conservatism As a Religion

By Ed Kilgore

In the debate over the durability of the Tea Folk (or as I more precisely prefer to call them, “constitutional conservatives” to acknowledge the fusion of free-market libertarians and the Christian Right around a rigid anti-government agenda), Andrew Sullivan has staked out a pessimistic position that suggests no strategic considerations or experience of defeat will soon change them. Like me, Sullivan eschews descriptions of these people as “nihilists.” Au contraire, they have very firm beliefs, goals and expectations.

This is a religion - but a particularly modern, extreme and unthinking fundamentalist religion. And such a form of religion is the antithesis of the mainline Protestantism that once dominated the Republican party as well, to a lesser extent, the Democratic party.
It also brooks no distinction between religion and politics, seeing them as fused in the same cultural and religious battle. Much of the GOP hails from that new purist, apocalyptic sect right now - and certainly no one else is attacking that kind of religious organization. But it will do to institutional political parties what entrepreneurial fundamentalism does to mainline churches: its appeal to absolute truth, total rectitude and simplicity of worldview instantly trumps tradition, reason, moderation, compromise.

I think Andrew’s on the right track, but I’d add a complicating qualifier. It’s not just that these culturally threatened folk embrace their politics like it’s a religion. The actual religious outlook many of them espouse—whether they are conservative fundamentalist Protestants or neo-ultramontane Catholics—has imported secular political perspectives into their faith. They’ve managed to identify obedience to God with the restoration of pre-mid-twentieth-century culture and economics, and consequently, tend to look at themselves as the contemporary equivalents of the Old Testament prophets calling a wicked society to account before all hell literally breaks loose. So their politics reinforces their religion and vice-versa, and yes, the Republican Party, like the squishy mainline Protestant Churches and lenient do-gooder Catholic priests, are generally within crisis-distance of being viewed as objectively belonging to enemy ranks.

That makes them seem irrational or even “nihilist” to those who don’t get their premises.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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