It’s the Theology, Stupid

The opening prayer of the 2008 Republican National Convention.

The opening prayer of the 2008 Republican National Convention.

When Republican governors refuse bailout money on “principle,” and Rush Limbaugh—the new enraged face of the Republican Party—has hysterics over the idea of the government helping us get back on our feet, what you’re seeing is today’s political version of the go-it-alone Protestant theology of individualism in action.

The reason why the Republicans persist with their anti-government crusade—just when we need government intervention in our economy—is because the Republican Party’s ideology is still informed by individualistic Protestantism. This is so even for Republicans who aren’t religious or Protestant and who have not connected the dots between the Protestant mindset and their politics.

Given that the most mismanaged federal operations in history—including the Republican-controlled response to Hurricane Katrina, the early stages of the Iraq occupation and the deregulation of banking—were considered GOP “triumphs,” you would think they’d be open to change. They would if their policy positions were a matter of logic. They are not. GOP presuppositions are now founded on knee-jerk blind faith: the individual is supreme, the community and anything smacking of “collectivism” is the enemy! So, individual gun ownership is good, rules to protect the community against guns are bad; low taxes are good, health care for all is bad, sharing wealth is “socialism!” etc., etc.

Buy the author's book!

Buy the author's book.

Protestant ideas of individualism are rooted in the claim of sola scriptura (the Bible only). The traditional idea of ancient churches (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) before the Reformation was a community of faith built around liturgical practices that could not be celebrated alone. It “took a village” to get saved, so to speak. Salvation was found in one’s relationship with one’s community and religious institutions closely tied to the well being of the state. Protestants said that all one needs is a “personal relationship with Jesus” and one’s personal interpretation of the Bible. This idea cut out the priest, tradition, bishop and hierarchy. It also gradually cut out the sense of obligation to—and connectedness with—one’s community.

During the American Revolution, part of the rebellion against England was political but part was was a holdover from the Puritan early American era: individual conscience was held as supreme. The Great Awakening took this individual approach to salvation and the state a step further. The Awakening questioned any established church. This evangelical movement placed emphasis on individual conscience. It also increased the presence of Baptist—i.e., evangelical and anti-state—views throughout the colonies and shaped American’s idea of politics.

Since America was founded by Protestants escaping traditional ideas of religion, individualism was embedded in America’s DNA as a matter of faith. It carried over to later generations and dovetailed nicely with certain similar ideas that derived from the Enlightenment.

To the extent that the Republicans became the party of white evangelicals, they are also the repository of the anti-state individualism of the Great Awakening. Conversely, as the Democratic Party became the party of immigrants from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and African cultures, it was imbued with a traditional ethic of collective responsibility.

It’s no accident that so many Democratic Party leaders such as the Kennedy brothers came from a very different tradition than the mostly Protestant anti-state church Republicans. (Issues such as abortion and other culture war divisions muddied these categories in the Reagan years, as had the racism of Southern Democrats years before, but the principle of a non-evangelical Democratic Party holds true.)

So why do Republicans stick to GOP “policies” that most Americans reject and that have failed so badly? Because the individualistic approach to “salvation” fits perfectly with the idea of American exceptionalism; the belief that America is special, a nation of individuals in a collective world. Others may work together—for instance those blasted Europeans in their collective action against global warming—but we go it (sola scriptura-style) alone. We’ll do our own thing, and be “a light unto the nations,” while following our own rules!

The final irony is that the Republicans are losing the next generation of young evangelicals. Young evangelicals voted in larger numbers for Obama than they ever have ever voted for any Democrat. The new generation of evangelicals harks back to another wing of the Protestant movement: the Anabaptists and Quakers for whom social conscience and community trumped the individualism of the Baptist and Reformed (Calvinist) wings of the Reformation. These younger evangelicals are in tune with the environmentalist movement, the need to help the poor, and (with the exception of abortion) a progressive view of just about everything, including gay rights. (For instance, the evangelical Gordon College’s student newspaper endorsed Obama in the last election).

Most Americans (including many young evangelicals) know that we live or die together. If two lines were forming and one led to Rush Limbaugh’s (hyper-Protestant) individualistic go-it-alone America, where everyone is on their own, and the other led to President Obama’s America, where each person is his or her brother’s keeper, the majority of Americans would be in Obama’s line today. Come to think of it, we were mostly in that line when we voted in November of 2008, and are even more so today as the GOP’s poll numbers plummet along with the economy they ruined. We may at last be putting the Puritan (and Great Awakening) ethos behind us and returning to a far more ancient communitarian tradition.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. Sex, Mom, and God is his most recent book.