How the Religious Right and the Libertarians buried the hatchet

The awkward alliance between the libertarian movement and fundamentalists helps explain why Republicans care so little about governing. Photo: Sarah Palin

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2013 - Rand Paul is an unlikely hero for the evangelical right. He was a rebel in his days at deeply religious Baylor University, apparently forming some sort of half-sarcastic, anti-religious student group. He’s a libertarian who quotes Ayn Rand. On culture war issues. he prefers to dodge rather than charge. In many respects Paul looks like the sort of Republican that fundamentalists have been trying to purge from the party.

Yet Paul’s 2010 Senate primary campaign against a well-established Republican Trey Grayson drew endorsements from Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and even Concerned Women for America. The lock was late in the primary campaign when James Dobson, who resigned in January of 2010 from Focus on the Family, very publicly switched his endorsement to Paul.

So how have the high priests of Christian fundamentalism found such enthusiastic common cause with a prophet of Aqua Buddha? And at the broader level, why are evangelicals overwhelmingly the largest block of Tea Party supporters?

The awkward, informal alliance between elements of the libertarian movement and the religious right can be partly traced to a strategic shift by Paul Weyrich during the Clinton years. It helps explain why questions of competence or effectiveness matter so little and why Republicans are comfortable promoting policies that seem dangerous to the point of recklessness.

Weyrich, the architect of modern American fundamentalism, generated some surprise when he declared in 1999 that the movement had failed. Many fundamentalists at the time were feeling euphoric. The electoral wave of ’94 had given evangelicals effective control of the GOP infrastructure across large swaths of the country. Though they had failed to defeat Bill Clinton, their power in Congress and state legislatures was steadily growing.

However Weyrich saw a different trend. When he worked with Jerry Falwell in the ‘70’s to turn evangelicals into activists he believed they would form an overwhelming political block. That’s why he urged Falwell to call his group The Moral Majority. But during the Clinton years he decided that he was wrong.

His 1999 “Letter on the Moral Minority in America” explained that, “our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.” In other words fundamentalists could get people elected, but they couldn’t persuade those people to enact the movement’s most outrageous policies.

The cultural base on which Weyrich had hoped to build his fundamentalist juggernaut was not as broad as he had hoped. Weyrich blamed the public’s weak interest in his extreme goals on the spread of “Cultural Marxism.” Instead of focusing their efforts on government, he urged religious activists to direct their attention toward a transformation of the culture.

This did not mean that evangelicals would take their Bibles and go home. Under Weyrich’s influence religious revolutionaries would still participate in politics, but they would cease to care about effective government.

Weyrich’s shift was not uncontroversial, but it gradually gained political force. In 2001, his Free Congress Foundation released a manifesto called Integration of Theory and Practice meant to guide activists in the pursuit of this new direction.

The document recommends “intimidating people and institutions that are used as tools of left-wing activism” so that “leftist causes will no longer be the path of least resistance.” It endorses “obnoxious” tactics designed to “serve as a force of social intimidation.” It outlines a grim strategy, “We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them.”

Weyrich didn’t create these strains in the fundamentalist movement, but he took them off the leash. No longer hoping to achieve power as a majority, extreme religious conservatives were freed from the demands of government.  No longer would fundamentalists need to think about compromise, effectiveness, or even competence as priorities. Consequences mattered less than purity.

The document also described a new posture toward libertarians:

“There is nothing in this movement that an operational libertarian would find objectionable…this movement does not promote a direct confrontation with the state, but a sort of “weaning off,” or a “walking away” from the state.”

But then there is this critical qualification:

“[We] must be willing to lose allies among the libertarians we brought on board the post-war conservative coalition …[W]e choose not to make a fetish of political freedom. We recognize that there are other freedoms besides political freedom–such as the freedom not to be subjected to a barrage of cultural decadence at every turn.

Those two paragraphs written a decade ago define the scope of alignment in our time between fundamentalists and libertarians. Weyrich’s strategic shift not only changed the shape of the Religious Right, it eventually shifted the balance of power among the various libertarian factions.

This carefully calibrated opening from well-established Republican evangelicals meant that libertarians for the first time could actually win elections, so long as they were willing to embrace a deeply religious, Neo-Confederate re-branding of the philosophy. Ayn Rand would be pushed to the background to make room for Ludwig von Mises.

The alignment between evangelicals and libertarians is most visible under the banner of the Tea Party. Rand Paul has thrived in this new environment. A few adjustments allow him to become a far more potent figure than his father without compromising his values…much.

This new political alignment means the far right has no incentive to compromise on issues critical to America’s fiscal health. The ratio of spending cuts to tax increases doesn’t matter to the Tea Party. They will not accept any deal that fails to weaken the Federal government.

How much damage are they willing to accept in pursuit of this strategy? Glenn Beck’s investments in food storage and the helpful survival guides he offers on his websites offer a hint. Unless Republicans find a way to counter this alliance inside the party we may all need to buy more of what Beck is selling.


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Chris Ladd

Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area.  He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. 

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