“Libertarian” Doesn’t Mean “Liberal”

An exchange between New York‘s Kevin Roose and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., casts an interesting light on the big media meme that conservatism is being increasingly dominated by “libertarians” at the expense of the Christian Right. Asked about rumored weakening of opposition to marriage equality, Falwell the Younger had this to say about political trends at Liberty, one of the Christian Right’s primary training camps:

As you know…most of our faculty, staff and students are very conservative politically and theologically. I do not see that changing at all. For example, in Liberty’s voting precinct, Romney won 93% of the vote and that precinct had, by far, the highest turnout in the area. Students still are very much pro-life and pro-traditional marriage just like they have always been and the ones who voted for Romney indicated those two issues were the main reasons they supported Romney over Obama. The only shift I have noticed in recent years has been more support among conservative Christians, especially young ones, for libertarians. In Virginia, only Romney and Ron Paul were on the ballot in the Republican primary and Ron Paul won at the campus precinct. So, if anything, our students are becoming more conservative on the issue of limiting the size and scope of government while remaining conservative on the social issues.

What Falwell is describing, of course, is the world-view that dominates the Tea Party Movement: hard-core opposition to government “interference” in the economy combined with hard-core conservative cultural views. But it’s a world-view that’s been aborning for a long time. For the gazillions of words written about the steadily growing influence of the Christian Right within the conservative movement and the Republican Party over the last few decades, far less has been written about the equally important incorporation of “libertarian” economic and role-of-governnent extremism by the Christian Right itself.

The proto-Christian-Right of the old-timey southern conservative evangelicals of the period prior to the establishment of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s often reflected reactionary views on issues remote from central cultural concerns: hostility to labor unions, defense of segregation and neo-segregation (via church-based separatist private schools designed to circumvent school desegregation), celebration of godly “self-made-men” who had accumulated vast wealth, etc. But once the institutional Christian Right entered into what might have once been called a “marriage of convenience,” it has steadily acclimated itself to secular conservative private-property absolutism in all its forms (most notably hostility to environmentalism, often described as “pagan”). And one of the most distinctive features of the Tea Party faith has been the divinization of such views, often via idolatry aimed at the Declaration of Independence, thought to reflect a theocratic charter for America making pervasive property rights, strictly limited government and the “rights of the unborn” and “traditional marriage” the only legitimate governing tenets for the country. Libertarians, of course, share some if not all of this agenda. So a growing warmth for libertarianism within the Christian Right is not a problem for its leaders, and does not necessarily mean a growing warmth for any kind of cultural liberalism.

Indeed, as Falwell notes, this “teavangelical” coalition (as some have called it) has a common enemy:

Rand Paul wrote a column recently about his father’s legacy and he noted that the two universities that gave his father the most enthusiastic reception were UC-Berkeley and Liberty. His point was that there is support on the left and the right for more limited government and expanded individual liberties and freedom. I think he is right and I think the Republicans will continue to lose if they keep running candidates who try to move toward the middle to attract the “independent” voters.

Arguably, then, Christian Right interest in “libertarianism” is a sign of hardening, not softening, ideological bonds. And if, as appears entirely possible, Rand Paul becomes a maximum leader of conservative extremism in all its forms, that could become much more apparent.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.