Religion and the conservative schism

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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As regular readers know, I’ve been writing about the new conservative schism, which (for lack of a better description), pits the conservative establishment versus the anti-establishment.

During my last foray into the subject, I struggled to find appropriate descriptions for the opposing sides, finally settling on “anti-intellectual tea party ‘hobbits’ versus Burkean Buckleyites — or as salt of the earth ‘country class’ conservatives versus ‘ruling class’ establishment elites.”

The post aroused quite a bit of discussion — and some resented my assertion that populist/grassroots conservatives were in some way un-Burkean.

Though I vehemently disagree with many of her assertions, writing in the New York Times this Sunday, Sheri Berman did a pretty good job of explaining the fundamental division:

[Edmund] Burke fits the situational definition of conservatism well, since he was concerned with preserving institutions that had been tested “in terms of history, God, nature and man,” as Huntington once wrote. This led him to defend Whig institutions in England and democratic institutions in America, since he believed they were each anchored in their particular societies and traditions. But it also led him to champion the cause of people subjected to the injustices of British imperialism, which tended to destroy traditional institutions in the colonies.

Palin, meanwhile, is nothing if not an anti-elitist … In fact, the most powerful part of the modern right has been not elitist but populist.

This, of course, is not a terribly original observation. In fact, I recently interviewed Salon’s Michael Lind, who makes a similar observation. Lind essentially argues the split can be explained as an outgrowth of the the dichotomy between Catholics and Anglicans (who tend to hew to tradition) versus Evangelicals. As Lind argues, their Evangelical faith would naturally lead conservatives like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin to embrace a more populist brand of conservatism.

Though painting with a broad brush is always dangerous, one could probably anecdotally conclude that the conservative schism does tend to parallel divisions between the “high church” and the “low church”(Note: Burke was Anglican, though his mother was a Catholic).

This, of course, is not universally true. People of faith are not monolithic (Catholics can be populists and Baptists can be elitists) — but neither is it some abstract theory. One can readily observe this phenomenon at play today.

Consider the differences between the conservative National Review (founded by devout Catholic William F. Buckley) versus, say,, a decidedly more (but not exclusively) southern (and admittedly, newer) outlet. Both are conservative, but they frequently come to different conclusions.

And one could even see a trace of the phenomenon this weekend at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Conference, where an evangelical “mega-church” pastor (who had introduced Rick Perry), attacked Mitt Romney’s faith. The next day, Bill Bennett, an intellectual and a Catholic, would publicly scold him, saying: “You did Rick Perry no good, sir, in what you had to say.”

Matt K. Lewis