Rand Paul is an unlikely fundamentalist hero. 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 and hasn’t denied his past drug use. On culture war issues he prefers to dodge rather than charge. In many respects Paul looks like the sort of Republican that the religious right has tried to purge from the party.
Yet Paul’s 2010 primary campaign against a well-established Republican drew endorsements from Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and even the Concerned Women for America. The lock was in late in the primary campaign when James Dobson at 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? Why are evangelicals overwhelmingly the largest block of Tea Party supporters?
This poorly understood and carefully limited alliance of libertarians and the religious right can be partly traced to a strategic shift by Paul Weyrich during the Clinton years. It helps explain why competence has diminished as a priority and some 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 the problem, “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 extreme 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 more radical goals on the spread “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 much about governing.
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 dark 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.”
No longer hoping to achieve power as a majority, religious conservatives were freed from the demands of effective government. Evangelicals could shed any concern for compromise, effectiveness, or even competence as political 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 didn’t create these strains in the fundamentalist movement, but he took them off the leash. His shift neutralized a gnawing disagreement among fundamentalists over pre-millennial and post-millennial theology. This approach meant the disagreement no longer mattered for practical purposes.
Weyrich’s strategic shift not only changed the fundamentalist movement, it eventually shifted the balance of power among libertarians. This carefully calibrated opening from well-established Republican evangelicals meant that libertarians could actually win elections, so long as they were willing to embrace a deeply Southern re-branding of the philosophy. Goodbye Ayn Rand, hello Ludwig von Mises.
The alignment between evangelicals and libertarians is most visible under the banner of the Tea Party. The religious wing brings the motivating force of a fresh apocalyptic fetish while the opening to the libertarians offers some cover. Rand Paul has thrived in this new environment, downplaying his libertarian credentials while backing key fundamentalist priorities. A few adjustments allow him to become a far more potent figure than his father without compromising his values … much.
For the country this new political phenomenon 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 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.