[A]ll the recent carping about liberal alarm over the religious underpinnings of contemporary conservatism seems to miss the big picture rather dramatically. Both Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have conspicuously offered themselves as leaders to religio-political activists who, whatever their theological differences, largely share a belief that God’s Will on Earth requires the repeal of abortion rights and same-sex relationship rights, radical curtailment of government involvement in education or welfare, assertion of Christian nationhood in both domestic and international relations, and a host of other controversial initiatives. Does it ultimately matter, then, whether these activists consider themselves “dominionists” or “reconstructionists,” or subscribe to Bill Bright’s Seven Mountains theory of Christian influence over civic and cultural life? I don’t think so.
Similarly, the frequent mainstream media and conservative recasting of the Tea Party as just a spontaneous salt-of-the-earth expression of common-sense attitudes towards fiscal profligacy is hard to sustain in light of the almost-constant espousal of “constitutional conservative” ideology by Tea Party leaders and the politicians most closely associated with them. Perhaps Rick Perry, just like his Tea Party fans, really is personally angry about the stimulus legislation of 2009 or the Affordable Care Act of 2010, and that’s fine. But no mainstream conservative leader since Goldwater has published a book challenging the constitutionality and morality of the entire policy legacy of the New Deal and (with the marginal exception of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) the Great Society. Ronald Reagan, to cite just one prominent example, justified his own conservative ideology as the reaction of a pure-bred New Deal Democrat to the later excesses of liberalism. Reagan also largely refrained from promoting his policy ideas as reflecting a mandate from God or the Founders, and he treated Democrats with at least minimal respect.
In that sense, major presidential candidates like Perry and Bachmann really are something new under the sun. They embody a newly ascendant strain of conservatism that is indeed radical or extremist in its claims to represent not just good economics or good governance, but eternal verities that popular majorities can help implement but can never overturn. They deserve all the scrutiny they have attracted, and more.