Triple Fundamentalism: The New American Conservatism

At the top of my list of essays I wish I had written is the new piece by Michael Lind over at Salon, in which he describes contemporary American conservatism as “triple fundamentalism:”

The increasingly-Southernized American Right has transferred the fundamentalist Protestant mentality from the sphere of religion to the spheres of law and the economy. Protestant fundamentalism is now joined by constitutional fundamentalism and market fundamentalism.

I have long argued that the way in which conservatives like David Barton, and in fact the tea partiers in general, read the Constitution and US history parallels the way in which they read the Bible. And Yoni Applebaum at The Atlantic did so earlier this year, too. But Lind connects this observation to what he characterizes as market fundamentalism a la the Austrian School (like von Mises and Hayek) and Ayn Rand. I’ve written about that viewpoint here, but it’s his framing as market fundamentalism conjoined with religious and constitutional fundamentalism that I find so helpful.

Lind places his whole argument in the context of the changing character of American conservatism from the era of conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley, to today’s populist anti-intellectuals (my term). He writes:

In all three cases, the pattern is the same. There is the eternal Truth that never varies—the will of God, the principles of the Founding Fathers, the so-called laws of the free market. There are the scriptures which explain the eternal truths—the King James Bible, in the case of religious fundamentalism, the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, in the case of constitutional fundamentalism, and Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in the case of market fundamentalism (The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand can be substituted for Hayek, on request).

Lind makes important distinctions between fundamentalism and orthodoxy, using the term fundamentalism to describe the perspective rather than to merely disparage it. Linking it to the low church Protestantism out of which it emerged, he writes:

It is also the populism of Populism. As an intermediary between the soul and God, the church hierarchy has been all but replaced by the Bible in fundamentalist Protestantism. Nor is there any need for theologians to expound the Bible, which was conveniently written in English so that it can be understood by any plain American.

He also shows how toxic this triple fundamentalism is to civic discourse where reasoned philosophical disagreement gives way to a mentality of holy war in which those with whom we disagree are not well meaning fellow Americans engaged in the democratic process, but instead, heretics.

Lind is optimistic that “sooner or later, dogmatism and reality will collide,” and the “era of triple fundamentalism will come to an end.” We should all hope he is as effective at prognostication as he is at cultural analysis.

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