Evangelicals are reportedly among the least likely to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Southern Methodist University associate professor Stephanie Martin attributes that to current understandings of conservatism, which are often also linked with notions about economic and individual liberties.
Martin says before Ronald Reagan helped redefine conservatism in the 1980s, Edmund Burke was its figurehead. Under Burke, it had more to do with mutual obligation and duty to others.
“We can talk to our evangelical friends, we can talk to our conservative friends, and we could say, ‘Hey, you have a responsibility that extends beyond your family, that extends beyond yourself. And what is your responsibility as a conservative to the generations past, to the generations future?’” Martin said.
Listen to the player above or read the transcript below to hear more about how Martin tracks the changes in conservatism.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: When we’re talking about evangelicals and COVID vaccine hesitancy, can we separate that from politics or is it, in general, just part of the equation?
Stephanie Martin: Evangelicals are very likely to also vote for Republican candidates, so there’s a big conversation going on among people like me who study politics and political science about whether evangelical really is a religious descriptor anymore or if it describes more of a political subculture. And so, for some people, they get really upset when we link where a person goes to church with how a person votes. But 88% of people who self identify as evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election, for example. So there’s a tight correlation to what happens. But it doesn’t necessarily mean we know everything.
Ronald Reagan is associated with conservative Christianity and politics these days. But there’s an earlier icon of the movement that you’ve drawn attention to.
Before Ronald Reagan emerged on the public scene in 1980, the patron saint of conservatism was an Irish statesman named Edmund Burke. And he really prized tradition and hierarchy and autonomy. Of course, he prized personal liberty and the things that we hear about now, personal freedom and one’s rights to those. But he also talked a lot about how to be conservative meant to have a sense of obligation and duty, and not just to the people who live now or the people in your own family or in your own circle but to generations past and generations future. In my research, I talk about that many people have heard that Jesus talked about how you should do unto your neighbor as you do unto yourself. And Burke described that as sort of that same admonition from Jesus, but extended out to generations past, present and future.
But does Edmund Burke carry the same weight as a figure like Ronald Reagan in the context of contemporary politics?
No. So when Ronald Reagan rose to power, he really embraced a different kind of conservatism that is much more associated with people like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. And this kind of conservatism really emphasizes individual liberty, and it says that to tell people that they’re obligated to other people is really to champion coercion and to force them to do things that they don’t necessarily want to do. And so if you choose to help your neighbor, if you choose to act in a way that engages in good for another person, that’s your choice. And it may very well be a good thing to do. But I can’t make you do that. That encroaches on my freedom.
Are we talking here as much about conservative economics and free-market philosophy as religion?
Right. So what has happened in conservatism is that there has been a real emphasis on economic freedom that has overwhelmed the sort of other ways that we understand conservatism. And it has emptied out that sense of obligation and responsibility.
So what’s the takeaway for someone seeking to get back to Burke’s ideas of conservatism?
Many people may be familiar with a quote that they think is from Edmund Burke, but it really is not. And it is the quote that goes, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Doing nothing is refusing to wear a mask or refusing to get a vaccine. And one thing we could do is talk to one another about what is our mutual responsibility. We can talk to our evangelical friends, we can talk to our conservative friends, and we could say, “Hey, you have a responsibility that extends beyond your family, that extends beyond yourself. And what is your responsibility as a conservative to the generations past, to the generations future?” And just remind them that doing nothing is actually engaging in a form of evil. At least the conservatism before Reagan would suggest that.