Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

10

Behind the Sharon Statement

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If you’ve been around organized conservatism for long, you’ve almost certainly heard of the 1960 Sharon Statement, long cited as a declaration of principles around which the then-burgeoning conservative movement could rally, much as the Port Huron Statement later served such a function for the New Left. At his blog QuickSilber, after discussing the somewhat varied religious viewpoints held by early National Review editors, Ken Silber writes:

But a better indicator, it seems to me, is the Sharon Statement, drafted by [M. Stanton] Evans and adopted by young conservatives in 1960 at William F. Buckley’s Connecticut estate. It was only by a close vote (44-40) that these conservatives decided to put the word “God” in the statement, and when they did it was to say: “That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” The manifesto was, as Glenn Reynolds might put it, religious but not too much.

And then in comments he adds:

Whether the slim majority in the Sharon group was correct or not, I think the closeness of the vote, and the paucity in their manifesto of what are now known as “social issues,” suggests that religion was present in conservatism in 1960 but less than dominant.

In retrospect, the statement’s choice of language can also be seen as a deft stroke of compromise: the religious conservatives got one definite tip of the hat toward their views, if only of a Sunday-politeness sort, while the large secular contingent (who then, as now, would have tended to skew toward individual-liberty-based versions of conservatism) were in effect assured that to the extent the movement drew on religious sentiment, it would be for the purpose of asserting the individual’s “right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force”. That foreshadowed what Grover Norquist was later to call the “leave us alone” coalition that was to hold together for a good long time as a political matter, even if battered almost beyond recognition now.

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11 comments

  • TGGP · December 10, 2008 at 9:28 am

    David Frum points out that in the 60s/70s the “social issue” was assumed to be crime rather than abortion or other religiously tinged issues.

  • Polichinello · December 10, 2008 at 9:32 am

    What are the “transcendent values”?

    What exactly is meant by “transcendent”?

  • Author comment by Walter Olson · December 10, 2008 at 9:38 am

    I take “transcendent” as another clever bridge-word. The secularists could read it as “overarching” and the religious could read it as “surpassing things of this world”.

  • Author comment by Walter Olson · December 10, 2008 at 9:40 am

    “Bridge-word” = “fudge-word”, depending on how sympathetic you are to the coalition-building attempt being made.

  • ◄Dave► · December 10, 2008 at 9:41 am

    I had not seen the Sharon Statement before. Although I am personally godless, and therefore consider it a superfluous, the inclusion of “God-given” does not offend me; anymore than the religious flourishes in our founding documents do. If the one word “Communism” could be replaced with “Marxism,” to subsume all of its derivatives, I would sign it today.

    Were it universally agreed to be definitional of a “conservative,” I would happily stop resisting the label, and insisting that I am instead a small (L) libertarian. This is precisely what I mean when I say the litmus tests of the Politically or Piously Correct moralists have nothing to do with good government, and those of us who value individual Liberty need to hijack one of the Parties to represent our worldview.

    I didn’t leave the Democrat Party in the late ’60s; they left me. I didn’t leave the Republican Party in the late ’80s; they left me. I never joined the Libertarian Party; because they are hopeless purists arguing over minutia, and the game is rigged against third parties. Color me homeless. ◄Dave►

  • matoko_chan · December 10, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Walter, the real solution is to treat Christians just like they treat teh gey. Do unto otheres an’ all that jazz.
    Reguarding religious belief, don’t ask, don’t tell. ;)

  • Ivan Karamazov · December 10, 2008 at 11:49 am

    ◄Dave► :
    I didn’t leave the Democrat Party in the late ’60s; they left me. I didn’t leave the Republican Party in the late ’80s; they left me. I never joined the Libertarian Party; because they are hopeless purists arguing over minutia, and the game is rigged against third parties. Color me homeless. ◄Dave►

    Yes, homeless for now, but you are not without traveling companions. What you wrote applies also to me, 100%.

  • SSFC · December 10, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    In some circles, “God-given” is just another way of saying “inalienable”. I recall that in the 80s many made much of the fact that Gorbachev used the Russian equivalent of the phrase “God willing” in his speeches, until it was pointed out that the phrase was common Russian idiom that Stalin had used in speeches as well.

  • y81 · December 10, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    Huh? Abortion and homosexual activity were illegal in 1960. Divorce was barely legal in many states. If a landlord didn’t want to rent to an unmarried couple, he didn’t have to. Etc., etc. If we went back to that world, I think the “religious” conservatives would be happy to stop imposing their values on others and get out of politics. Or, if it makes you happier, they would promise to vote for whomever the Republican party nominates, as my grandfather did. Call me as soon as that deal is on the table.

  • Ken Silber · December 11, 2008 at 6:31 am

    y81, you’ve got a point but it only goes so far. Reagan as governor of California signed a liberal abortion law in 1967 and yet continued to be seen as a conservative leader overall. Would that happen today?

  • Author comment by Walter Olson · December 11, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    James Poulos also discusses at Culture11’s Postmodern Conservative, dissenting from the Statement’s handling of the concepts of “government” and “the individual”.

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