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OH, HOLY GOVERNMENT

12:00 AM, Apr 15, 1996 • By CHARLES R. KESLER
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At a time when the winning alliance between . social and economic conservatives seems ready to unravel, here comes a book on the American Revolution designed to reassure and inspirit today's aspiring revolutionaries.

Marvin Olasky, author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, the influential social history of American welfare policy that has become the bible of devolution, argues in Fighting for Liberty and Virtue (Crossway Books, 316 pages, $ 25) that at the heart of the American Revolution was a coalition of religious activists and tax rebels -- advocates respectively of " holy government" and "small government," in Olasky's terms -- who united to throw off the "big government" pretensions of the British empire. In one way or another, according to Olasky, this alliance between the supporters of personal virtue and the supporters of limited government has been central to American politics ever since, right down to its revival in the conservative movement of our day.

Reading today's politics back into the past is a dubious enterprise, of course, but Olasky claims only to be discovering the latent parallels between "political and cultural wars in eighteenth-century America" (the book's subtitle) and those of the past three decades. At any rate, his eye for the " interplay of politics, religion, sex, and revolution" distinguishes this book from any other on the subject.

The most important and persuasive part of the volume is Olasky's account of the religious roots of the Revolution. He shows that the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s helped prepare the way for later political upheavals, insofar as the "criticism of a corrupt church" set the stage for the " criticism of a corrupt government."

This interpretation finds little favor in contemporary scholarship, which tends to view the Revolution either as the last gasp of classical republicanism or the first eruption of Lockean liberalism. But it does aid in making sense of the suspicious reactions here to the Stamp Act, Quebec Act, and other British policies of the 1760s and 1770s. Why get so upset over a small tax on tea, after all? Historian Bernard Bailyn and his followers attributed the deepening mistrust to the ideology Americans had imbibed from Cato's Letters and other opposition Whig writings of the early 18th century -- the idea that liberty is always threatened by power, whose encroaching nature must perforce be resisted. These notions crystallized into an irrational fear of power, and so the Revolution was, in Bailyn's view, a tragic but inevitable overreaction, a kind of ideological mass hysteria.

Olasky, by contrast, emphasizes the growing moral estrangement from the British after the Great Awakening. The mother country didn't help matters by sending as royal governors some of the most inept and shameless characters imaginable -- among them Lord Cornbury, who between persecutions of New York Presbyterians and Dutch Reform preachers took time out to don women's clothing and prowl around the governor's palace in drunken drag. In the French and Indian War (1756-1763), Americans saw first-hand the cruelty and dissolute nature of many British officers. Reports circulated widely of the blasphemies and sexual libertinism of prominent British aristocrats, who built Playboy Mansion-style pleasure palaces outside London in which to indulge their vices. And the chief prelates of the established Anglican Church, who constituted a sixth of the House of Lords, schemed to bring dissenting Americans to heel by appointing bishops for the colonies.

Faced with such provocations, the Americans really did begin to see the British as corrupt -- their once virtuous empire going rapidly the way of pagan Rome, their godly kingdom falling into Babylonian sensuality. Not that the colonists thought themselves so good or holy; their newspapers and sermons were filled with self-reproach, and Olasky shows, in almost prurient detail, that some of our forebears did a lot more than just lust in their hearts. But the Americans were acutely conscious of their backsliding, and so -- whether from sterner morals or the frontier shortage of vices -- they came to regard themselves as more vigorous and virtuous than the British, at least.

Olasky describes how the movement for independence -- the alliance between " libertarians who feared governmental power" and "Christian conservatives who emphasized sin" -- was knit together by the political craftsmanship of Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Witherspoon, and other statesmen. The movement's character was determined by the negative judgment, shared by both sides for different reasons, that political "authority must be circumscribed." Like the Reagan coalition two centuries later, this original American coalition was defined more by its possession of common enemies than its allegiance to common principles or purposes.