During the campaign of 1964, [he] was our incorruptible standard-bearer," recalled William F. Buckley, Jr., in his 1998 obituary of Barry Goldwater, the career senator from Arizona, 34 years after the watershed. Goldwater, of course, was defeated resoundingly on Election Day, winning only six states. "It was the judgment of the establishment that Goldwater's critique of American liberalism had been given its final exposure on the national political scene," Buckley continued. "But then of course 16 years later the world was made to stand on its head when Ronald Reagan was swept into office on a platform indistinguishable from what Barry had been preaching."

Strange, then, that these days many commentators believe that Goldwater's conservatism was a different species from Reagan's and, especially, from George W. Bush's. Though admittedly an economic conservative, Goldwater has become an icon of opposition to social conservatism. When the 2004 Republican national convention showcased social liberals like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani, George F. Will proclaimed, "[Goldwater's] kind of conservatism made a comeback." By "Goldwater conservatism" Will meant "muscular foreign policy backing unapologetic nationalism; economic policies of low taxation and light regulation; a libertarian inclination regarding cultural questions."

Will was merely restating the consensus view. Darcy Olsen, president of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, argued on the fifth anniversary of Goldwater's death that "Goldwater conservative" had "a different meaning than just saying, 'I am a Republican,' because when you say 'I am a Republican,' people assume that you're involved in the Moral Majority. It's its own brand…very libertarian." Senator John McCain said that Goldwater "disliked the religious right, because he felt they were intolerant, because Barry was not only conservative, but he was also to a degree libertarian."

What does the notion that Goldwater was a libertarian mean? First, it suggests that the cultural Right has abandoned true conservatism. It implies that presidents like Reagan and Bush, who have relied heavily on socially conservative voters, deviate from Goldwater's rugged and pure frontier conservatism. And then there is the implication, appearing frequently in the mainstream media, that Republicans must move back in Goldwater's direction if they are to reclaim their intellectual credibility.

But this interpretation happens to be wrong: it overlooks the role of social issues in the origins of the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr.'s, God and Man at Yale (1951) complained not only about economic collectivism but also about rampant agnosticism and atheism among Yale's faculty. Ever since, the conservative movement has been as concerned with religious and moral issues as with economic and libertarian ones. Goldwater's 1964 campaign actually shaped the social conservatism of the modern Republican Party in at least three crucial respects: his view of human nature and the American republic; his concern over the moral deterioration of American society; and his stand on several key policy questions.

Human Nature

Goldwater articulated a view of the American Founding and America's purpose, as well as the nature of man, that was fundamentally moral, even religious, in character. In the introduction to his bestselling The Conscience of a Conservative(1960), Goldwater argued, "The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline." Conservative principles "are derived from the truths that God has revealed about his creation." In the first chapter, he (and his ghostwriter, L. Brent Bozell) wrote: 

The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man's nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man's nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man's spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy…. Man's most sacred possession is his individual soul.

The 1964 Republican platform, the handiwork of committed Goldwaterites, declared:

Much of today's moral decline and drift—much of the prevailing preoccupation with physical and material comforts of life—much of today's crass political appeals to the appetites of the citizenry—can be traced to a leadership grown demagogic and materialistic through indifference to national ideals founded in devoutly held religious faith. The Republican Party seeks not to renounce this heritage of faith and high purpose; rather, we are determined to reaffirm and reapply it.

In his speech accepting the 1964 presidential nomination, Goldwater extolled "freedom under a government limited by the laws of nature and of nature's God." He warned that

those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for Divine Will, and this Nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.

Reagan and Bush later echoed this language.

Goldwater decried the general moral decline of the time. On the campaign trail, he asked, "What's happening to us? What's happening to our America?" His campaign ran several television spots on this theme, which he called simply the "moral issue." In one commercial an announcer shouts, "Graft! Swindle! Juvenile delinquency! Crime! Riots!" before Goldwater proclaims: "Let this generation of Americans set a standard of responsibility that will inspire the world."

Another spot linked the corruption of government officials to moral deterioration. Goldwater exclaims, "Americans everywhere are indignant about the moral decay in Washington," while the narrator calls on voters to "put conscience back in government." A third advertisement asked "What has happened to our America? We build libraries and galleries to hold the world's greatest treasury of art—and we permit the world's greatest collection of smut to be freely available anywhere." A fourth featured Goldwater speaking directly into the camera:

Is moral responsibility out of style? Our papers and our newsreels and yes, our own observations, tell us that immorality surrounds us as never before. We as a nation are not far from the kind of moral decay that has brought on the fall of other nations and people…. [The] philosophy of something for nothing, [the] cult of individual and governmental irresponsibility, is an insidious cancer that will destroy us unless we recognize it and root it out now.

Goldwater made morality the centerpiece of a 30-minute televised address that aired on CBS on October 20, 1964. After citing George Washington's dictum, "'Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,'" Goldwater said, "The moral fiber of the American people is beset by rot and decay," and pledged "every effort to a reconstruction of reverence and moral strength."

The campaign also produced, but did not air, a television program called "Choice." It focused on the "moral issue," and featured disturbing footage of topless bars, wild beatnik parties, drunken college students, and riots by both whites and blacks. Goldwater declined to use the film in the end, but only, it seems, because he feared that scenes of blacks rioting would introduce unseemly racial overtones into the campaign. But he had no inherent objection to addressing the other issues raised in the show.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s History of American Presidential Elections included a scathing contemporaneous account from John Bartlow Martin: "Goldwater's moral strictures soon began to sound preachy; he almost castigated Americans for their wickedness…. Goldwater looked not only like the mad bomber, but the half-crazed moral zealot." Sympathetic observers would characterize his message differently, but what is clear is that Goldwater hardly eschewed moral, social, and cultural themes.

The Rise of the Moral Issue

Nor did he discuss these themes in outline only. He and his party took a socially conservative stand on a number of policy issues. The 1964 GOP platform endorsed a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's school-prayer decisions and to permit voluntary school prayer. In his CBS televised address, Goldwater asked, "Is this the time in our nation's history for our Federal Government to ban Almighty God from our classrooms?" He answered: "Ours is both a religious and a free people. Over years past we have encountered no difficulty in absorbing that religious character into our state institutions, while at the same time preserving religious liberty and separation of church and state." Goldwater pointed out that his Democratic opponents ignored far more than just school prayer: "you will search in vain for any reference to God or religion in the Democratic platform." The Republican platform called for enactment of legislation "to curb the flow through the mails of obscene materials"; it criticized the Democratic administration and Congress for resisting tuition tax credits; and, not least, it emphasized the rise in crime as a moral issue, not merely a sociological one.

The Conscience of a Conservative devoted an entire chapter to education, anticipating its importance in the eyes of social conservatives. Goldwater paraphrased Dorothy Sayers when he wrote that Americans must "recapture the lost art of learning." He argued that

in our attempt to make education 'fun,' we have neglected the academic disciplines that develop sound minds and are conducive to sound characters…. We have forgotten that the proper function of the school is to transmit the cultural heritage of one generation to the next generation.

As a solution, he advocated a renewed emphasis on basic subjects, within the context of local control of schools.
In The Making of the President 1964, political journalist and election chronicler Theodore White wrote:

Goldwater could offer—and this was his greatest contribution to American politics—only a contagious concern which made people realize that indeed they must begin to think about such things. And this will be his great credit in historical terms: that finally he introduced the condition and quality of American morality and life as a subject of political debate…. Yet he had no handle to the problem, no program, no solution—except backward to the Bible and the God of the desert.

It's worth reflecting on this paragraph. Writing in 1965, White of course could not have predicted Goldwater's contribution to the long-term rise of conservatism. Nonetheless, this respected center-left analyst held that the Republican nominee's "greatest contribution to American politics" and his "great credit in historical terms" lay not in any impact he might have had on foreign or economic policy, but in the way he forced the "moral issue" onto the national agenda. White also had no difficulty identifying Goldwater's prescription: "the Bible and the God of the desert."

It should come as no surprise, then, that a number of veterans of the Goldwater effort later made names for themselves as leaders of the burgeoning grassroots movement of social conservatives. As Goldwater biographer Lee Edwards has pointed out, "almost all the leaders of the New Right…were drawn into politics because of [Goldwater]," figures like Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, and Morton Blackwell. For them, the transition was seamless.

Goldwater's move away from social conservatism came only in the twilight of his Senate career—and more starkly after he had left the Senate in 1987. Throughout the 1970s, he opposed abortion on demand and taxpayer funding of abortions. (He wavered on a constitutional amendment restricting abortion.) In 1980, in the midst of his last and most difficult Senate race, he endorsed the Human Life Amendment. Only in his final term did he adopt a pro-choice position, voting in 1983 against a constitutional amendment that would have reversed Roe v. Wade and returned legislative authority over abortion to the states. In 1984, he reversed his 1964 position by voting against a constitutional amendment to restore voluntary prayer to public schools. As late as 1985 he opposed "gay rights" legislation. Only in 1993, six years after leaving the Senate, did he change his view. 

Goldwater's shift was largely a reaction against the leaders of the New Right, for whom his dislike grew stronger as their influence increased. In 1981, Goldwater said of the leader of the Moral Majority, "Every good Christian should kick [Jerry] Falwell in the ass." He also had personal reasons: one daughter and three granddaughters of his had had abortions; and a grandson and a grandniece were homosexual. In 1937, his wife, Peggy, had become a founding member of Planned Parenthood of Arizona, and the couple remained active in the organization throughout Goldwater's Senate career. Though he initially rejected Planned Parenthood's position on abortion, his long association with the group would ultimately make a convert of him. For Goldwater, private considerations like these sometimes trumped abstract philosophy.

Liberty and Morality

So how has the myth developed of the great gulf between "Goldwater conservatism" and Reagan's and Bush's? To begin with, several of the hot-button issues that later mobilized social conservatives en masse were non-issues in 1964, or had barely begun to stir. The '60s counterculture was inchoate, as was radical feminism. The downward spiral of social trends had just begun, as had the Left's crusade to obliterate religion from public life. Key court decisions on abortion, criminal rights, and gay rights lay in the future. Consequently, a distinct mass movement of religious traditionalists—a "Religious Right" with tens of thousands of foot soldiers—did not exist for the Goldwater campaign to incorporate. (To be sure, an intellectual movement of social traditionalists, including Russell Kirk, existed already and backed Goldwater.)

When Goldwater underwent his transformation as the years wore on, liberals rushed to embrace him. This Goldwater became every liberal's favorite conservative—not the historic figure who had condemned moral decay, extolled the religious underpinnings of American society, championed school prayer, inveighed against big government, and helped launch the modern conservative movement. Yet it was the latter Goldwater who ran for president, who galvanized Reagan and pointed the way to a long-term Republican electoral realignment.

Conservatives today need to revive Goldwater's argument in the '60s, and Reagan's in the '80s, that liberty is not only compatible with morality, it depends on it. Limited government cannot long coexist with a collapse of moral order; and an unlimited government is usually the consequence of an amoral society. Sweden, for instance, has both one of the most hedonistic societies in Europe and one of its most smothering welfare states. When in 1964 Goldwater told the graduating class of the Pennsylvania Military College that "it is impossible to maintain freedom and order and justice without religious and moral sanctions," he at once echoed George Washington and Alexis de Tocqueville, presaged Reagan, and issued a clarion call for future generations.