The American colonies were first settled by Protestant dissenters. These were people who refused to submit to the established religious authorities. They sought personal relationships with God. They moved to the frontier when life got too confining. They created an American creed, built, as the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset put it, around liberty, individualism, equal opportunity, populism and laissez-faire.
This creed shaped America and evolved with the decades. Starting in the mid-20th century, there was a Southern and Western version of it, formed by ranching Republicans like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Their version drew on the traditional tenets: ordinary people are capable of greatness; individuals have the power to shape their destinies; they should be given maximum freedom to do so.
This is not an Ayn Randian, radically individualistic belief system. Republicans in this mold place tremendous importance on churches, charities and families — on the sort of pastoral work Mitt Romney does and the sort of community groups Representative Paul Ryan celebrated in a speech at Cleveland State University last month.