Friday, April 22, 2005

Conservative Split

I guess I'm having a New Republic kind of day.

Over at TNR, Andrew Sullilvan has a great essay that argues Christian fundamentalism is dividing conservative ideology. It's because of this creeping religious fundamentalism that the Republican conservatism has become so contradictory. Here's the contradictions plaguing the GOP according to Sullivan:
Today's conservatives support limited government. But they believe the federal government can intervene in a state court's decisions in a single family's struggle over life and death. They believe in restraining government spending. But they have increased such spending by a mind-boggling 33 percent in a mere four years. They believe in self-reliance. But they have just passed the most expensive new entitlement since the heyday of Great Society liberalism: the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. They believe that foreign policy is about the pursuit of national interest and that the military should be used only to fight and win wars. Yet they have embarked on an extraordinarily ambitious program of military-led nation-building in the Middle East. They believe in states' rights, but they want to amend the Constitution to forbid any state from allowing civil marriage or equivalent civil unions for gay couples. They believe in free trade. But they have imposed tariffs on a number of industries, most famously steel. They believe in balanced budgets. But they have abandoned fiscal discipline and added a cool trillion dollars to the national debt in one presidential term.
How can the Republican Party accomodate such inconsistency? Because there's two conservative streaks functioning underneath one GOP banner, one strain being conservatives of faith and the other conservatives of doubt. While Sullivan admits it's an artificial construct, it nevertheless does an excellent job of clarifying why the modern GOP likes to peak underneath our sheets.

Conservatives of faith are in the ascendency and have considerable sway within the ruling Republican Party. They're driving the carriage of state and perched upon high, they're deadset on steering governmental policy toward institutionalizing their version of the "good life." For the faithful, there is only one way to reach the "good life" and that one unalterable path can only be found in the Holy Bible. Therefore, public policy must kneel before divinely revealed truth. There can be no compromise. This is why public policy must bar abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research. Those that do not follow these divinely revealed, monolithic edicts are sorely misguided or overridden with vice or worse. They are contagions let loose within the body politic, infecting the virtuous and leading them astray. Homosexuals are usually the vilified part of this infection. They are the sensuous sirens calling Christian sailors toward libertinism, disaster and death.

But Christian fundamentalism's sway isn't all negation Sullivan argues. It's also affirmation of the federal government's right to fund religious charities, promote abstinence only sex education, and tell "parents in government literature that a gay child may need therapy," regardless if these activities conflict with the separation of church and state or conflict with scientific consensus.

What matters to conservatives of faith is therefore less the size of government than its meaning and structure. If it is harnessed to uphold their definition of the good life--protecting a stable family structure, upholding Biblical morality, protecting the vulnerable--then its size is irrelevant, as long as it doesn't overwhelm civil society. Indeed, using government to promote certain activities (the proper care of children, support for the poor, legal privileges for heterosexual relationships) and to deter others (recreational drug use, divorce, gay unions, abortion, indecent television) is integral to the conservative project.
There is another side to conservatism though, and it's the one infused with the principles of the Enlightenment and rightly skeptical of moral claims revealed by an intangible. Sullivan labels these adherents the conservatives of doubt and they're categorically different than conservatives of faith.
The conservatism of doubt asks how anyone can be sure that his view of what is moral or good is actually true. Conservatives of doubt note that even the most dogmatic of institutions, such as the Catholic or Mormon churches, have changed their views over many centuries, and that, even within such institutions, there is considerable debate about difficult moral issues...They merely believe that the purported choice between moral absolutism and complete relativism, between God and moral anarchy, is a phony one. Their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudential approach to all moral questions--and suspicion of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth. Since such an approach rarely provides a simple answer persuasive to everyone within a democratic society, we live with moral and cultural pluralism.

For conservatives of faith, such pluralism can allow error to flourish--and immorality to become government policy--and therefore must be limited. A conservative of doubt, however, does not regard the existence of such pluralism as a problem. He sees it as an unavoidable fact of modernity, an invitation to lives that are more challenging and autonomous than in more traditional societies. Even when conservatives of doubt disagree with others' moral convictions, they recognize that, in a free, pluralist society, those other views deserve a hearing.
For these conservatives, doubt leads to dialogue and deliberation based on reason and human experience rather than appeals to an authority beyond our intellectual grasp and sense perception. This allows those in the minority an arena to argue their case while demanding equal protection under the law. The conservatives of faith don't adhere to these democratic, liberal norms and are trying to use their numerical strength to impose their morals upon society. Sullivan's astute example of this tendency is the fight over same-sex marriage and civil unions.
In response to several court cases across the country that edged closer and closer to giving legal equality to gays and lesbians, conservatives in Washington responded by proposing--as a first resort--a constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage and any of its benefits from being granted to same-sex couples.
The faithful's refusal to even debate their point shows callous disregard for democracy and, I believe, is a show of strength hiding their inability to argue rationally the pitfalls of gay marriage or why marriage isn't a fundamental civil right of two consenting adults. In many ways, the Christian Right is attempting to create their own version of the "nanny state," a rule of theocratic law that denies the individual the right to make certain "sinful" choices. And I may be mistaken, but I thought, theologically speaking, earth was the testing ground for admittance to that celestial club - a reward to the virtuous for a life well led.

All smart-assery aside, Sullivan's concludes forcefully against conservatives of faith, stating:
Advocates for government restraint cannot, in good conscience, keep supporting a party that believes in its own God-given mission to change people's souls...The only pragmatic option is to persuade those who run the Republican Party that religious zeal is a highly unstable base for conservative politics: It is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of the very mechanisms that keep freedom alive.
We on the left must help to ensure it's the conservatism of Andrew Sullivan that wins out over the conservatism of Falwell, Dobson, and the rest of their ilk. Otherwise, we'll be combating a milder form of the same fundamentalism we're fighting overseas, here.