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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Thursday, 17 August 2006
Conservatism: What's God Got To Do With It?
Topic: Political Theory
Conservatism: What's God Got To Do With It?
Yes, years ago Tina Turner had a big hit with "What's love got to do with it?" - and then she went off to live in the south of France in a sort of Josephine Baker move. The song (lyrics here) touched a chord in people. It's that cynical, disillusioned thing - everything you call love is physical and the rest is emotional crap. You just need to know the emotional stuff really is powerful and unavoidable - but it's crap nonetheless - and all it does is hurt you. So get over it. The lyric suggests that last part is hard.

The political analog now may be the dialog playing out in conservative American political circles, where, as the Republicans seem to be in deeper and deeper trouble as the midterm elections approach, everyone on that side of things is wondering just what went wrong.

One of the ideas floating around is that the conservative movement may have just gotten too mixed up in religion, at least in the evangelical, fundamentalist, born-again, anti-science kind of religion.
In terms of conservative political governance, the question is actually being raised. What does God have to do with conservative values - the values that inform how things should be run? How did He get in there? And should He be in there at all? What up with that?

The Tina Turner in this case is Heather MacDonald, dropping her bomb in the August 28, 2006 issue of The American Conservative with this, a major article arguing that the conservatives should make some room for the skeptics in their midst, those for whom their God and their religion is a private matter, and really kind of irrelevant to how the country should be run. And some might even be atheists. Is there room for them - or is that heresy? Do we have a "big tent" here, or just a tent meeting?

MacDonald basically suggests the conservative God business is rather silly, or at least not very logical. She notes that when Attorney General John Ashcroft left office in November 2004 he carefully and sincerely thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11 - they did their job and that made all the difference. But then he said it really wasn't them - the real credit belonged to God. If you thought about it, it ultimately must really have been "God's solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland." Well, maybe that's more faith without evidence than it is "thought" - but you see what he was getting at. God did the job, and there were no more attacks.

MacDonald is having none of it -
Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others - count me among them - feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?
The answer that "God's funny that way" just won't do. She applies logic and you see the problem. Just what is the God up to?

She senses nonsense here. Ashcroft and the like have made the movement seem just stupid, although she doesn't put it quite that bluntly. She merely thinks maybe folks with different views could make things better for the conservative side. She considers herself a "skeptical conservative" - and she'd like back in the movement.

Here's her main argument -
Skeptical conservatives - one of the Right's less celebrated subculture - are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.

Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

They also find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says that he bases "a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions" on his belief in "the Almighty" and in the Almighty's "great gifts" to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty's actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless.
Well, the alternative is to base your policies, foreign or domestic, on the best facts available as to what happening, carefully thinking through the alternative actions available, and using your best judgment to decide what to do, or not do. Of course that kind of bypasses God, and He might be offended. Still, that's how things used to be done.

And here's the kicker -
The presumption of religious belief - not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it - does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith - nor do we need it to be conservative.

Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or "natural law." It is perfectly possible to revere the Founding Fathers and their monumental accomplishment without celebrating, say, "Washington's God." Skeptical conservatives even believe themselves to be good citizens, a possibility denied by Richard John Neuhaus in a 1991 article.
Of course that's just a subset of the argument, so often made, that an atheist and agnostic cannot be "moral" - a claim as old as the hills, made over and over in spite of the clear evidence of quite good and moral nonbelievers in every culture and throughout history.

As for what has been said over and over for the last six years - what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith, "as if morality is impossible without religion and everything is indeed permitted" - she's just not buying it.

There's this argument -
Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer's. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others.

It is often said, in defense of religion, that we all live parasitically off of its moral legacy, that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf. This claim has been debated ad nauseam since at least the middle of the 19th century. Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today's religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.
Now that's getting down to basics. The evidence is that secular government makes things better, and faith-based government makes things worse. When you think about the why and how of how the Untied States came to be, she almost makes those excluding her and the other skeptics seem, well, un-American.

Her wrap-up -
A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America's antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.

So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too.
As you see, she's a trouble-maker. This kind of was heresy, and it spilled over onto the pages of the National Review, in The Corner, where the hot topics of the day are discussed.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for the magazine - who also writes for The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, The New Republic and First Things - was all over her case, saying there were so few non-believers on the conservative side that they just weren't worth worrying about. The religious conservatives were the ones who really mattered - so be a nice kid and just go away. She was just an oddball.

And her response -
Plenty of conservatives have arrived at those core values through close observation of human society and history, by plumbing the wisdom of philosophers and poets, or simply through a sound upbringing. It is just not the case that only Bible study could lead people to conservative, disciplined lives."
But he was having none of that. He is, after all, the author of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, with a blurb form Ann Coulter on the cover. You get the idea. He's the deep religious thinker on the conservative right (see his interview with Steven Colbert here where Colbert urges him to write the sequel - "The Party That Eats Their Own Children.")

It seems the battle lines are drawn - skeptics versus believers, death versus life, reason versus faith. There is no middle ground. Read your Bible.

Here MacDonald responds to the very odd Jonah Goldberg (you remember, his mother, Lucianne Goldberg, advised her friend Linda Tripp to secretly tape her phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky in order to protect herself from reprisals from the Clinton Administration) -
I agree with Jonah that the truth claims of religion are "slippery." Yet I hear them made all the time. A recent article on The Da Vinci Code in The American Spectator stated that it was a matter of "historical fact" that Jesus was born of a virgin and ascended to heaven after the crucifixion. I simply don't know what to make of that statement or its appearance in a powerful, justly respected journal of conservative opinion. It does not conform to what I thought was a common understanding of "historical facts." Ditto when the president claims that freedom is God's gift to humanity. He is not talking here about free will. I see little evidence in the Bible that God advocated the democratic government that we are bringing to (or imposing on) Iraq, not to mention the gender quotas that we fixed for the Iraqi National Assembly. The Bible seems to be relatively easy about slavery, patriarchy, and despotic tribal leadership; its concerns lie elsewhere. And if the freedom that we have created in the West is indeed God's gift, it sure took a long time for us to open it. If it turns out that our conception of political freedom is in fact a human creation growing out of very specific cultural soil, that may explain why it is not blossoming forth as we expected it to following the invasion of Iraq.
Heather is not playing nice.

In all that dialog at The Corner the oddest may have been this from Andrew Stuttaford -
Conservatism is being changed (to use a more neutral word) by the greater role that an explicitly religious activism is playing within it. Specifically, it's easy to discern a strain of conservatism emerging (and within the GOP and the administration it has emerged a long way) that more resembles European Christian Democracy (or, in its more robust forms, Gaullism) than the small government, skeptical, 'leave me alone' conservatism that brought so many into the fold and which (for what it's worth) I, for one, prefer.
So the problem isn't religion at all, it's that Bush is turning into a Gaullist? Oh, the irony. The conservatives want to turn us into religiously-centered big-government France, circa 1959 or something. That's amusing, non?

The odd man out here of course is the devout Catholic but quite gay, HIV-positive but old-fashioned conservative, Andrew Sullivan, who says this -
It may be that turning conservatism into a religiously-centered Southern-based, big-government movement makes electoral sense. I doubt it. But my objection to it is not that it hinders Republican dominance, but that I disagree with it. I believe in a separation of church and state, balanced budgets, low taxes, law that is as neutral as possible between competing moral and religious claims, and a "leave-me-alone" presumption when it comes to government power. And I'm sick of being told that excludes me from being conservative any more. I venture to suggest I'm not the only one.

No, there are many who feel that way. They're Democrats. You know, they're the folks who believe on looking at the available and quite empirical evidence at hand and figuring things out - what is best to do or not do. Most are quite religious, but they don't push it, as it's not what matters in, say, environment policy, or healthcare policy, or dealing with trade matters, or with those out to harm us. God may want is to work these things out ourselves, after all, using our brains.

It's that Enlightenment thing - Jefferson's God was the deist God so popular in the Enlightenment, the watchmaker who set things in motion and moved on to whatever was next, assuming we'd work things out down here ourselves just fine without Him.

Well, Sullivan endorsed Kerry last time around, so who knows?

He is, however, writing a new book - The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. The first part should be interesting, the second part quite Quixotic, as in noble, hopeless but silly battles, tilting at windmills and all that.

One chapter of this upcoming book is supposed to be on what he calls the "fundamentalist psyche," about which he says this -

I don't think you can understand the actions of this administration - i.e. make them make internal sense - without understanding the depth of the president's fundamentalist mindset. He's a fundamentalist convert and an alcoholic. Faith is the one thing that rescued him from a life of chaos. So fundamentalist faith itself - regardless of its content - is integral to his entire worldview. And fundamentalism cannot question; it is not empirical; it is the antithesis of skepticism. Hence this allegedly "conservative" president attacking conservatism at its philosophical core: its commitment to freedom, to doubt, to constitutional process, to prudence, to limited government, balanced budgets and the rule of law. Faith is to the new conservatism is what ideology was to the old leftism: an unquestioned orthodoxy from which all policy flows.

Cheney and Rumsfeld, however, do not strike me as the same. They're just bureaucratic brutalists, thrilled to have complete sanction to do as they please because they have the mandate from the leader-of-faith. Bush and Rove provide the fundamentalist voters; Cheney and Rummy get on with the war they want to wage. If they have to condescend to Bush's recently discovered faith in democratization, they'll humor him, while they bomb, wiretap and torture along what they think is the only path to security. They are enabled by the Christianist; but they're just plain old "bomb 'em to the stone-age" reactionaries.

Sooner or later this guy moves to the other side. He joins the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment. Count on it. He just needs to understand how reasonable the other side can be.

Ah, maybe he isn't coming across. Reasonableness is, as it always has been, relative. At least the other side gives it a go now and then, and doesn't dismiss the whole concept.

In any event, this flare-up inside the conservative movement is interesting. There's something authoritarian in it all, as John Dean pointed out in his new book, and cruelly exclusive. But at least they're organized and unified. They're not Democrats.

It's just too bad they roped in God on their side. It makes you wonder why He agreed.


Posted by Alan at 22:55 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 18 August 2006 19:18 PDT home

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