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Has the GOP Given Up on America?

A disillusioned Republican operative and Christian conservative takes stock of the movement

Ryan Booth is a personal friend and a fellow Christian conservative (he’s a Southern Baptist). He was also a longtime leader in the top echelons of the state Republican Party (read Ryan’s 2010 history of the state GOP for an indication of the level at which he worked). Back in April, though, he said farewell to politics, and announced that he’s going to seminary. He put a comment up on my Wendy Davis thread this morning that deserves its own post. Ryan commented on my statement that, “I no longer believe that politics is capable of addressing the core of our social and cultural problems.” 

Here’s Ryan Booth:

As a former GOP political operative and activist who has come to the same conclusion, I am now trying to come with new standards for deciding whom to vote for. One thing that I have decided is that I don’t want to vote for any “Christian conservative” who expresses hatred for liberals, as I now believe such people hurt my witness as a Christian. If someone is running as a Christian, I want to see evidence of Christian love. So, my witness now comes first.

On social issues, I see a very interesting dynamic emerging. Whether they admit it or not, the GOP (and especially the Religious Right) has basically given up on America. Their idea of America has nothing in common with the depth of community Tocqueville found. It’s rather a vision of a lone family, left alone by government and everyone else, in the woods with their guns.

In other words, the rising anger with popular culture has resulted in a GOP move towards libertarianism and an antipathy towards all government. When I worked for the Louisiana GOP in the mid-90′s, we actively worked against gambling expansion. In the George W. Bush administration, we still had an attorney general who actively prosecuted some pornographers. I first really noticed the impact of godless libertarianism in the GOP in this year’s legislative session in Louisiana, when we couldn’t get together a solid opposition to the payday loan industry.

The general feeling seems to be that personal liberty now trumps all other issues. If the government permits everything, maybe they won’t bother us when we homeschool. Maybe we’ll be allowed religious liberty.

I think that hope is wrong, period. When everything is permissible, the only thing that won’t be tolerated is “religious intolerance.” In the meantime, we’ll have legalized drugs, prostitution, assisted suicide, etc.—and a society filled with much more social evil. And of course, a doctrine that everyone should be able to “do what is right in his own eyes” completely undercuts opposition to abortion. It’s already undercut our opposition to gay marriage.

So, I find myself increasingly in opposition to my former compatriots in the Christian conservative movement. They are standing for an overall philosophy which is NOT Christian (see Romans 13 to see that government is a creation of God) and which will ultimately backfire on their pro-life and pro-family goals.

The result of all this is that I now have a hard time finding anyone to vote for.

I agree entirely with Ryan that libertarianism (“rugged individualism”) is hard to reconcile with Christianity and the history of Christian political thought. His comment, though, highlights two ideas I’m trying to work out within my own thinking on religion and politics.

First, to say that Republicans, especially Christian conservatives, have “given up on America” because they no longer have Tocquevillian ideals is, I think, sort of true — but then, is it not the case that America has given up on itself in that regard? Who really believes in the common good anymore? We have become an atomized nation of individual consumers who believe our preferences must be indulged no matter what. It’s true of the Right as well as the Left. The main reason it’s so hard to talk about the common good is that so few people are willing to recognize an independent authoritative standard for determining that good.

Here’s a non-political example. I was part of a conversation recently involving several teachers, and one former law school professor. They were talking about how astonishing it is to see how far colleges go today to cater to students’ every whim, to the point of undercutting the authority of teachers. The teachers agreed that this is where our culture is today: these kids have been catered to and coddled by their parents, and come to college expecting that they have a right not to fail. And some colleges lean on the teachers not to fail them, even if the kids don’t do the work.

The former law prof told us about a class she taught a few years back in which a student phoned her the day before a scheduled quiz. The student asked the prof if she could take the quiz later, given she had missed the class review. The prof said no, if she didn’t come to the review, that was on her. “Yeah, but I’d like to take the test later, because I missed the review,” the student repeated. The prof said they went back and forth, and she had to slap down threats from the student to call the administration and get her (the teacher) punished.

The point of this coming up in discussion was that in our therapeutic culture, nobody wants to be inconvenienced. It’s the mindset, and all of us have it to a certain degree. But we like to think of ourselves and our tribe as the reasonable ones, and the others as the problem.

The self-absorbed student story is perhaps only tangentially related to politics, but I think it reveals something about why the old idea of America has been hollowed out by the liberal individualism of both the right and the left. Again, I think we are all at some point implicated in this. Think of a liberty that you would be willing to give up for the sake of the common good. Hard to do, isn’t it? We Americans have come to think of “the common good” as “maximal individual liberty.” In fact, individual liberty is a necessary condition for achieving the common good, and for that good to have meaning (because freely chosen). But in America today, it has become our idol. It has become the end of our politics rather than a means to an end. It is so in our personal lives, so why shouldn’t it be in our public ones?

For Christian conservatives, we see the movement to expand marriage rights to same-sex couples, and we don’t see an expansion of liberty; we see the obliteration of the idea of the family as a binding, normative social institution. In truth, it is both — but the American people have decided that individual liberty is more important. On gambling, I see it as a vice that destroys the poor and their families. Others see it as an exercise in liberty. Those others carry the day in America. I expect that it will get more and more this way as the generation taught that the only real sin is to judge others comes into power.

All politics is about balancing the rights of the individual against the community. Too much collective power is oppressive; too much individual power is anarchic. In a democracy, we will always be struggling with this tension. What has changed, I think, is that we have come to a point where people no longer think of the common good. This is Dante’s great lament about Tuscany in his day: that people only thought of the good of themselves and their own party or tribe. The result was chaotic, and tore at the fabric of society.

This is where we are headed.

I am not a libertarian; if anything, I’m a Red Tory, or a Christian Democrat in the European sense. But ours is not a culture where Red Toryism or Christian Democracy makes much sense. It might have at one time, but not anymore. I have been thinking for a couple of years now that if I’m going to protect my religious liberty rights (the most important right, in my view), I’m going to have to figure out how to do so within a libertarian framework.

A thought that rests uneasily in my mind after reading Ryan’s comment: have I given up on America too? Does this describe me?:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.

I think it probably does. It makes it hard to know who to vote for, though. In a time like this, prophets are more important than politicians.

Maybe that makes me an “unpatriotic conservative.” I know what I want to conserve, but I don’t know that it is compatible with what our country is becoming. I’d like to be wrong.