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It Must Be Theocon Sweeps At TNR

There is another battleroyale over the role of theocons and religious conservatives now available at TNR (note the irony that many of the folks at The Corner seem more inclined to fall over themselves to make nice to Heather Mac Donald and her desire to keep religion and conservatism far apart while TNR gives these questions of religious conservatism surprisingly lengthy treatment in these mini-debates), but this time it is on whether evangelicals have succeeded in influencing administration policy and whether they actually draw that much water with the GOP in practical terms.  Joseph Loconte said that, on the whole, yes, they do.  (Hat tip: Rod Dreher) Amy Sullivan is the respondent.  Ms. Sullivan starts off with a zinger:

Based on your opening thoughts here, though, I think I prefer our debates when you’re drinking red wine instead of drinking the Kool-Aid.

But then Ms. Sullivan turns to Linkeresque appeals to public reason:

What conservatives really meant was that questions about a judicial nominee’s position on abortion amount to discrimination based on religious beliefs. That is nonsense. In a pluralistic democracy, it is not sufficient for a public official to base a position purely on religious teachings; he must bring other arguments to bear that are accessible to those who do not share their tradition.

It may be nonsense to speak of “religious tests” in this instance.  This rhetoric comes from the same constitutionally-challenged bunch that thinks that President has inherent powers to do just about anything he pleases in wartime and the same people who believe that filibustering judicial nominees is actually “unconstitutional,” when filibusters are based in Senate rules and can be about anything any Senator wants. (Such judicial filibusters may be “unprecedented,” but at one point the filibuster itself was “unprecedented.”)  It is certainly the case that other people don’t have to put any stock in the ideas of officials who are guided in their deliberations by religious teachings, but I have never been clear on why such a person is obliged to put forward his views in terms that are more “accessible” to those who do not share his fundamental beliefs if that in turn means conceding some basic element of those beliefs or if it means essentially ignoring the decidedly religious nature of that person’s commitments.  The secular person does not have to put his arguments in terms that are more “accessible” to me, nor do I see any reason why he necessarily should have to do so.  Perhaps it might aid in the task of persuasion, but it is not, or ought not to be, a sine qua non of holding office or being confirmed to a position in the judiciary. 

I am curious what it actually means when someone says that an adherent of a tradition should make the tenets derived from that tradition “accessible” to those outside the tradition.  For instance, Christians assume that the claims of the Faith are already eminently reasonable and “accessible” to all because of the basic concord between reason and faith and the reasonableness of Christian moral teachings.  To tell a Christian to make those claims “accessible” to non-Christians doesn’t really mean anything to him.  Perhaps a missionary argument might be made that we ought to express these teachings in an idiom recognisable and familiar to those who are unused to more traditional language, but I don’t think that Christian conservatives can really accept as absolutely necessary the constraints of such requirements of “accessibility” when such requirements presuppose that, say, Christian moral teachings are somehow presently inaccessible to non-Christians.  They are not, and we shouldn’t feel obliged to act as if they are.   

In practice, making these claims “accessible” is usually bound up in talking in terms of rights.  Who has rights, whose rights take precedence, and so on, become the relevant basic questions, and then from there we are treated to lectures on the importance of bad interpretations of the law being taken seriously as precedent.  I started becoming skeptical of using all this “rights” talk in the abortion debate after reading Dr. Fleming’s The Morality of Everyday Life(a superb book that any smart conservative or simply any thoughtful person should have or should at least read), and I am if anything even more skeptical of it now.  Besides the enormous power that such “rights” talk and all expansions of “rights” gives to those who adjudicate disputes, which is undesirable in itself, it assumes an entire society filled with people who vie with one another for recognition of their “rights” when Christian moral teaching presupposes a society full of obligations and commitments of one to another.  To endorse the “rights” regime by speaking in its language and using its assumptions about who we are and how we relate to one another is to validate and accept the war of all against all that it ultimately implies, such that we are forced to imagine that this contestation between, for example, mother and child is somehow the normal state of affairs.  Rather than condemning ideas of autonomy and all their fruits, the Christian in public office is called to speak of the teachings of the Faith as if autonomy were the natural and proper state of human beings when it is considered to be a fundamentally unnatural and disordered state.  In other words, he is forced to accept something he believes to be untrue in order to even gain a hearing, which ultimately forces him to stop speaking. 

But leave this aside for the moment.  Ms. Sullivan digs into Bush, and does so very well:

I think Bush relies on fake problems like nonexistent religious discrimination in order to paint himself as the defender of all things religious–and, more importantly, to scare religious voters into believing it is their Christian duty to keep Democrats out of office. I’m well aware of the left’s shortcomings when it comes to taking seriously many of the concerns of religious Americans.  But Bush hasn’t made the case that he’s the better choice. [bold mine-DL] Instead, he has borne false witness against the left, in the hopes that scare tactics will keep voters from looking too closely at his actual accomplishments on their behalf.   

This is very much my way of thinking about Bush and his supposedly great religiosity.  In my less charitable moments, especially when he would say stupid things about how Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I have referred to him as the Apostate (with apologies to Damon Linker, who actually wants to be called an apostate), which is really unfair, since a great many believing but misguided Christians share this kind of vapid ecumenical outlook.  The point here is actually not whether Mr. Bush himself is a deeply religious, albeit theologically ignorant, man, which by all accounts he is, but whether he uses symbolism and rhetoric to whip religious voters into a frenzy against Democrats mainly to keep them in line and keep them from seeing that they get next to nothing out of the political bargain they are making.  Why do they keep at this charade?  She has an answer for that one, too:

If the scare tactics lose their power, Republicans will have to actually start producing policy results.

And the GOP, which is still in so many ways the GOP of the Eastern Establishment, has no interest in producing policy results or legal rulings that their religious voters really want.  Then Ms. Sullivan zeroes in on the huge blind spot in the current bargain between conservative Christians and the GOP:

What about torture? An impressive collection of religious leaders–including major evangelicals like Rick Warren and Ted Haggard–issued an unambiguous statement opposing torture earlier this year. You like to argue that liberals are trapped in moral relativism and don’t believe in right and wrong, Joe. That doesn’t seem to be the case with torture–it’s Bush who has argued that the morality of torture depends on the circumstance.  

On many, many things, I would insist that liberals are trapped in moral relativism, or have their own code of morality so deeply at odds with traditional norms that it amounts to radical disagreements about what virtue means, but this is one where a lot of conservative Christians have either gone along with the GOP line (“it’s not torture, it’s coercive interrogation!”) or have not spoken against that position.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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