Home/Daniel Larison/Where’s All This Religion In Conservatism We Keep Hearing About?

Where’s All This Religion In Conservatism We Keep Hearing About?

Razib’s Q&A with Heather Mac Donald deserves an extended treatment, so, as promised Saturday, I will try to start to tackle the most interesting and vexing parts of Ms. Mac Donald’s answers.  For those interested, Razib also has a new post on response to the interview.  If time permits, I’ll make a few remarks about that one, too.  I’ll take the interview questions in order, stopping along the way to comment.  Here is the first question and part of the first answer:

1) Okay, I’ll get this out of the way.  What prompted you to “come out” as an atheist in The American Conservative earlier this year?  A friend of mine suggested that you might have become frustrated with the lack of a “reality-based” conservatism during this administration, in particular in its attitude toward immigration.  Is he going down the right track? 

I wrote The American Conservative piece out of frustration with the preening piety of conservative pundits. I attended a New York cocktail party in 2003, for example, where a prominent columnist said to the group standing around him: “We all know that what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith.” This sentiment has been repeated in print ad nauseam, along with its twin: “We all know that morality is not possible without religion.” I didn’t then have the courage to point out to the prominent columnist that quite a few conservatives and Republicans of the highest standing had no religious faith, without apparent injury to their principles or their behavior.

I can certainly understand Ms. Mac Donald’s frustration with conservative pundits’ “preening piety,” but I’d like to remind readers of a couple of things about the original article she wrote for TAC.  As I have said before, the article was part of a symposium asking what liberal and conservative and Left and Right meant, so straightaway the article’s focus on the folly of religion and its complaint that skeptical, non-religious conservatives were being somehow marginalised or culturally threatened by all of the God-talk struck this reader as odd and out of place.  However, I’m glad TAC ran the piece and provided a forum for Ms. Mac Donald to air her grievance against religion and religious conservatives, if only as a way of showing that a conservative operation full of religious conservatives was willing to entertain a variety of perspectives and to confirm that skeptical conservatives are really not the put-upon victims among conservatives that Ms. Mac Donald made them out to be.  Back then the impression one got was not that “quite a few conservatives and Republicans of high standing” had no religious faith but were nonetheless principled and decent and able to work side by side with religious conservatives, but that the religiosity overtaking conservatism was putting some sort of stranglehold on these skeptics and non-believers.  Back in August she wrote:

Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—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.   

But there was, is, no exclusion going on.  To see all of the articles and books published in the last few months blaming the woes of the GOP and conservatism on religious conservatives, one might conclude that it was the religious conservatives who ought to be worried about exclusion.  Following the publication of this article, not only did virtually everyone and his brother at NR fall all over themselves to be nice and accommodating to Ms. Mac Donald, whom they showered with so many compliments that it became embarrassing for everyone watching, but we were soon reminded of the rather large number of NROniks who were themselves either confirmed skeptics or very unorthodox sorts of Christians.  The debate was not as much between the zealous believers and the atheist, but between the moderately respectful and the intensely disrespectful. 

The large number of skeptics and unorthodox folk there is not in itself necessarily a problem for conservatives (though I think it probably depends on how unorthodox the unorthodox are willing to be), or at least it isn’t a new problem if it is one (the honour roll in The Conservative Mind is a veritable Who’s Who of skeptics, heretics and eccentrics).  Still, it goes a long way towards showing that the representatives of what it still (sigh) the flagship of “the movement” are not heavily leaning on religion to the exclusion of anybody.  Some of them aren’t doing any leaning at all, while the Catholics there are presumably believers, but they are by and large believers who tend to advance, for example, pro-life arguments in terms that reasonable skeptical conservatives could appreciate.  Indeed, this is not just the case at NR.  The pro-life movement’s own use of the rhetoric of “the right to life” should remind us that, while it is Christianity that motivates so many pro-lifers, they nonetheless retreat back to precisely the rights-centric language of Enlightenment liberalism to make their arguments for the defense of the unborn.  I certainly do not say this as a compliment to the pro-life movement, but this is the way it is.  Because these people do believe in God, they also mention God, but it is the appeal to protecting human rights that is doing all of the work in their arguments.  Perhaps this is a politically clever approach, or perhaps not, but what it isn’t is an example of conservatives “leaning heavily” on religion.  If you can’t even find such a habit among pro-lifers, where will you find it?  

To say that today’s conservative movement leans too heavily on religion, one must have a rather expansive and odd definition of what religion is.  It is possible to find extreme, actually rather isolated incidents of what we might take to be religious enthusiasm sweeping the conservative world and the GOP.  The dreadful Schiavo imbroglio might be considered such a one.  Arguably, though, that affair was the result of an absolute abstract commitment to the Right to Life that was so intense that it actually became impious and contradicted a Christian understanding of the purpose of human life, namely salvation in Christ, making it an episode of impious ideological excess.  It was a classic example of what happens when decent people are given simple ideological maxims: they go too far and commit injustice.  It is possible to see this episode, usually taken as a glaring example of religious conservatism’s supposed power within the GOP, as an episode where a galivanting, do-gooding rights-based liberalism generated hysterical overreaction among activists who pushed for government interference in the private affairs of a family.  But even if we accept that this really was a case of a religious impulse dominating the conservative movement, it is the relative rarity of these sorts of episodes that tells me that religion does not usually have too much hold on the modern conservative movement and that conservatives do not usually “lean” very heavily on the claims of revelation at all.  Rather, if anything, religion has not had enough of a hold.  As a theocrat of sorts (very different from a theocon, mind you!), I might be expected to say this.  As an inveterate critic of Andrew Sullivan and his dreadful book, I might be expected to say this.  But I say it for what I think are a couple good reasons. 

First, religion, more specifically traditional Christianity (which is almost entirely what we’re talking about when we speak of religion and conservatism in America), does not function as a crutch of the modern conservative movement, but all too often the movement uses it (or in some cases the weasel word “values”) as a rallying flag when it has run out of anything else interesting to say.  That is an important distinction.  Appeal to religion is the last resort of “the movement” and not one of its dominant aspects.  Second, for the last 25 years most mainstream conservative argument has fallen into four categories, only one of which can fairly be linked to religion, which are 1) social scientific arguments about the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of government policy and/or about causes behind patterns of social behaviour; 2) arguments written in defense of Western history, culture and “values,” usually “Judeo-Christian values” (under which dubious heading the great religion of our civilisation is filed away); 3) polemics against the stupidity, hypocrisy, elitism or “real” racism of the left, the academy, the government, the media, etc.; 4) arguments about dire foreign threats that “we,” the conservatives, “get” and the daffy liberals and Europeans do not (such as Venezuela!).  You can find arguments that fit more than one of these and some that fit none, but you will be surprised to find just how few conservative essays and articles have much to say about religion, revelation or God except in the most superficial or boilerplate ways. 

Specifically religious journals, such as First Things, will obviously have a very dense concentration of arguments tied very closely to, if not completely enmeshed in, a religious worldview, but in most other journals of conservative opinion and most other conservative columns you won’t find a lot of conservative writers “leaning heavily” on religion for much of anything.  All too often, when they do feel obliged to bring it up, the arguments go something like this: “We have capitalism because of Christianity” (in other words, you should respect Christianity because it helped make us fairly wealthy as a people) or “we have liberal democracy partly because of Christian respect for the person” or “we have the separation of church and state because of Christ’s teaching” (which can be among the worst, since it is usually an argument that calls Christianity as a witness for the defense of the superiority of the secular modern West, whose superiority is affirmed precisely in its capacity for secularism and pushing religion out of public life) and so on. 

These tend to be historical arguments, and they often can have some real merit as historical arguments, but they all fall under the category of “Christianity has done you Westerners a lot of good, so maybe you should give it a break now and then.”  You know the drill, repeated ad nauseam whenever the secularist and atheists come knocking: “Christianity inspired the abolitionists!  Christianity inspired Rev. King.  See–we’re not crazy religious wackos (like the abolitionists were)!”  This is usually a plea from the lukewarm to the indifferent and potentially hostile to acknowledge that Christianity may or may not be true, but that it nonetheless has served and will continue to serve a social function and, in the context of other debates, that its involvement in political life is not necessarily harmful.  This emphasis on the social utility and functionality of religion (both of which the NROniks cited repeatedly contra Mac Donald last fall) to the exclusion and detriment of interest in revealed religion’s substantive truth-claims has become, if anything, more common since the neoconservative ascendancy began and brought with it the habits and methods of the social sciences. 

It is in the context of these arguments about the social function of “religion” that the remarks Ms. Mac Donald recounts in her opening anecdote should be understood.  For the millionth time, yes, it is possible for nonbelievers to live what most people would regard as a “moral” and upstanding life; atheists presumably can have successful marriages and they probably even love their mothers.  When people speak of the necessity of religion for the maintenance of morality, they are almost always speaking of public morality and order, and they see religion as a necessary and well-tested support for these things.  I would go further and say that it is not really possible to live a truly virtuous life without entering into union with the God who was incarnate for our sake, but the people Ms. Mac Donald met at her cocktail party were not saying this, nor would they agree with it if I presented it to them.  “That’s some kind of crazy theological argument, “they would say to me,” and that has nothing to do with conservatism.”  Specifically theological arguments do not interest many conservatives very much, and most avoid referring to them or using them if they can possibly help it.  Even for the theocons, it is natural law teaching within Western Christian theological tradition that gets most of the attention because it is presumed to be “accessible” and intelligible by anyone who can reason.  That in and of itself would be fine, but this move has been seen as absolutely necessary to even begin to draw on our Christian inheritance to make arguments about public policy or social problems to which the wider public and most conservatives would pay much heed. 

This history is not, to my mind, evidence of a heavy reliance on the truth claims of Christian revelation to advance or define conservatism.  What I have repeatedly found, much to my agitation, is a decided indifference to the actual substance of much of our Christian inheritance that goes beyond the mere “patina” of pious nonsensical mumblings about God creating all men equal (today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so we should pay our respects to the Dream, shouldn’t we?) or Mr. Bush’s idea, which is at once both silly and dangerous, that political freedom is God’s gift to man.  Unless conservatives can find some way to tie Christianity in to the goods that most of “the movement” is today in the business of promoting (i.e., capitalism and democracy), they often will not say much, or at least nothing so terribly religiously inspired that it would make a skeptic bat an eye.  When religion, and here again we almost always mean Christianity, has taken center stage in conservative arguments, it is usually as the violated plaintiff outraged by some PC diktat, revisionist history or public criticism by, well, someone like Ms. Mac Donald.  In these cases, conservatives will once again defend Christianity with old liberal appeals to freedom of religion or will mitigate claims about alleged past Christian fanaticism by saying, “Yes, Christianity used to have a terrible history, but out of its internecine conflicts the Enlightenment was born and helped to reform and fix all of the unfortunate elements.”  In other words, these folks are saying, “Look, we find a lot of Christian history to be nearly as embarrassing as you do, but you should realise that we’ve become so much more respectably milquetoast and inoffensive in the last few centuries, we now embrace classical liberalism with gusto, and we do charity work!”  Most of the ringing defenses of the West setting it over and against the Islamic world possess an undercurrent of skepticism that says, “Unlike the Muslims, we learned to stop talking our religion very seriously a long time ago, and we’re all much better off for it–but, of course, we still have the fight the godless liberals in the War on Christmas.”  When Cal Thomas started singing the praises of secular modernity after 9/11 (as if to show you that he was no religious fanatic like those people), you could take it as a given that religion, and specifically the great significance attached to Christianity even by some old Moral Majority hands like Thomas, was potentially expendable for a lot of conservatives when supposedly more important things (such as the fight against “medievalism” and for “women’s rights” and “tolerance”) were at stake.  In the end, I don’t see that much modern conservative reliance on religion.  The “movement” certainly relies on religious people to keep it running with their support, financial and otherwise, and to that end they have to say nice things about the value of religion now and again (and I assume most honestly believe these things when they say them), but do they “lean heavily” on religion “to the exclusion” of nonbelievers?  Quite simply, no, they don’t.

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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