4/21/2008

The Conservative Christian Contradiction

The impetus for this post came from three events:

1. One of the more active discussions currently taking place in the blogosphere, at least as it pertains to my blogroll, is a discussion about intelligent design over at According to Nikki, a conservative political satire blog written by Nikki Richards. In her post, which has generated more than 20 comments, Richards suggested that both intelligent design and evolution be taught as "legitimate 'theories' in science," presumably in public schools.

2. Earlier this month, residents of Columbia, South Carolina, where I live, voted by a more than 2 to 1 margin to allow alcohol sales on Sunday, with the exception of liquor. For those who are unaware, blue laws are still in effect throughout South Carolina and other Southern states. For example, shops in the western half of Columbia, located in Lexington County, are not allowed to open until 1:30pm on Sundays while shops in the eastern half of the city, which lies in Richland County, can open at 10:00 or 11:00.

3. Before the GOP nomination was settled, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney were heavily criticized by the religious wing of the Republican Party. The criticism of Romney was unfair, as it pertained to his Mormon faith, which made lots of evangelical Christians uncomfortable. The thrice married and socially moderate Giuliani was simply out of step with the conservative base on issues like abortion and gay rights. And John McCain was not trusted because he once referred to Christian conservative heavyweights Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" and did not make social issues the centerpiece of his campaign. This is what made Mike Huckabee so popular among the frequent churchgoers.

These three seemingly unrelated issues strike at one of the main problems confronting the modern Republican Party. One could argue that there are four main wings of the GOP: religious/social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, anti-tax conservatives, and defense hawks. But on a broader and more important level, today's Republican Party consists primarily of an awkward coalition of Southern religious conservatives and Western libertarian conservatives. Moderate Republicans from the Northeast and Midwest are a dying breed.

During the Bush administration, the Southern religious brand of conservatism has had the stronger influence regarding the party platform. This has held true for issues like gay marriage, stem cell research, and curbing abortion rights. John McCain, on the other hand, represents the Western, more libertarian brand of conservatism. Thus, his commitment to these issues is suspect.

Here's the problem: One of the principal tenets of conservatism is the idea of "limited government." It is an easily digestible slogan that clearly allows voters to understand the difference between Republicans and Democrats. However, the agendas of religious conservatives and libertarian conservatives are incompatible in this regard.

Consider the Nikki Richards blog post I cited earlier about teaching schoolchildren intelligent design. Surely there are lots of conservative politicians who agree with her and some who would like to take things a bit further by instituting prayer in the classroom or putting the Ten Commandments in public buildings. But wouldn't the government's mandating of increasing the profile of religion (namely Christianity) in the public square and public classrooms reek of the same "big government" initiatives conservatives commonly criticize liberals of advocating? This is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of intelligent design, school prayer, or the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. However, the contradiction is obvious.

Regarding blue laws, "big government" has infringed upon people's freedom to buy alcoholic beverages whenever they choose. I spent my childhood and adolescent years living in Germany, where alcohol was sold everyday. And I lived in Japan from 2003 to 2007. Like Germany, Japan also has 24-hour alcohol sales, but they even have vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages. So coming back to South Carolina, a staunchly conservative state, it was a surprise to not be allowed to buy wine on a Sunday even though I wanted to use it for cooking rather than drinking.

Defenders of blue laws claim that they are necessary to promote and preserve public morality. But aren't these advocates guilty of trying to use the government to shape society's values in the same way that they criticize "activist judges" and liberals in general for doing when it comes to discussing homosexuality and anything but abstinence in public schools?

To further muddy the waters, libertarian conservatives don't really care one way or the other about these issues, so long as they are decided at the state or local level. And if the local voters decide to do something they fundamentally disagree with, they accept it as a consequence of the will of the voters. But religious conservatives would be more likely to recoil in horror and take steps to overturn such a verdict that is out of line with their beliefs.

The constitutional bans on gay marriage were a major issue in several states in 2004 and are largely credited with George Bush's reelection. Several states have also placed similar bans on the ballot since then. However, consider these three results: Conservative Mississippi overwhelmingly approved the ban, similarly conservative South Dakota almost defeated the ban, and equally conservative Arizona became the first state to actually have the initiative rejected outright by voters. All three states are easy layups for Republicans in presidential elections, so why did they yield such different results? It's because their brands of conservatism are different.

Since John McCain's initial repudiation of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, he has made nice with the religious conservative community. At a time when Republicans are not particularly enthusiastic about their political fortunes (though the bickering between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may change that), McCain knows that he will need their support in the general election. But the only way to win this support is to pursue their agenda even if it contradicts his own principles.

Religious conservatives may talk about the importance of "small government," but it seems they very much want "big government" when it comes to promoting or protecting the causes that are important to them. Likewise, libertarian conservatives value "small government" as well. However, what if this "limited government" approach to governance leads to the adoption of laws and ordinances that are morally offensive to large numbers of voters?

Public morality and limited influence from Washington are both attractive political messages. However, it is becoming increasingly clear these two goals are often incompatible. Were Clinton and Obama not so busy highlighting the divisions that exist among the Democrats, would the spotlight not be on their equally divided conservative opposition?

10 comment(s):

David M Manes said...

Good post.

I go to an extremely conservative Christian university in Arkansas, and there are literally thousands of these people here. They all want to be libertarian conservatives when it comes to things that influence them, but then they change costumes and become authoritarian conservatives when it comes to other people and things with which they do not agree.

Thomas said...

I asked one of my professors in law school just what exactly judicial activism was. He laughed and said, "Judicial activism is when a case is decided in a way you don't like."

Social conservatives were all for judicial activism when they were trying to keep Terri Schiavo alive. All the court rulings went against them so they just kept looking for another court.

I really don't think social conservatives will be happy until they have a morality policeman stationed in every bedroom and recreation room in this country.

Only then can they be guaranteed the fact that no one ever has sex again and that people are only watching James Dobson-approved programming. Or reading books by James Dobson.

Nikki said...

WOW Anthony I feel like a movie star!! I was surprised at the response to the post...it seems everyone has an opinion on ID and the "scientific" aspects of it. My opinion was soft on it already and I may have been convinced by an atheist no less, that perhaps ID should not be included in the science arena...faith and religion are not meant to be proven and perhaps if one needs proving then they may need more faith. Also The republican party does seem to be suffering a bit of an identity crisis...orphaned politicos may have no where to go when the party seems to be a bit schizophrenic. It is an interesting subject and you have tackled very well. I appreciate the plug! and I did notice an extra flow of traffic today...thanks again and I hope your readers didn't mind the run on sentences and dangling participles not to mention mispellings etc. thanks again :)N

DB said...

You guys should visit Nevada where limited government actually encourages the absence of morality.

Btw, great line Nikki..."faith and religion are not meant to be proven and perhaps if one needs proving then they may need more faith."

Anonymous said...

"Intelligent Design" being taught as a scientific theory is an oxymoron.

Freadom said...

Intelligent design should be taught as a theory. And I don't necessarily even believe in it. I think we should let the kids decide for themselves, rather than forcing one view on them.

I think this was an another excellent post on this blog. I think you are right on Anthony. I know many conservatives who do want to force their views on the public just like liberals. Another good example is the right to life crowd, who would have no problem making a federal law prohibiting abortion. Me, well, I believe it should be up to the states to decide.

Anthony Palmer said...

David,

Yes, I bet there are tons of these kinds of people out there, especially in the South, given the influence of the Southern Baptist movement. But I wonder why nobody has called these "conservatives" out on their hypocrisy yet? Are politicians and voters really that shallow?

I have no problem with either type of conservatism, but to say you are for "small government" when you obviously aren't when it comes to so many matters is a joke.

Thanks for dropping by.

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Thomas,

I've heard that same definition before. It's funny. Nobody cries about "activist judges" when it comes to promoting or instituting legislation that you actually agree with. I had totally forgotten about the Schiavo case and the right to die debate that followed. These supposed small government conservatives will go to great lengths to tell you when you can be born and when you can die, but seem ready to throw you to the wolves for all the time in between. Funny.

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Nikki,

Yes, it's a faith vs. theory issue. Science is not based on faith. Creationism may very well be true, but it simply does not fit with how we currently define science. Science is based on testing and proof. How can you prove that something you might not even believe in actually did X, Y, and Z? Therein lies the problem with intelligent design as "science" per se, even though it seems like a plausible explanation for the origins of our world.

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DB,

I've thought about living in the West specifically because that brand of conservatism is appealing to me. But I'm not much of a nature person and my family is pretty much an East Coast family. And plus, all the big media stuff is either in Atlanta, DC, or NY, so I don't think you'll see me in Montana or New Mexico anytime soon, unfortunately. I suppose I could handle Arizona because of the climate, but international travel sounds like a big hassle.

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Freadom,

Your point is well taken, but wouldn't integrating intelligent design into the classroom via government mandate be an example of "big government?" If people can decide for themselves whether ID is true or not, people should also be able to decide whether ID should even be taught in a science classroom or not. I don't think the government needs to get involved with that.

Consider this: If my religion said that the world came from God Zorgnak and his mystical fairy who wanted to create humans for his personal amusement, by your own argument, "people should be allowed to decide for themselves if it's true." But somehow, I don't think you'd like it if the government decided that God Zorgnak should be integrated into science curricula nationwide. That would be "forcing my views on others." Why should integrating ID into the classroom be any different? Right?

Thank you all for the good comments.

Brett said...

Every political party in a two-party system (created by the Simple Plurality Districting) is a kind of "bargain" struck up by different interest groups. It's really not surprising that you see some contradictory aspects overlooked.

As for Intelligent Design, it should not be taught in schools. It isn't anything remotely resembling a scientific theory; it doesn't have a testable hypothesis, for one thing. It's basically a "not-evolution" option for creationists who find creationism unpalatable, and you see this in the writings by ID Theorists - they don't really present a mechanism for ID, instead preferring to attack Evolution.

Thomas said...

Anthony, your comment reminded me of one of my favorite lines from Mike Huckabee. To paraphrase him, he said he wasn't one of those conservatives where life began at conception and ended at birth.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

such has been true since the quakers,