I’m Wearing that Empty Suit

Empty_Suit2In a Letter to the Editor in the Washington Times on December 7, 2012, a religious conservative named Todd Lewis argued that secular conservatism, or conservatism that exists without the appeal to religion, was “an empty suit”.  I take personal exception to that statement considering I am a secular conservative and my suit is most assuredly not empty. This is hardly the first time we’ve seen something like this, it tends to be quite common, but rarely have I seen quite so much bullshit concentrated in such a small space.

Of course, I am, by my very nature, an equal-opportunity offender, I tend to piss everyone off.  I’ve talked about what a rotten job the Republicans do, what a horrible job the Democrats do and what a crappy job the Libertarians would do, if they could manage to get themselves elected.  There isn’t a political party out there that I really like, all of them have problems to one degree or another and none of them really represent true conservatism, especially non-religious conservatism.

Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this letter to the editor and address it point by point.

In the aftermath of this year’s elections, there appear to be heightening concern and discussion about the cultural transformation under way in the country. Conservatives flail about, wondering how this can all be reversed so conservative principles might be broadly understood and applied. However, there seems to be something of a chicken-or-egg conundrum. If conservatism itself can’t transform the culture, how is the transformation to be realized?

The problem is, the Republican party no longer represents conservative values on either side, social or fiscal.  What you’re really talking about are neo-cons, not conservatives, two entirely different things.  whereas conservative values can be described as small government, personal and fiscal responsibility and keeping the government out of the lives of the citizens, that does not describe what the modern-day Republican party stands for.  Under every recent Republican president, the size of the government has grown tremendously.  We certainly don’t practice fiscal responsibility and haven’t since before Reagan.  The only real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is where they want to get their money from. Democrats are happy to soak the wealthy, Republicans are happy to borrow money from China.  Neither side understands how to live within our means.  As for the last, keeping the government’s nose out of the affairs of the people, the Republican party, in pushing it’s far-right religious agenda, is certainly not keeping that plank of the conservative platform.  The only thing that has transformed in the past 50 years is the Republican party platform, it’s gone from espousing conservative values and views to looking amazingly like the religious Southern Democrat beliefs that invaded the party in the 60s and 70s.  Unfortunately, for the religious right, the nation is changing and it isn’t changing to reflect their views, it is largely rejecting fundamentalist Christianity and this is seen all too clearly in the number of losses the Republican party has suffered in recent years.  The Republican Party will continue to lose until they get rid of the fanatical religious lunatics on the ultra-right.

There are very few commentators who will even attempt to discuss our cultural crisis comprehensively in theological terms, thinking that would limit the discussion and be polarizing. This may be true, but the endpoint of all serious discussions must center on faith. Denying or ignoring this fact means we never resolve any argument with the truth. We can all talk endlessly about the excellence of conservative principles, but without the help of faith, it will in the end prove to be nothing but talk.

Where have you been?  The discussion from the Republican party is framed in nothing but theological terms, you have tons of far-right ministers extolling the virtue of religion in the political arena from the pulpit every Sunday, you have Senators and Congress-people whining endlessly about how Christianity needs to be the central ideal of the Republican party.  This is simply untrue and absurd.  The fact is, absolutely none of the “excellence of conservative principles” rely on faith, but in the soundness of the ideology.  There are lots of reasons that these positions have worked traditionally and it has nothing to do with religion.  In fact, the Republican Party has worked just fine without the central involvement of religion that we see in it today.  Of course, that was true when the Republican Party wasn’t just a shill for fundamentalist Christianity as it is today.  It’s not too hard to look back to leaders in the Republican Party like Barry Goldwater who openly warned people not to allow religion to mingle with politics and he was absolutely right.  If you  want to see Republican victories again, they’ll have to go back to a non-religious, conservative stance and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

It must be clearly understood that leftism is, after all, a form of religion. Its beliefs and tenets appeal naturally and delightfully to all the base and self-glorifying tendencies of human beings. Conservatism cannot possibly defeat this with a simple set of empirical propositions. It is a fundamental aspect of human nature that people are religious beings. If pragmatic self-actualization, economic self-interest or some similar formulation is represented as the core of conservatism, it will be impotent. Secular, non-theological conservatism is an empty suit. It will not command deep loyalty without a real and far more profound supporting faith.

Ah, now we see that fallacious old shift, the “cast your enemy in the same light as yourself so you can use their tactics” routine that we see so often from the religious.  It’s the same thing we see when the religious declare atheism to be a religion so they can continue using their irrational faith because they assert the other side is doing it too.  Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.  Fallacious tactics are fallacious.  It clearly isn’t a fundamental aspect of human nature that people are religious beings or there wouldn’t be so many non-religious among us.  Once  you step outside of the United States, you find countries like Sweden where only 18% believe in a god and only 2% go to church regularly.  Even here, religious adherence is falling fast, the number of people who do not believe in gods will soon become a sizable minority within my lifetime and hopefully, within the lifetime of my children, will become the majority.  This fact terrifies the ultra-religious so they hold their hands over their ears and clench their eyes closed.  They don’t want to hear that religion, at least modern-day fundamentalist religion is doomed.  The speed at which it seems to be falling off most people’s radar is ever-increasing and that’s a good thing.

Many conservatives seem to think that some simple adherence to the Constitution will save us. Do conservatives understand that the Constitution could not have been written outside of a Christian context? Many churches in our day seem content to be practically doctrine-free entities. They concern themselves mainly with appearing to provide people with golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in the sky when they die.

I’m sorry, the founding fathers did write the Constitution outside of the Christian context.  Most of the founding fathers were very critical of Christianity in general and knew that they wanted to keep religion out of the government, for fear of what had happened in England and Europe happening here.  It always surprises me just how ignorant many theists are of the founding of this country, they live in this fantasy world where all of the founding fathers were just as religious as they were, the whole of 18th century proto-America were all church-going fundamentalist Protestants who believed exactly what the theist in question believes.  The overwhelming majority of our founding fathers were very critical of not only the Church of England, but of Christianity in general.  All you have to do is read the writings of most of them to see that clearly.  This country was also not founded on Christian doctrine in any way.  They put it into the Treaty of Tripoli very clearly and stated the United States was “not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”  The Treaty was published in newspapers across the fledgling nation and there is no record of anyone in the country disagreeing with it.  Why is there such a confusion?

If secular conservatives and libertarians think they can transform a culture with principles and morality detached from faith, or with the tasteless gruel of intellectual policy positions, they will never capture the hearts of men.
TODD LEWIS
Montross, Va.

I don’t want to capture the hearts of men, I want to capture their minds.  We cannot solve the problems that face the United States without logic, reason and critical thinking.  While I recognize what an uphill battle it might be, especially in a country where education is so lacking and emotion, especially religion, is so cherished, we can never get anywhere worthwhile.  Whether Lewis and other religious neo-conservatives like it or not, the culture is already changing and it has been for quite some time.  Unfortunately, I think, and I suspect Lewis would agree, that it isn’t changing for the better.  However, I think we’d seriously disagree on why there are so many problems.  I think a lot of it is the fault of unrestrained emotion on both the left and right sides of the aisle.  I think we need to get  back to what actual conservatism is about, not the two versions of liberalism we have in America today.

It’s not that secular conservatism is an empty suit, it’s that you don’t even know what conservatism is anymore.  You’re so busy complaining about the non-existent strawman you’ve set up in the corn field, you don’t recognize the growing number of perfectly full suits of actual conservatives who are happily living without religion that are surrounding the field.  We’re here, we’re educated and we vote.  Instead, it’s the idiots on the religious right who are vanishing and they, like the emperor, have never had any clothes.

8 thoughts on “I’m Wearing that Empty Suit

  1. This is one of my favorite posts of yours so far. I think I may have even detected a slight lull in the annoying buzzing sound I'm always hearing…..which I believe to be the sound of Thomas Jefferson spinning non-stop in his grave for the last two centuries. Well done.

    One note…it's a slow process and easy to destroy, but I think that many people these days are starting to take knowledge more seriously than previous generations. Standardized testing scores haven't been looking so hot the last few years, but I think that trend is changing. Conservative or liberal, more knowledge in the general populace can't hurt.

    1. Yes and no. I don't think that the students are getting better educated and thus, passing the testing, I think they're making the testing easier so that more students pass and it's still shocking how many fail the tests. At least in California, they give students three years to pass the exit exams, which are based at an 8th grade level of education. My oldest daughter took it for the first time this year, as a high school sophomore, and aced the test. From my understanding, greater than 60% of students fail the test in their first attempt. This is not a good thing by any reasonable standard.

      Oh, and you might want to stop worshiping Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers and realize that they were just men and made mistakes, just like everyone does. It tends to help.

      1. Worship…….ah fuck no. Not quite sure where you got that, mind reading has a very bad track record if you didn't know.

        I just included it as a bit of flourish for a good post, really. I do agree with a good portion of his thoughts though, and give him quite a bit of credit for his accomplishments and his thinking. While Jefferson was thought of as a bit naive even in his own time in his wish for an economic system based mainly on small communities and agriculture while ignoring industry and the growth of large cities and financial institutions, a lot of his ideas were ahead of their time, like support for public education(though not so comprehensive as we have now), his acknowledgement that as industrial capital grew in power and organized, that organized labor was inevitable to some degree and should not be outlawed (although it is funny to see how many current "conservatives" like to pretend that Jefferson was on the side of sweat-shops and robber barons, mostly by only quoting him talking about government and taxation.)

        I think that ignorance of history, particularly our political history, is one of the main factors in our political problems today. I've often wondered how many people people know that a lot of what is called conservatism these days was once called Liberalism, and that "conservatism" until not too long ago was the support of monarchy, all powerful social institutions, and churches, with the ideal that economic freedom had to be kept subordinate to social/religious authority to preserve society? If more modern liberals and progressives could learn to appreciate the (currently called "conservative")enlightenment values that made American freedom possible, and more conservatives could embrace rationalism and the enlightenment values this country was founded on and get rid of the last shreds of rule by superstition and enforced loyalty, we just might get somewhere.

        Anyway, no worship required, neither god nor Jefferson. Political Rant Mode Off.

        I do wonder about testing standards. I've heard claims all over the place, but I need to see a copy of the current tests. I remember the yearly California Achievement Tests I had as a kid, which only tested language and math skills. I was always skeptical about them, because they seemed so easy to me. According to my scores, I scored well enough to be a high school graduate every single year since the third grade. WTF? If standardized tests have gotten much easier, they might as well just smack kids on the head with a hammer instead of having class. California is also a bit of a special case, as we have huge numbers of ESL students that throw the averages off. It's still a problem that has to be dealt with, but it makes it harder to get a clear picture of exactly where the problems really are.

        1. Yet that's exactly how a lot of libertarians and neo-cons act. There are people out there who treat the Constitution with every bit of reverence that fundamentalist Christians treat the Bible and who consider the founding fathers almost like inerrant prophets. Certainly the founding fathers came up with a lot of excellent ideas and recorded many of them in the founding documents of the nation, but that was 250 years ago and we can't continue to pretend that the Constitution is the end-all, be-all of perfection for all time. It just isn't. There are many, many things that they could never have foreseen, perhaps most importantly now, I don't think they ever saw a day where the nation would be so ideologically divided, with two sides entirely willing to sell out the country and it's people for political power and ideological purity. Add to that the fact that I see no point in hero worship at all, it shouldn't matter at all who said a thing, only if what was said is worthwhile. A valid idea shouldn't need to have a "face" attached to it in order to be valid. Jefferson lived in a different time under a different set of rules in a different culture, a lot of what he said isn't particularly applicable to the modern era. We need to examine what is said and see if it still holds water today, not just pretend that because he said it, it must be true.

          I agree with you on the testing, I remember back in the day, according to the standardized tests, I was reading at a college level by the time I was in 5th grade. Ever since No Child Left Behind, they've been making the tests easier and easier so the schools look better, rather than making them harder and harder to force students to learn more. We should not be testing at an 8th grade level, we should not allow anyone out of high school until they are proficient in 12th grade level material. We're so busy shooting for the lowest common denominator that most kids who do go on to college have to spend the first year or two learning all the things they were supposed to learn in high school first. It's absurd.

  2. This is good and timely post, it really follows on well from your post the other day about atheist conservatives not talking about religion. Your analysis is spot on, for a party to stay relevant they have to address the issues and move with the trends. At this moment with the increase in more liberal religious (hopefully atheist) views, there needs to be a change.
    My recent post Ignorance

    1. Great comment, it reminds me of something else that's entirely relevant here. It seems like both major parties are no longer worried about relevant political issues, they're both simply catering to the emotions of the voters, trying to hit people in the gut instead of in the head and this is a massive problem. They don't want anyone to think about the issues, they just want them to react to catch phrases. Is it any wonder this country is so screwed up these days?

  3. I was steered in this direction by Atheist Revolution, and this is the first post of yours that I've read. My first thought is… I'm a subscriber! I've always considered myself a conservative, though I tend to test as more centrist these days, and I'm an atheist as well.

    Thanks for an insightful and well-articulated post!

    1. I'm glad you like and welcome aboard. It's a shame that there are so few "out" conservative atheists, people who are willing to admit that they hold non-liberal views. And since most conservatives have moved into libertarian waters, it's hardly surprising that you'd test as a centrist, I do too most times, but that's only because the "right" has moved so far right that they're coming out on the left.

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