In 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The problem is, the Republican party no longer represents conservative values on either side, social or fiscal.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.
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.