We seek to identify the people and ideas that will lead the Republican Party back out of the wilderness. Topics include core conservatism, potential national leaders, constituencies that that the GOP must reach and the messages that will reach them.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

God and Liberty

Randall Hoven in American Thinker makes a persuasive case that libertarians and the religious right really can share space in the Republican tent. His argument skates past at least one tough issue -- see below -- but it's a useful counterweight to the divisive talk on both sides. In that category I put Mike Huckabee's sniping at libertarian "faux-cons" and Kathleen Parker's claim that "the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP" is the party's real problem. Inquisitors like Huckabee and Parker need to understand that 1) the GOP's wouldn't have a coherent idea on economics (or much else) without its strong classic-liberal tradition and 2) that it couldn't elect more than a few sewer district board members without the support of religious conservatives. Without its intellectual commitment to liberty, it would be just a confused copy of the Democratic Party -- which in many ways it became in the era of "compassionate conservatism." Without its social-conservative energy, it would be relegated to the political margins, more or less where the Libertarian Party is today.

Hoven is basically asking libertarians to recognize that the agenda of the so-called “religious right” is generally in synch with their own desire for liberty and limited government. Historically, religious conservatives -- especially those "dissenting" Protestants, such as Baptists, in sects not favored by establishment -- have wanted little more than freedom to practice their religion publicly and freedom from the entanglement of churches and state power. Deep down, I think that history still matters, though evangelicals certainly have a higher political profile than in the old days. They may want to influence the culture, and they don't want all barriers to vulgarity and obscenity removed from the public square. But they also tend to distrust government, which they (rightly) see as a force that secularists -- especially secularist judges -- will use as much as they can to push religion into the shadows. They also believe, with reason, that private charity delivered through their churches beats the welfare state when it comes to getting real help to those most in need. As F.A. Hayek has noted, this limited view of the state, though not religious in itself, nevertheless has been favored by political leaders of strong religious convictions. Limitless government, from the French Revolution to the Soviet Union, has always been preferred by those who are hostile to religion.

Religious conservatives do try to influence public policy through the electoral process, but so does everyone else. And if they can win in a fair democratic vote on one of their core issues, like gay marriage, that means they have most of the people on their side. More importantly, if they lose in a fair democratic contest on something like gay marriage, the kind of judges they favor would not seek to reverse that vote and impose a gay-marriage ban over the objections of the people. Conservative judges don’t think that way.

Another issue dear to religious conservatives is that of public-square religion, like crosses or Christmas trees on public property or “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Here they also tend to have majorities on their side, or at least only a small minority finds itself so offended that it cares to protest. Since a majority has no problem with “under God,” the question then is whether any minority’s rights are being infringed. To many liberals, simply being reminded that you’re in a minority – a non-believer in a religious society, for instance – somehow deprives you of a civil right. A few judges go this route, but most of us would agree that there is no “right” of a religious minority not to be reminded of majority views.

To sum up the big-tent case: Secular libertarians and religious conservatives may have sharply different world views, but they have a similar preference for limited government. So what explains the political gulf between them? Why does Sarah Palin, for instance, inspire such different reactions among religious-right conservatives and classic-liberal intellectuals? Cultural divisions could have something to do with it. GOP elites and the rank and file come from different worlds. In so many ways, Alaska is very far from Manhattan.

But on at least one major issue (and there may be others), the more secular conservatives have legitimate reason to distrust the religious right. It's about public education. It centers on the teaching of evolution and the desire of religious right either to downplay Darwinian science or "balance" it with the teaching of creationism as an acceptable alternate view.

Polls suggest that the public's attitude toward this theologically loaded issue is complex. One 2008 Gallup survey says 60% Republicans believe that God created humans in their present from 10,000 years ago, while only 38% of Democrats and 40% of independents agreed. But a 2007 USA Today suggests that a majority of Americans actually see both creationism and evolution as likely explanations for life on Earth. And 64% of the respondents in a 2005 Pew poll said they were open to the idea of teaching both views, even though only 42% were strict creationists themselves. But if the public is fuzzy on the validity of evolutionary theory, scientists are not. Creationism is religious doctrine, not science. Ditto for "intelligent design." Injecting either into school curriculum as "science" is wrong for at least two reasons that offend the classic-liberal conscience: It entangles religion and state and teaches factual error. As long as the religious right seeks to inject creationism into science curricula, it can expect resistance from those on the right who value reason and science along with liberty.

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