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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Conservatism doesn't need God

“Talk about your faith!”

That was the nearly universal advice to Democratic politicians after the publicly pious George W. Bush vanquished the more religiously reticent John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. The largest plurality of voters — 22% — had told exit pollsters that “moral values” (left undefined in the poll) were their most salient concern. Add to this enigmatic survey finding the fact that 11 states passed amendments banning gay marriage, and the result, according to gleeful Republican pundits and not a few Democratic consultants, was the exposure of a Democratic God gap.

Ever since then, Democrats have been trying to show that they, too, have God in their hearts and in their caucus rooms.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has declared herself a “praying person.” “I was lucky enough to be raised in a praying family, and learned to say my prayers as a very young child,” she said at a benefit in Boston last year. The House’s Democratic Faith Working Group, created in 2005, provides “members of strong and authentic faith” an organizing venue. The lengthy “My Faith as My Guide” section of Rep. Harold Ford’s campaign website discloses that Tennessee’s Democratic senatorial candidate went into politics to put his “faith and beliefs into action.” Other Democratic hopefuls have testified to their religion as November draws near.

This surge of mediagenic piety is discouraging to one of the least heralded segments of the political spectrum: secular conservatives. The conservative movement has supposedly benefited from politicians who publicize their relationship to God. Non-believing conservatives, however, see this electoral gain as a Pyrrhic victory. Conservative principles, they say, are best grounded in reason and evidence, not revelation. The infusion of God talk into both parties’ campaign discourse adds nothing to the public’s ability to vote wisely.

What does faith reveal?

What are we supposed to learn when a candidate talks about his faith: That he is a good person? The rich history of religious bounders and charlatans should give the lie to that hope. Nor has a sincere belief in God prevented behavior we now view as morally repugnant. There were few more religious Americans than antebellum slaveholders and their political representatives; their claim to a divine mandate for slavery was based in unimpeachable Scriptural authority.

Or perhaps a politician’s discussion of his prayer habits should reassure the public he’ll make the right decisions in office. But what if opposing candidates declare themselves supplicants of the divine will — how will a voter decide who is most likely to receive divine guidance?

If Connecticut senatorial candidate and Iraq war opponent Ned Lamont, say, were to invoke God’s plan for humanity to justify withdrawing from Iraq, the Democrat would convince none of the war’s supporters, who would be certain that he had misunderstood his divine prompter. Who would determine whether he had? Moreover, monumental decisions such as whether to enter or terminate a war should rest on reasons accessible to believer and non-believer alike.

President Bush says his belief that “God wants everybody to be free” informs his foreign policy. This declaration is disquieting, for it means that the president’s war-making decisions are not wholly amenable to worldly evidence. Even if the Iraq adventure were to appear to human minds as patently counterproductive, reversing course would violate a higher mandate.

For the past six years, Republican pundits have declared that religious faith is what makes Republicans superior to Democrats. Secular conservatives beg to differ. It is a proven track record that makes conservative principles superior to liberalism, not the religious inclinations of their proponents.

Conservative atheists and agnostics vigorously support the two-parent family because the life chances of children raised by both their biological parents are demonstrably superior to children raised by single mothers. Moreover, when marriage disappears as a community norm, so do civilizing constraints on male behavior. It doesn’t take Bible study to see this. Conservatives do not need God to prove the value of marriage; the sad state of the inner city is testament enough.

Likewise, secular conservatives look to the world as we know it to ground their support for the free market and the principles of limited government. Recent history alone shows that governments have little capacity to run an economy, produce widespread prosperity, or take over the functions of the family. The Founders crafted America’s constitutional framework based on their knowledge of human nature and their commitment to Enlightenment ideals. They left God out of the Constitution. This omission horrified many of the drafters’ contemporaries, who predicted that divine vengeance would follow. The Founders’ faith in secularism proved wiser.

Moral guidance

In the personal sphere, conservative atheists and agnostics lead lives as ethical as those of any believer. The Golden Rule and innate human empathy provide ample guidance for moral behavior. Indeed, it is doubtful that the fear of hell dissuades many people from, say, running a red light at 3 a.m.; rather, the innate appreciation for the fragility of the social order keeps the solitary driver waiting for the light to turn green.

Most educated people instinctively understand that a law-abiding society can easily slide into anarchy without widespread obedience to the law. The greatest conservative triumph of late 20th century America — New York City’s return to civility — was achieved by appeal to secular values alone.Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke relentlessly about the need for personal responsibility and respect for social order; he based his policies on principles that non-believers and believers alike could test against their own experience.

Invoking God in the political realm is a conversation stopper, not an invitation to robust debate. America’s rules of religious etiquette demand that we acquiesce silently in a believer’s claim of revelation. But conservatism doesn’t need such revelation; common sense and an openness to fact will do just fine as support. Conservative principles are available to people of all faiths or no faith at all.

This piece originally appeared in USA Today

This piece originally appeared in USA Today