The conservative contradiction
Not all conservatives have a direct line to God, and they don’t want one, either
Upon leaving office in November 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11. But the real credit, he added, belonged to God. Ultimately, it was God’s solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland.
Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others—count me among them—feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?
Skeptical conservatives, one of the right’s less celebrated subcultures, are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and non- religious moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.
Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society.
They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.
They also find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says he bases “a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions” on his belief in “the Almighty” and in the Almighty’s “great gifts” to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty’s actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless. True, when a potential tragedy is averted, believers decipher God’s beneficent intervention with ease. The father of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her home in 2002, thanked God for answering the public’s prayers for her safe return. When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: “Thank you God, 9 for 9.” God’s mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami.
But why did the prayers for 5-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002, and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told the human mind cannot fathom God’s ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a W. Va., mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: “For God’s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?” Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God.
The presumption of religious belief, not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it, does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith, nor do we need it to be conservative.
Non-believers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or “natural law.” It is perfectly possible to revere the Founding Fathers and their monumental accomplishment without celebrating, say, “Washington’s God.” Skeptical conservatives even believe themselves to be good citizens, a possibility denied by Richard John Neuhaus in a 1991 article.
I have heard that what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith, as if morality is impossible without religion and everything is indeed permitted, as the cliche has it. I wonder whether religious conservatives can spot the atheists among them by their deeds or, for that matter, by their political positions. I very much doubt it. Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer’s. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others.
A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America’s antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.
So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Non-believers are good conservatives, too. As Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has advised, it should be possible for conservatives to unite on policy without agreeing on theology.