BLOGGERJacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...
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Conservatism and Secularism: 2008's Losers
October 22, 2008
Barring a Late October Surprise, it seems likely that after November 4 American Conservatism is going to have a couple of years to just sit back and reflect.
While it spends 2008-2012 lounging about in sweat pants and thumbing through newspapers at the local coffee shop, it might notice a disheveled American Secularism blogging at the next table over. It too will be in something of a funk; 2008 was not a good year for nonbelievers and Church/State separatists.
Our two star-crossed social movements may not initially feel drawn to one another; Conservatism and Secularism have rarely embraced. Then again, before the Christian Right joined, and eventually overran, the GOP there were, at the very least, a handful of well-respected secular Republicans. I think of Barry Goldwater, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, and George H.W. Bush, to name but a few.
None of them, of course, was an out-and-out nonbeliever. But all were secularist in the sense that they were innately reluctant to mix religion and government. And all of them, I am surmising, would have been hard pressed to find a place in today's GOP with its relentless graffiti-ing and vandalism performed on the Wall of Separation,
If Secularism and Conservatism actually did get around to talking ("Hey, are you reading a biography of Ayn Rand? Man, I loved her in seventh grade!") here are three possible moments in their budding relationship:
Bonding through differences: Secularism and Conservatism don't have that much in common. Secular ideas have not recently had access to the corridors of power. Secular pundits do not have a vast and influential network of magazines, journals and websites through which they can promulgate their ideas, as do their Conservative counterparts. Few members of the House of Representatives would refer to themselves as "secular" lest they not remain in the House of Representatives much longer.
Conservatism by contrast has controlled the executive branch for eight years. During more than half of that span it ruled the House and Senate to boot. Conservatism has given rise to an impressive and well-respected class of public intellectuals whose ability to shape domestic and foreign policy is not inconsiderable. Accordingly, during the past two terms the American government has become an experimental space, a Biosphere 2 (remember Biosphere 2?) for every manner of conservative idea and initiative.
Whereas a secularist must bemoan his or her marginality, a conscientious Conservative can't possibly deny that the Movement has been given ample opportunity to strut its stuff (though some, astonishingly, do). And if the administration of George W. Bush truly represents Conservatism--a claim that many are now vehemently denying--then most Americans seem averse to Conservatism.
Ditto for Secularism (which never controlled anything and whose only functional Biosphere 2 is in France). But this is where the relation can sprout wings.
Identifying a shared problem: a certain strain of Conservative Evangelicalism: Most secularists are either Independents or Democrats and are generally supportive of pro-Choice candidates. This distinguishes them from Conservatives who tend to swing Republican and who in the past years have championed "a culture of life." But this needs to be reexamined.
It is not my intention to tar pro-life advocates as extremists who lack any moral grounds for their activism. What I will say is that political Conservatism has joined hands with forms of Conservative Evangelicalism that advocate views which are radical, politically disastrous, and theologically peculiar. It is one thing to be morally opposed to abortion. It is another thing entirely to start from the premise that life begins at conception, that a one-minute-old conceptus is a human being endowed with full rights under the Constitution.
How long can political Conservatism remain wed to this type of Zygote Extremism (as well as a myriad of other doctrinal quirks which presently grip Conservative Christendom)? How long can it maintain the dubious stance that the Scriptures (which had no understanding of what we call a zygote, or embryology for that matter) subscribed to Focus on the Family's rather novel view of when life begins? More to the point: how long can Conservatism be Conservative Evangelicalism's "co-belligerent" without conducting a risk/reward assessment?
Resolving to use their minds to make the world a better place: Opposing anti-intellectualism:New York Times Op-Edist David Brooks recently called attention to a debilitating anti-Intellectualism that has gripped the McCain campaign, and the GOP in general.
I concur. Governor Sarah Palin, in my view, is by no means unintelligent (liberals play this card way too often), but she is jaw-droppingly and distressingly anti-intellectual. Runnin' against "Washington," extollin' small town virtues at every country fair, smackin' around the "media elite," are time-worn populist tropes and as Brooks points out they are not accruing to greater good of the Republican Party.
The Conservative thought I have most enjoyed--anything from the journalism of William F.Buckley Jr., to the provocations of Allan Bloom to the fiction of Saul Bellow--has been meticulously thoughtful, erudite and almost tauntingly elitist. When we consider that thinkers such as Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and Jean-Paul Sartre and hundreds of others are part of the Secular canon we realize that our coffee house companions have a shared love of refined thought. (They also have a mutual distrust of Joe the Plumber who, truth be told, strikes them both as something of a shmoo).
True, we have experienced a form of atheism as dumbshow in the past few years. But that should not obscure the fact that Secularists, like Conservatives, have little tolerance for anti-Intellectualism. And it is this joint commitment to advanced thought that they should explore together over the period of exile that awaits them.