Saturday, August 12, 2006

Godless Conservatives

Heather MacDonald is one of the great conservative journalists. She writes on matters of domestic policy with a lucidity and a knowledge that are truly breath-taking. Here, she goes to Pat Buchanan's magazine to blast the religious language used by certain parts of the American Right. For once I have to say she misses the mark.

Her problem is not with conservatives but with the American political idiom. Traditionally heavily reliant on the King James Bible and Shakespeare, American political speech often assumes, or nowadays, unconsciously draws on religious imagery, argument and rationales. This is especially true in times of national trauma (and in the speeches of old time Senators like the liberal Robert Byrd).

Moreover, I believe she is wrong on her facts. Men like John Ashcroft do not exclude conservatives from their ranks because they are not bible believers. In modern times the reverse has more often been the case. Religious believers in Europe are often excluded from office because of religious beliefs that offend secular humanist nostrums. In Maryland a fellow running mass transit was just sacked by a Republican for saying that homosexual activity was objectively disordered, a tenet of the Catholic Faith. How this affected mass transit has never been clear to me.

Apparently, Ms. McDonald's problems with theodicy lead her to atheism and to frown on religious talk in politics. She is not against the religious but seems to view it like as normal people view foreigner's obsession with soccer. The problem is in politics you hunt where the ducks are. Atheism is very unpopular in this country. Jesus, to put it mildly, isn't. I am convinced the Bill Clinton's comfort with biblical language and the absence of disdain he showed for religious believers won him the White House. Plus his familiarity with how many times the Bible mentions concubines was impressive.

Moreover, Catholics, a large part of the conservative coalition (and it is a coalition not a Bible- thumping monolith) do not grant Ms. MacDonald her a dichotomy between Faith and Reason. They believe that "right reason" will lead one to the same outcomes as Faith in most things, save in the area perhaps of Grace and certain mysteries even the Pope does not pretend to Answer.

More interestingly, how large is the world of "Godless Conservatives?" Russel Kirk thought religious belief vital to conservatism. Of conservative thinkers I can only recall Sidney Hook as a real atheist. I do not consider Ayn Rand to be either a real conservative or a real thinker, but if you want to include her on the Right go ahead. Currently, the two British guys at NRO, Stuttaford and Derbyshire seem to fit that mold, as does Kurtz at both NRO and the Weekly Standard. Prof. Glenn Reynolds also seems to pose as the (Global) Village Atheist.

I suppose Nietzsche is regarded as being on the Right but again, he's not what I'd call conservative. In fact, I think a conservatism not grounded in a transcendent moral order tends towards either Nietzchean zaniness (and eugenics) or complete despair and relentless material acquisition and sensation seeking. If each of us is a finite grub, a brief flash of sensation between two unending voids, all without meaning but our own preferences, what is there to conserve and why try?

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