U.S. Conservatism Needs a Divorce: Part III

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Tue, Feb 17 - 9:00 am EDT | 3 years ago by
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Riposte Modernism - Republicans divorce Christianity

Can the U.S. Republican Party Really Split From Political Christianity… and Still Win Elections?

In the first part of this series, we looked at the reasons why the American right-wing desperately needs to get a divorce – the Individualist, rationalist, small-government, free-market, socially tolerant and ‘libertarian’ side needing a split from the Collectivist theocratic politicized “Christian Coalition” on the other side. In the second part, we looked back on a retrospective of just what Christianity’s role was in the evolution of Western Civilization (short answer: it was the middle part). We clarified that – while important and significant – Christianity is not in and of itself solely synonymous with civilization, or even ‘Western Civilization’, which had its foundations before Christianity and reached its full manifestation after the period of Christianity’s absolute dominance over culture (and because it moved beyond that).

Today, in the final installment in this series, we get down to the brass tacks. As free-thinking conservatives, we should not be utopian, it is important to be pragmatic. There is no question that a “divorce” from Political Christianity would be very difficult, no one is denying that. It also would require a political will on the part of leaders (or a grassroots movement of sufficient power) that might not exist quite just yet – but might not be as far off as people imagine. The question is: can this divorce actually happen, and could a Republican party not largely controlled by Political Christian Theocrats end up winning elections? Is the hard-Christian vote (that is, the vote of people who are voting based on their fundamental Christian beliefs first and foremost, rather than other issues like social policy, the economy, personal freedoms, etc.) so essential to conservative chances of victory in a sharply divided electorate? Or is it perhaps one of the causes why that divide is so close, rather than seeing elections where a liberty-loving people consistently come out in majorities for the side of personal freedoms?

When we look at the kind of Political Christianity that dominates the U.S. Conservative movement today, it’s worth bearing in mind that it does not really reflect the best of Christianity itself. It isn’t really that Christianity which was so crucial to Western Civilization. The “Reverend Billy-Bob Podunk Church of Young Earth Creationism” is a far cry from Augustine, Scotus, Erasmus, or Luther. These are people who look back to a mythical version of medieval Christianity as a utopia that never was (not unlike how the Wahabis have created a reactionary mythical utopian vision of early Islam), and dream of a ‘restoration’ to that kind of society where any of us who don’t share their particular views would be forced to comply with their tastes by a powerful and authoritarian government. They have no particular interest in human liberty if it isn’t the ‘liberty’ of choosing their particular brand of dogma. They have no interest in the idea of individual freedom because to them this is largely associated with “devilish” rebellion against God and threats to the institutional church’s authority. They want to create a society where anything they don’t personally like is outlawed. I wouldn’t want to live in (or even with) an America governed by the likes of Rick Santorum or William Donohue any more than I’d want to live in one governed by Rob Reiner; because any of these share the quality of thinking they know better than I what’s best for my own life. They are, in other words, Collectivists.

Note that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t welcome Christians who subscribe to individualist ideals, but the authoritarian and Collectivist Christian-Right is pretty much a hindrance at this point, and was never really an ally to free-thinkers. And as I pointed out in the first article of this series, even many within the devout Christian, Catholic, and Evangelical movement are moving away from that type of Political Christianity. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the “Religious Right” is a spent force.

All that said, the last question is whether the American right can actually get such a divorce and hope to be electable in the future? I think to answer this, we must again look at the past.

American politics are not nearly as bound-to-tradition as some people may think. The Republican party was originally the party of abolition (of slavery, that is), and the Democrats the party of first slave-owners and later segregation, for quite a long time (from just before the Civil War until the 1960s, in fact). Then this changed; and today, whatever you might want to say about them, it would be unthinkable for most Democrats to imagine themselves belonging to a party of segregation (and some would be shocked to conceive of the fact that this is what their party was for a very long time), while the Republicans are still paying a price with minorities for having been the party of “Southern Strategy” in the 1970s.

Surely, however, the Republicans were always the party of Christianity, right? Not really. They were certainly the party of Abolitionist Christianity back in the days of Lincoln. But by the turn of the 20th century, the Republicans were generally the party of progressive thinkers and technocrats, while the Democrats were the party of socially-conservative Christian Populists. William Jennings Bryan, who may today be most famous for having argued an intense Bible-based opposition to the teaching of evolution during the Scopes Monkey Trial, was a famous and popular DEMOCRAT, who served as a congressman, three-time Democrat presidential candidate (1896, 1900, and 1908), and was Secretary of State under Democratic president Woodrow Wilson.

The Republicans, meanwhile, wouldn’t go back to being thought of as the ‘more Christian’ party until 1980 or so. Not because the Astrologer-consulting Reagans were more devout than the strongly-religious-Baptist evangelical Jimmy Carter (Reagan himself was a sunny somewhat-transcendentalist Presbyterian who was much more intensely devoted to anti-communism than to the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity), but because the Republican party saw an opportunity to use the “Moral Majority” movement’s disillusionment over Roe v. Wade to turn Political Christianity away from the Democrats. It’s worth remembering that in 1976, no less than Pat Robertson himself had endorsed Democrat Jimmy Carter against Gerald Ford, because the Democrats (particularly under Carter) were still thought of as the more “Christian” party. So while some of you younger fellows or people with shorter memories might not realize it, this shift to the Democrats being godless and the Republicans being the Jeeeesus Party happened in living memory – my living memory, for starters.

History demonstrates that a significant shift in the cultural allegiances of a political party in the United States can sometimes be as easy as a grass-roots pick of a presidential candidate, a policy decision among campaign organizers, or at most, a gradual change in the cultural paradigm. And as we’ve already established in the first part of this series, the utility-vs-cost formula of the Political Right has stopped showing positive returns even in terms of votes, and I’d argue it was never better than a Faustian bargain (again, pardon the ironic pun) from an ideological perspective to any of us who actually value the ideas of small government or individual liberty. When a political alliance not only fails to strengthen some of your core values but also starts to bleed away potential votes at a faster rate than it attracts them, it’s long past due time to cut the cord.

Finally, you might ask what of those areas where there is agreement, where there is common ground between either the Political Right as a movement, or individual Christians, and the goals of free-thinking, free-speech, small-government, pro-science, free-market conservatives? Where there is agreement, then great, let’s agree! There’s nothing to stop individual Christians from being free-thinking conservatives who adhere strongly to their faith while still supporting free speech/expression and a government that doesn’t interfere in people’s private lives (and recognizing the importance of not allowing their religious institutions to become tainted by the money-grubbing and power-mongering of political lobbying). Those people (especially the younger generation) are not going to go anywhere just because we stop catering to the likes of the “Christian Coalition” – they don’t seem to like the policies of the institutional Political Christian Right any more than the rest of us.

And think about it, they don’t really have anywhere else to go; they are unwanted by the Democrats and their values will still more strongly align with the Republican party regardless. We stand at the cusp of a potentially beneficial shift in American politics, if the American right is the side to take advantage of it. The Democratic party isn’t going to get any less radical, any less interested in identity politics or in pushing a strong Nanny-state agenda. Dominated by University-indoctrinated critical-theory Ideologues, it gives lip service to but barely listens to the grassroots (much less the minorities) it already has under its aegis. But were the Republican party to just be capable of breaking away from the loony-bin theocrats who have insinuated their way into the American Right, it has a golden opportunity to become the saner, broader, more tolerant party of absolutely everyone that doesn’t want a government to tell them how they have to live. And if you get rid of the obstacles that keep people away from that core message, I’m pretty sure you’d find a significant majority of Americans will be – as they have always been – behind that rallying cry.

Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.

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  • Charles

    I think it’s a mistake to characterize the modern GOP as a Libertarian
    party with a religious fringe. The GOP is a pro-corporate party which
    uses Christianity as a tool to mobilize its voter base. Mitch McConnell
    and John Boehner don’t care about abortion, gay marriage, or the
    teaching of evolution in schools… but their voters do, which is why
    those are the issues that candidates spend their time talking about.

    many ways, a pro-corporate party looks Libertarian. The GOP stands
    against government oversight, regulation, taxation, environmental
    protection. It also opposes investment in social programs, urban
    infrastructure, and research into new energy technologies. However, it
    bears noting that the GOP loves Big Government when it serves corporate
    interests. The GOP often supports bombing countries in order to secure
    energy resources. It pushes right-to-work legislation, which is by definition government regulation over the private sector. The GOP also
    opposes free speech if it’s potentially subversive; note that their
    prescribed response to Occupy and Black Lives Matter has been
    government-administered shows of force.

    You claim that the
    voting base exists, but I think it’s unlikely that a Libertarian party
    would be viable in the United States. The right mobilizes voters with
    Christian social policy, so it capitalizes on voters’ hostility towards
    those who don’t share their values and traditions. The left mobilizes
    them with progressive wealth redistribution, which capitalizes on
    voters’ dissatisfaction with income stratification. For Libertarianism
    to be viable in any sort of ideologically-pure way, you would need a huge voter base which holds the government in *such* contempt that it is unswayed by the offers of the right and the left. This is a tall order. Most people don’t
    explicitly interact with the government on a daily basis. I’ll wager
    that those who do are usually *relying* on government funding (food
    assistance, subsidized healthcare, public-sector jobs, public schools,
    etc) rather than being harmed by it.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      I can concede that it would be an uphill battle. But it also might be (in the present or in the next few years) the most opportune time for this to happen.

      I absolutely agree that there’s a big difference between corporatism and actual free-market capitalism, and that this is also a fight that would have to happen. But I’m picking at the lower-hanging fruit here. I think that if the corporatists (who you correctly identify as the people who REALLY run the republican party, which is why they make sure huge subsidies for fortune 500 companies always end up happening and abortion bans never do) started to feel like the Religious Right were more of a liability than an asset they’d be willing to veer away from them. So that in and of itself would not fix the Republican party, but it would get rid of one of the major obstacles. And it’s essential to go after them FIRST, before tackling the Big-Government Corporatists, because getting rid of the Religious Right would open the door for a bunch of people (especially younger people) to flow into the Republican party who always had essentially freedom-loving anti-nanny-state anti-big-government values but were totally turned off by the Southern Baptist Mullahs trying to tell them what to do with their genitals.
      We do this in stages. The easiest is getting rid of the Theocrats. Then creating some movement that will simultaneously challenge the Corporatists while drawing even more of the right sort of people into the party; the best example I could think of (though not the only one) would be to push for the Republican party to take the lead on ending the War on Drugs. Then, with enough of the numbers in place, we can try to push out the Corporate Welfare assholes.

      For such a party to be viable in America, I think all you’d really need is to have people who’d actually stand for things they say they stand for. The Republicans get a LOT of votes by claiming to be against Big Government, for “small businesses”, opposed to bureaucracies and needless red tape and pointless spending. They never actually do anything about any of these things, however. If you had a party that really believed in leaving people the hell alone, in letting people do what they will, and not criminalizing what you do with (or to) your own body or what you think or what you say, in not stealing people’s property or money, and in generally not having a tiny group of smug assholes who think they’re superior telling you how you have to live, I think that party would get a very wide appeal indeed.

    • Charles

      At present, surveys show that about 40% of the USA is young-earth creationist. About that same number believes that Jesus will return within their lifetimes. That’s probably the single biggest voting bloc in the country, and it votes overwhelmingly for the GOP. I don’t see any way that the GOP could walk away from those voters and survive.

      Those numbers are lower among the young, so ditching the religious right would make the GOP more appealing to young voters. However, young voters are not an overwhelmingly Liberatrian bloc. Judging by Facebook, for example, Rand Paul (a well-known figure on the Libertarian fringe of the GOP) is roughly on par with Elizabeth Warren (a well-known figure on the Socialist fringe of the Democrats).

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      As I pointed out in the first part of this series, the thing that’s happening with young evangelicals in the U.S. isn’t really that they’re becoming less religious, but that they are abandoning (the political force known as) the Religious Right. There is a deep disillusionment among young evangelicals, who may very well be young-earth creationists and believers in an imminent eschaton, with the idea of involving politics with religion in the way Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Focus on the Family, the Catholic League, etc. have done.

      What is happening is that young evangelicals are themselves splitting into two camps: on the one side you have what I call the “extreme drop outs for Jesus and the Coming Rapture”, who believe in stepping away from the culture completely, and creating an alternate culture. They’re the ones doing Homeschooling and the Quiverfull Movement and Purity Dances, and this general retreat from anything to do with mainstream society. They looked at the last several decades, and how being actively involved in politics really went for U.S. Christianity, and decided that it hadn’t worked (in every area, things got worse from their point of view: more abortion, more drug legalization, gays get married, etc; they had started their war thinking they could create an america where Rap Music and “dungeons & dragons” were illegal, and ended up in an America where children are getting sex changes and full frontal nudity is available on cable 24/7; from their point of view, the Culture War has been a DISASTER). So from this, their conclusion was that things are probably “meant” to get worse (because, you know, the Rapture) and so what they should do as “Christians” is just drop out and wait for Jesus and live biblical lives apart from the modern Sodom that is the common culture. Those people are going to vote republican on election day, but they won’t be going out to campaign; and if the Republican party became hard libertarian overnight they’d STILL vote Republican because at least the Republicans would leave them alone, while the Democrats will want to have social services steal their homeschooled children and force their teenage daughters to get pregnant and then have an abortion, or something.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      The second camp, are the “Emerging” Evangelicals, who looked at the whole situation and reached a different conclusion, but one no less troubling to the Political Theocrats. When they were teenagers they were all given “W.W.J.D.” bracelets, and taught about loving Jesus and caring for people, and things like “love the sinner”, and so on; all of these were campaigns pushed by the Religious Right. But the problem was, these crazy teens ACTUALLY BELIEVED THIS CRAP! Pat Robertson & co. never meant for these kids to actually start SERIOUSLY asking “what would Jesus do?”, they were just making cheap political statements and using children as weapons like they always did; but here these damn Millennials with their naive idealism went and took it all seriously and -and I know, this is totally NUTS, right?- actually thought Christians should try to be like Jesus. Crazy, right??

      But they really did. And when they got a little older they looked at their parents, and their parent’s leaders, and the things they’d fought for, and while they didn’t reject Jesus, they sure as heck rejected those leaders and those things their parents thought were so important. They couldn’t understand, if you’re supposed to ask what would Jesus do, why you’d spend all those years and millions of dollars in obsessing over fighting homosexuality, or pornography, or to force evolution in schools, or to fight to make big religious displays on city hall lawns or at high school football matches. Didn’t Jesus say “go pray in a closet”? Jesus didn’t spend his time stoning the prostitutes, he sat with them. He never actually said a single word about homosexuality.
      And even if they don’t necessarily disagree with all the fundamental moral issues that the Religious Right so cared about, they were still thinking that their parents’ generation got their priorities totally messed up. They were so worried about Sin that they forgot about Love.

      So while the parents of these evangelicals considered abortion and gay marriage to be the highest-priority issues for christians in America, those two don’t even fall on the radar for their kids, who consider poverty(!) to be the biggest priority. These kids are still deeply christian, not doubting their faith at all, but completely disillusioned with the reactionary politics of the Religious Right. They’re leaving the churches who push that brand of Sin-focused ideology in droves. They won’t go out on campaign either, they’re too busy volunteering at soup kitchens and aid missions.

      So either way, with the new generation of Evangelicals, the Religious Right is DONE. Stick a pitchfork in it, its cooked.

      And yes, young people are not all Libertarian, otherwise Colleges in America would look like bastions of intellectual freedom and not like a never-ending “1984″-cosplay. But I think that most Americans in general are fundamentally Libertarian on a PERSONAL level; they are Individualists. They believe in people having the right to do what they will, and dislike being told what to do by people who think they’re better/more-educated/more-moral than them. There are of course people, young and old, who instead think they ARE those ones who ‘know better’, and they want to create a state where they get to impose their vision on the collective whether individuals in the collective like it or not. Those people, young or old, are the REAL ENEMY. And the American right-wing has been making fake-enemies out of people who it could have as allies for so long, that it threatens to cost the battle against that real enemy.

  • Megafire

    Honestly, I’m a European lefty (I know, I know), but the US left fucking terrifies me. If anything, I’m hoping the US right wins the next election just to scare the shit out of the US left.

    Speaking as an individual, if I lived in the US and you managed to pull this off, I’d vote right. I think a healthy right will, eventually, create a healthy left, and damn, the US needs that change to happen.

    I want the right to be the best it can be, because it will force the left to be the best it can be. You may disagree that the left can ever be ‘good’, but I think you will agree with me that it can definitely be better than this.

    • Kasimir Urbanski

      I certainly agree that there is a better left and a worse left. The better left is the one that is strongly pro-democratic and strongly in favor of free speech and other personal freedoms.

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