Today, Antle and Continetti weigh the evangelical movement's effect on conservatism. Previously, they debated Bush's fiscal policy, foreign interventionism, conservatives' regard for individual freedoms and the prominence of big-government Republicans.
They're important, but not the whole partyBy W. James Antle III
Without question, the most maligned element of the conservative coalition is the religious right. Many conservatives take great pains to assure their fellow cocktail partygoers and latte-drinking companions that they aren't one of those conservatives. They say, "I like my tax cuts and strong national defense just fine, thank you, but I've never given money to a televangelist who claims he can direct the movement of hurricanes."
Yet without the religious right, the conservative coalition would be electorally irrelevant. In 2004, some 78% of the country's 28 million white evangelical voters supported President Bush's reelection. That is roughly one-third of all ballots cast for Bush. Factor in the traditionalist Catholics, Mormons, orthodox Jews and conservative members of other faiths, and religious conservatives are easily the GOP's biggest voting bloc. Their political participation has helped move the party -- and the country -- to the right on issues far removed from abortion or same-sex marriage.
Religious conservatives also bring the added benefit of being correct on some key issues. They are correct about the integrity of the family and the importance of traditional marriage. Their reverence for human life teaches us about the injustice of abortion and embryo-destructive research. And the country benefits from their stout-hearted defense of faith in the public square. Far from dominating the Republican Party, religious conservatives are still losing on most of the issues that drove them into politics in the first place.
That doesn't mean the religious right can never be wrong. Prominent conservative Christians have used thoughtless language that is unnecessarily hurtful to gays and other Americans who don't share their perspective, although there have been recent improvements. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative is fine as long as it means religious charities can compete fairly with secular ones in bidding for government contracts. But churches should seek to avoid being seduced by government largesse.
Moreover, religious conservatives should be wary of accepting the federal government as a defender of their values. In the end, the government can often be an aggressor against those values, sometimes even accidentally. To cite one example, many social programs designed with Christian values in mind have actually accelerated family breakdown by undermining the family's core economic logic.
Conservatives of all stripes err when we assume that government can easily stamp out immoral behavior or personal decadence. This brings us back to our earlier discussion of the war on drugs. What, you asked, is my problem with our current approach to drug policy?
Well, I'll let the late William F. Buckley Jr. answer for me: "We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen -- yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect." He was in actuality speaking of two maladies: drug addiction and the excesses of drug prohibition.
Buckley's National Review colleague Richard Brookhiser addressed one of those excesses in 1996 when he testified in Congress in favor of medical marijuana: "I am for law and order. But crime has to be fought intelligently and the law disgraces itself when it harasses the sick. I am for traditional virtues, but if carrying your beliefs to unjust ends is not moral, it is philistine. Most importantly, I believe in getting government off people's backs. We should include the backs of sick people trying to help themselves."
The answer might not be total legalization. It might instead be federalist experimentation. Your example of the changing policies in Europe (which will remain more liberal than ours in any event) proves that it isn't an all-or-nothing choice.
There is one area of government where I think the application of Christian principles should be expanded, however. In our discussion of foreign policy, you seemed skeptical that any of our international commitments -- or all of them taken together -- could be unsustainable. If a commitment served us well in the Cold War or World War II, it should not be ended 17 or 63 years later. If danger could possibly emerge in an area, we should be there to head it off. I tend to follow the guidance of Christian just war theory. A military intervention must be in service of a just cause, declared by a legitimate authority, undertaken proportionally and with right intentions, entail a high probability of success, and -- this one might hurt some conservatives -- be a last resort. You might apply these same principles and come up with different answers than I do. But I tend to think a policy of preventive war becomes harder to justify based on these principles.
I've enjoyed the discussion very much. For religious conservatives and all other kinds, the future of conservatism is now.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.
The conservative movement presses onBy Matthew Continetti
Your post on the pros and cons of the religious right was elegantly written and extremely persuasive. I agree with it completely.
In fact, your entire post demonstrates -- to me, anyway -- the vitality of the American right. For the past week, we have disagreed on some things and agreed on others. Some of those disagreements are sizable. They mainly concern the degree to which the state may intervene both at home and abroad. Suffice it to say that I seem more comfortable with state intervention than you do.
It has always been thus. Since the beginning of the American conservative movement, the various writers, policy intellectuals and politicians associated with it have disagreed. And yet, in the end, somehow, the movement keeps chugging along. It is possible that we are approaching the point where the various strands of conservatism no longer will coexist peacefully. A Democratic landslide in 2008 or a McCain presidency that tilts leftward on domestic policy will split the American right -- and the Republican party -- irrevocably. But maybe not. The conservative movement has been "cracking up" for decades, during which time it has had some phenomenal successes.
It is also possible that the economic and geopolitical conditions that fostered the conservative takeover of the Republican party and GOP dominance of American politics for the last 25 years no longer exist. Conservative economic policies have produced a quarter century of stable, non-inflationary growth, and conservative foreign policy helped destroy the Soviet Union. As we have discussed, however, a new set of social anxieties has emerged. This provides an opportunity for conservatives to re-think some past policies and points of emphasis. Yet it also provides opportunity for renewed tension between the various conservative factions. The big issues of tomorrow are all related to the emerging global civilization under American hegemony. Tomorrow's politics will focus on questions of citizenship, identity, competition in a global marketplace, biotechnology, immigration, proliferation and terrorism. This set of issues seems designed to foster conflict among right-leaning folk.
Why does the American conservative movement persist? It is because American liberalism persists. In the end, I think it is safe to say that the differences between liberals and conservatives are far greater than the differences between most conservatives. Today we see a resurgent liberalism, the adherents of which believe their time has come. Somebody has to point out the flaws in the policies liberals seek to enact. Let's not get caught up in the narcissism of small differences. We may not agree on what we are for, but I am pretty sure we can agree on what we are against.
Thanks for a great discussion.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at the Weekly Standard and author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times