Republicans were a party of intellectually respectable politics only a few decades ago, so much so that its take on economics, particularly fiscal policy and free markets, won me over. Later, however, the path went sadly downhill from Ludwig von Mises and William F. Buckley to clowns like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, from the Buckley-Kenneth Galbraith debates to Fox News. The Koch brothers’ money and the Moral Majority’s voting strength proved too alluring for a party with otherwise so cerebral a product.
In the rough tumble of politics, economic conservatism needed voters, while due to its theocratic predilections, social conservatism wanted a seat at the table. Thus did Republican ideation come to be joined by, then dominated by religious ideation, despite there being no compelling reason for kinship between the two kinds of conservatism. With the repetition of years, however, the two seem inextricably married, so that social conservatism and its religiosity now seem essential, indeed integral, components in American political considerations.
Rationality is not religion’s strong suit. Dogma needs no evidence, just feelings and familiarity. The caretakers of political conservatism began to sound increasingly pious, increasingly motivated to out-Christian each other, increasingly hesitant to embrace science. Religionization invaded conservative politics, bringing with it positions less encumbered by reason. (For example, the anti-science flavor of today’s Republican Party came not from its own parentage, but from the Christian Right.) Facts became less important than support of dogma—not just religious dogma, but now political dogma as well. Politicians like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee sounded like Christian missionaries as much as aspirants to the White House, the latter even proposing that the Constitution be modeled on the Bible.
Benightedness has a charm of its own, one disciplined little by reality, but beguiling in its appeal to emotions. Otherwise intelligent conservatives circulated unfounded internet rumors, rarely bothering to check their authenticity. Even national television produced a source of conservative political correctness indebted more to observing and spreading doctrine than to journalistic integrity. (A TV network’s slogan of “Fair and Balanced,” like a country named “Democratic Republic of X” or a legislator’s bill titled “Restoration of Religious Freedom,” cries out for skeptical examination.) Chillingly, in the current presidential campaign, whether a candidate tells lies seems to a substantial part of the electorate rather unimportant. Truth just doesn’t matter.
Politics and religion have well-deserved reputations for being more emotional than rational to begin with. That is one reason, with regard to politics at any rate, that a carefully designed political system is required to support the more rational side of us and restrain the less rational side. The American Constitution was a valiant effort to do that, more so than predecessor documents and more than earlier colonial entities in North America. It attempted, not always successfully, to guaranteeing religious freedom while keeping religion and government out of each other’s way: Encourage religions to control themselves . . . and only themselves. Regulate the government to play no favorites.
The hegemonic desires of religion are difficult to keep tamed, as they must be if separate religions are to be kept safe from each other. Religionists entice government to support them since, after all, they claim divine patronage. They may first do so at the broadest level, that is, religion in general, after which the dominant religion would want support for Christianity only, then the dominant denomination of Christianity, and so forth. Domination knows no natural stopping place, even though religious people should be first in line to maintain a wall between church and state. Although a weakened wall promises short term gains—e.g., churches getting favored tax treatment—it threatens long term loss of religious freedom, at least for the smaller religions as the larger ones expand their civic imprimatur and its accompanying power.
The Democratic Party is not immune to this kind of pandering and its inevitable deterioration. But it has not been as infiltrated—so far, at least—by fundamentalist religious influence as has the Republican Party. In any event, organizations like Liberty University, American Family Association, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Family Research Council, American Center for Law and Justice, Focus on the Family, Faith and Freedom Coalition, as well as a number of TV evangelists have brought their religious agendas into (predominantly) the Republican Party. As the process has continued, candidates’ piety earns more political points than their rationality and competence.
Even trying to negotiate opposing positions, so necessary to governmental vitality and difficult under the best of conditions, is proof of insufficient commitment to one side or the other. Uncompromising, all-or-nothing positions, delivered with incendiary rhetoric and driven by religion-like passion and obduracy solidify otherwise resolvable legislative logjams. In the melding of religion into politics, it is creative compromise—said to be a proud art of politics—that has suffered, not the dogmatic intensity of religion. The rigidity of religious faith—understandable if in its own realm—further handicaps reasonable politics in that it introduces the aforementioned problem that “facts” themselves must first be politically—rather than scientifically—vetted. Anthropogenic climate change, biological evolution, and other fields crucial to human flourishing and survival demonstrate my point: if modern science and an ancient book differ, it’s the science that’s to be questioned.
The party that could once have been accused of being coldly logical came to have an appetite for the hotly illogical, the use of innuendo, and made up or distorted charges against opponents. That kind of loss of mental integrity isn’t easily contained. Hence, charges by conservatives against each other came to be just as disingenuous and uncivil. For example, Mitt Romney was blamed for paying the low, legal tax rate by other Republicans, a patently unfair charge. Few seemed to notice that candidates who opposed him did not speak up even though some of them had been or were in the Congress and could have changed the tax law. Rubio and Chris Christie have recently openly called each other liars; either lying or false accusation seem important enough to discuss.
The entanglement of church and state that our founders were wise enough to avoid in the Constitution is increasingly much with us. Watch candidates Huckabee and Ted Cruz with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, each preaching that unilaterally disregarding the law of the land because you don’t like it is OK if your reason for not liking it is based on your religion. Consider, as well, the fanatical symbolism (and untruths) of social conservatives about Planned Parenthood, their sanctimonious support for intelligent design, and reckless opposition to the science of global climate change.
There are intelligent, even brilliant, advocates of conservative economics and science-based reasoning, but they’d be unlikely to make it in today’s Republican Party, for the parading of piety and the disdain for any science that challenges religion are sacrosanct, “political correctness” lines not to be crossed. (“Politically correctness” is a human phenomenon, not a specifically liberal one. See my post “Political Correctness,” April 4, 2014.)
I grieve the loss to political dialogue of important matters of the sort an unfettered Republican Party would have championed, before it was compromised by superstitious effusions and retrofitted to religious pandering. I mourn the loss to the country of the thoughtfulness it once had to bring. I mourn the Republican descent into proto-theocracy.