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Atheists, Conservatives, and Christianity

By Steven Warshawsky

There is an interesting, and important, debate going on within conservative circles these days over the role of religion in American conservatism and the role of Christian conservatives in the Republican Party. In particular, the "atheist" wing of the conservative movement (largely made up of libertarians) is starting to challenge the supposedly predominant role of Christian conservatives within the movement.

This conflict is summed up in the title of Ryan Sager's new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. Although Sager's book has garnered some attention, what brought this conflict out in the open -- and generated a firestorm of discussion and invective -- was Heather Mac Donald's piece in the American Conservative last summer, in which she wrote that

"the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion" and that "a lot of us do not have such faith -- nor do we need it to be conservative."

Writing this month in the webzine New English Review, author and commentator Christopher Orlet (who has written for American Spectator and American Thinker, among others) has weighed in on the side of the atheists in this debate. In his piece, titled "Skeptical Conservatives, Weary of the Theocon's Disdain, are Emerging from the Closet," Orlet rails against the Religious Right and "fundie pundits," whose "preening piety" (in Mac Donald's words) clearly has gotten under his skin. Unfortunately, the piece is a bit of an emotional rant, rather than a careful analysis of the issue. But it is very thought-provoking, nonetheless. In rebuttal to Orlet's piece, I offer some of my own thoughts on this issue.

Let me begin by identifying my own "allegiances." I am Jewish. I am not religious. While I hesitate to call myself an atheist, due to the philosophical impossibility of "knowing" that there is no God, I certainly am agnostic. Perhaps more importantly, religious ritual plays no role in my life. I certainly am more of a non-believer than John Derbyshire, who is one of the "skeptical" conservatives identified by Orlet as suffering the "enmity" of the theocons. Indeed, if one were to evaluate my "lifestyle" (non-religious, married to a doctor, no children, living in New York City), one likely would conclude that I should side with the atheists in this debate. I don't.

I have long believed that part of being a "conservative" is being respectful of religion. Or rather, to be more precise, being respectful of Christianity. Unlike Orlet, I am not offended when someone says that this is a "Christian nation." It is. America certainly is not a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist nation. As a Jew, I am deeply grateful for this nation's Christian heritage. No nation on earth treats Jews better. While there are many reasons for this, I believe that Christianity is part of what makes America the great country that she is. And as a fervently patriotic American, I will support and defend this country's Christian heritage to my dying days.

Orlet, like so many other critics of the Religious Right, fundamentally fails to account for the central role of Christianity in Western and American history. Most, if not all, of the values and principles that we hold dear -- the dignity of the individual, freedom of conscience, political and economic liberty, representative government, and so on -- are inextricably intertwined with the Christian culture that produced, developed, and/or sustained them. Sure, there were other cultural sources and influences that played important roles. But to suggest, as Orlet does, that ancient Greek and Roman civilization, let alone the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Babylon, played as great a role as Christianity is, quite frankly, ridiculous. To see the main roots of our culture in ancient civilizations that ended thousands of years ago -- instead of in the religious and philosophical framework that has dominated the West for the past 1,000+ years -- is to abuse history and defy logic.

I consider Orlet's recourse to sociobiology and anthropology equally unpersuasive. Orlet cites James Q. Wilson (who is, without doubt, a great scholar) for the proposition that "human beings share a 'moral sense' rooted in human biology and evolution." Orlet also argues that "anthropologists now believe that morality and the so-called Golden Rule were developed outside of religion to deal with the complexities of living in large-scale societies." Perhaps. But if by this Orlet means to suggest that all human beings are equally moral, then he needs to open his eyes. Not only are all human beings not equally moral, but all civilizations are not equally conducive to nurturing human beings who respect the values and principles that American conservatives, including Orlet, believe in.

Just look around the world today. Much of the world, outside the West, lives under conditions of tyranny, poverty, and/or barbarism, sometimes all three. And in modern times, the worst crimes against humanity have occurred, and are occurring, in the non-Christian and anti-religious (i.e., communist and fascist) countries. Is this a coincidence? Orlet would have us believe that it is. Orlet makes light of the connection between the atheistic ideologies that motivated Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and the genocides they committed. I am not nearly as confident as Orlet that atheism, per se, played no role in these tragedies. In any event, I believe the historical record is clear: While life in Christian countries has not always been free or humane, the alternative has been much worse.

Consequently, unlike utopians of all stripes, I am unwilling to gamble on what the outcome would be if Christianity in this country were replaced with some other ideology -- as the radicals of the 1960s and their present-day followers are trying to do (already with far too much success). Perhaps surprisingly, Orlet's brand of atheistic conservatism, in struggling so mightily to deny the Christian foundations of American culture, looks a lot like the specious multiculturalism of the left. Is this a weight he really wants to bear?

At its most basic level, American conservatism aims at preserving what I will refer to as "the American tradition." By this, conservatives generally mean the core values and principles upon which our nation was founded and prospered. Granted, there is room for debate here. However, I don't see how Christianity can be excised from this equation. While we never have had a theocracy in the United States (despite what ignorant and hysterical people might say about George W. Bush), the Christian religion always has played an important role in the private -- and public -- lives of our people. As a conservative, despite being non-religious, I believe this role must be respected and preserved.

In my view, the attack on Christianity in this country (like the attack on capitalism) is contrary to the American tradition. It was not until after World War Two, and especially during the 1960s, that American elites started to cast a jaundiced eye toward the role that religion played in American life. Perhaps the watershed moment was in 1962, in the Engle v. Vitale case, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that reciting a nondenominational prayer in public school violated the First Amendment. To borrow a line from Jay Nordlinger of National Review, I refuse to accept the notion that for our entire history prior to the 1960s, the American people were living in violation of the Constitution. This is a preposterous idea. Yet this is the direction we have been moving ever since when it comes to matters of religion.

One of the hallmarks of American conservatism is that we reject such elitist, top-down interference in the daily lives of our citizens. Unlike liberals -- who claim to know how the rest of us should live -- conservatives respect the rights of individuals and communities to govern themselves. Yet atheist conservatives, like Orlet, apparently do not believe that this respect should apply when it comes to religion, which they see as a backward and irrational force in society. This strikes me as pure anti-religious prejudice that in no way is compatible with preserving the American tradition.

Of course, another very important part of the American tradition is toleration for religious minorities and non-believers. As a Jew, I am very grateful for this tradition, which has been one of the distinguishing features of America's national greatness.

But toleration is a two-way street. By what political, moral, or logical principle should the views of religious minorities and non-believers take precedence over those of the vast majority of Christian Americans? Why should my non-religious "sensitivities," for example, trump those of my more religious neighbors? To put it in concrete terms, why should a small number of dissenters be able to prevent the larger community from consecrating their public ceremonies and rites of passage, like high school graduation, with a short prayer (nondenominational or otherwise)? Put somewhat differently, why are political majorities entitled to impose their political views on others with impunity, sometimes in the most obnoxious ways (think liberals in San Francisco or Manhattan), but religious majorities cannot even have a moment of silence in school or a representation of the Ten Commandments in a courtroom? Frankly, I do not see how any "conservative" can agree with the present treatment of Christianity in this country.

Does this mean that I agree with everything that so-called Christian conservatives believe in? Of course not. But the effort to marginalize, even demonize, Christian conservatives is unworthy of anyone who considers himself a member of the political movement that is trying to preserve the American tradition.

Lastly, let me suggest that Orlet's (and other libertarian Republicans') willingness to break with Christian conservatives reflects a basic misunderstanding of the political realities in this country circa 2007. Orlet writes in his piece,

"in the past half century conservative economic, political and social policies have triumphed."

But he worries that the "grudging respect for conservative intellectuals" -- whose ideas, presumably, are responsible for these policy "triumphs" -- is threatened by the supposedly dominant role of Christians and the "fundie pundits" in the conservative movement. Hence, the "skeptics" must rise up against the "theocons." This is all wrong.

The notion, shared by many on the right, that "conservative economic, political and social policies have triumphed" in this country is, sadly, far off the mark. As I have argued before,

"while we have some conservative-oriented politicians, who occasionally pass some conservative-oriented legislation, the truth is that on the truly big issues on the ground, America is still in the grip of the liberal paradigm that came into existence under FDR."

Government at all levels continues to grow bigger and more intrusive. The number and reach of economic regulations continues to expand. We're halfway to socialized medicine already, and appear likely to complete that journey in the next decade. There are more restrictions on political activity today than in 1980. The spheres of permissible private, personal, and local activity continue to shrink. We still have affirmative action and racial gerrymandering. Abortion on demand remains the law of the land. Gay marriage, and even legalized polygamy, is rapidly capturing elite opinion. And on and on and on. If this constitutes a conservative "triumph," I shudder to think what a liberal victory would look like.

Clearly, there still is much, much work to be done to implement a conservative agenda in this country. This being the case, why would anyone who shares a major part of this agenda want to eschew an alliance with largely like-minded folks, just because those folks happen to hold some conflicting views? This makes no sense. There are few "small government" supporters to be found on the liberal/Democratic side of the aisle. There are just as few believers in economic or political liberty over there. If the fundamental "conservative" project is to preserve and protect the American tradition, as represented by the Founding Fathers and their political and philosophical descendents, then both libertarians and Christian conservatives have vital roles to play. My message to atheist conservatives: grow up, have more respect for the Christian majority in this country, and don't be so sensitive. You're starting to sound like liberals.

Steven M. Warshawsky is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. Contact the author: .

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