Religion and The Decline of Conservatism

Ross Douthat has contrasted views expressed by both Jon Chait and Charles Murray that their ideological positions will ultimately be proven by empirical fact or by the science of human nature. I agree with Douthat’s main argument here that one’s ideology is important in making political decisions and that scientific advances are not going to “tilt the argument dramatically” in one ideological direction. (I have also discussed Douthat’s earlier post on Chait’s article here.)

Where I disagree with Douthat is in how he frames the choices between left and right. A problem with the traditional left vs. right divide is that it tends to give two polarized alternatives with neither necessarily being desirable or really representative of the views of many of us. In reviewing this post where Ross Douthat discusses The Case For Small Government I hopefully  am not misrepresenting his views when I equate his criticism of European models of government with where he perceives the American left of heading.

Douthat breaks the views into two choices:

How much do you prize equality and ease of life? The more you do, the more you’ll favor a European approach to the relationship between state and society. How much do you prize voluntarism, entrepreneurship, and the value of lives oriented around service to one’s family, and to God? The more you do, the more you’ll find to like in the American arrangement.

Are we allowed to choose none of the above as being representative of our views. Can we not support voluntarism and entrepreneurship without being tied to seeing our lives as oriented around service to God? I have no objection to Douthat or any other individual orienting their life around personal service to God. The problem is that the right wing has translated this politically into using the power of the state to force others to obey the rules which they believe come from their God. While Douthat claims to fall on the side of small government, you are not supporting small government when you allow the government to intrude in decisions which should be left to the individual.

This mindset is one reason for the weakness of American conservatism. As I discussed a few days ago, European conservatives are far less likely to embrace the extreme social conservatism and dominance of religious thought seen in American conservatives. As I noted earlier in the week, the American Religious Identification Survey has shown a decline in religious identification in America. Steve Benen discusses this survey in his This Week in God feature today and concludes:

The more Christianity becomes associated with evangelicals and the religious right, the more, I suspect, Americans are disinclined to consider themselves Christian. And as more people express no religious preference, the more socially acceptable it becomes, which in turn makes it easier for others to make the same shift.

The American right also has additional problems beyond the religioius influence on politics. While I began by agreeing with Douthat that science will not provide the answer to such political decisions, the view of science itself does provide a significant difference between the American left and right. The current conservative tie to religious dogma often means rejection of science with many conservatives denying evolution, along with other branches of science which contradict a strict interpretation of the Bible. Denial of science is not even limited to religious belief, such as with the right’s denial of the scientific consensus regarding climate change.

The probems faced by many Republicans extend to other areas, including their support for the Iraq war, their acceptance of restrictions on civil liberties under Bush, and their backing of  breakdowns on the checks and balances on government power. They also are having problems on economics which I will discuss in the next post.

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