Secular Conservatives Expand the Tent

There are people who are conservative and (stay with me) not religious. Yes, the animal exists, and even got a vaguely bewildered write-up in the New York Times. The irreligious conservatives even have a website, Secular Right. Their numbers cannot be substantial. According to a 2010 USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,000 American adults, 92% say there is a God and 83% say this God answers prayers, and it is unlikely that many in the dissenting fraction are conservative. But the existence of these secular conservatives is significant for conservatism.

As a way of thinking about the proper role of government, conservatism is fairly coherent. Conservatism fractures a bit when it intersects with notions of traditional and religious values — when conservative ideas derive from sources or authorities other than the autonomous human mind. For example, as a way of thinking about the proper role of government, conservatism should have no concern with sexual orientation. It is none of government’s business. As a protest sign, featuring Andy Warhol’s image of Liza Minelli, rather brilliantly put it: “If Liza can marry two gay men, why can’t I marry one?”

But for many of the world’s religions, and for much of what passes for traditional values, homosexuality is unacceptable. Conservatism confronts a conflict. The recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington DC put that conflict front and center. GOProud, a gay Republican organization, co-sponsored the event. Sparks flew. Some conservatives were incensed. Most rolled. (And by the way, for you haters, Sarah Palin was fine with GOProud’s participation.) The tent is big enough. The edgy dialogue is a perfect instance of cognitive dissonance — holding contradictory notions in one’s head — and honoring actual human beings.

Similarly with secular conservatives. The strength of conservatism is its appeal to every variety of human being, and the perpetual project to integrate all of these human beings into a conservative tent. Secular conservatives challenge some traditional and religious notions. But they can be comfortably conservative, and conservatism is larger for their participation.

My admiration for social and religious conservatives is all the greater because aggressive atheism is all the pop culture rage. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have published searing denunciations of God and religion. On the kinder gentler side is atheist comedian Ricky Gervais. Routinely unfunny comedian Bill Maher declares of Dawkins, Hitchens and himself, “we are all atheists, which means we don’t believe in a deity, we don’t believe in a magic spaceman, and we think people that do, have a neurological disorder and they need help.”

This is the condescension that began with H.L. Mencken, when he covered the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and ridiculed the good people of Rhea county as “Babbits,” “morons,” “peasants,” “hillbillies,” “yaps,” and “yokels.” Thus have liberals alienated people of faith; thus have people of faith been comfortably conservative, where they are respected.

Most of my liberal friends are authentic people of faith. I do not say that liberalism and religion are incompatible. I say only that liberalism has produced a strain of anti-religious condescension that is both despicable and a guarantor of religious conservatism.

And I say this being a secular conservative myself. I do not have the faith of my family. I have ardently defended people of faith, and I always will, but I do not have what they have.

I was baptized as a Christian and dunked and pricked as a converted Jew, I have danced with the Hasidim in Jerusalem, meditated for ten silent days with Buddhists in India, consecrated a Buddha statue on a holy mountain in Korea, fallen prostrate before a Hindu guru in India and proffered respectfully to her poems I had written in praise of her (and my doubt), sweated through a Native American sweat lodge in New Mexico, done a Sufi dance to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and struggled mightily, most mightily, with God.

But I have no faith. I love the possible, and I love the adherents to the possible. I will say that I wish I were intimately among them. I wish this faith would become clear to me. But I cannot make it so with a wish.

I love the possible. A very dear and generous Hindu friend, when I lived in Kenya, said to me we survive on the strength of people’s prayers for us. I love that possibility, and I love people who pray for other people, when they pray because they love. Even I can see a glimpse of divinity in the intersection of prayer and love.

But love is foremost acceptance. Cognitive dissonance. Holding contradictory notions in one’s head and heart. As Martin Buber might have said, I love you, and you are something I am not supposed to love, and I still love you, not despite this thing that separates us, but because you, as you, makes me larger.

I will willingly say to people of faith, what you have makes you greater, but do not tell me what you have makes me lesser, because that makes you lesser. Yes, it is a paradox, the essential paradox of human dialogue. Genuine human dialogue cannot happen without cognitive dissonance, without acceptance of the Other–and possibility.

Secular conservatives, gay conservatives — conservatives are not supposed to love them, but they do. Fitfully, ironically, one beautiful human being at a time.



13 Responses to Secular Conservatives Expand the Tent

  1. Hey Kendrick,

    I’ve run into Conservative atheists. They are a rare species, but interesting to observe. The ones I’ve encountered wish that religion wasn’t part of the movement. They’re also usually the first ones to wish Sarah Palin would go away. Haha.

    I will willingly say to people of faith, what you have makes you greater, but do not tell me what you have makes me lesser, because that makes you lesser.


    I love and have faith in God. I believe He hears and answers my prayers. But those are my beliefs and my journey. Everyone else’s is unique to them and should be respected.

    So, you’re back from Israel?

    • Yes, back from Israel, and missing my son. I’m glad that you love and have faith in God. I’m always glad to hear that about anyone. I tend to trust people who love and have faith in God, even though I am not one of them. Lift a prayer for me Spinny.

      • 😦 I hope you get to see him again soon.
        Of course!

  2. Paul Grubbs says:

    Ken- Your blogs are always inciting and provoking. Being a fat, middle aged white guy who also happens to be a conservative (sometimes radically conservative), born agin Christian redneck. Redneck meaning willing to fight for your right to PARTY! Party meaning red, blue, or rainbow.

    Last I looked, we are still living in the most democratic republic in the world. A nation that reaches out to “the least of these” like no other nation. We all have the right to speak freely no matter how dumb or hateful. Thank God! Government is slowly creeping into “spiritual affairs”. The laws of the land are effectively dividing us. Folks of all belief systems, even those w/o belief, are being backed into corners. EX.- Paying taxes inevitably means that some of my hard earned money will be used to profit causes that I find insulting and even reprehensible to my personal core values. The LESS government we have the LESS this has to happen. Radical atheists to moderate agnostics champion their cause to free the people from the chains of religious thought. These folks seem to be revered for their “open minds” while their counter-parts are often mocked for their “lack of civility and compassion.”

    I completely understand why some folks are reluctant to entertain Christ Jesus to be the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Those who claim Him often do more harm than good to His cause which was to give life abundantly. In my days of searching I entertained a lot of different approaches to the Godhead and found my self returning full circle to Him. Everyone should have the opportunity as I did. Sadly this is not true. The Jews are continually attacked for their belief. Many Jews are attacked not for their belief but solely because the are Jews. This happens to Muslims, Christians, and to a certain extent any one who believes ( or chooses not to believe). I am reminded of the final lines of the movie Falling Down. “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?”

    We should all pray for each other. Even those who do not believe can ask for peace, prosperity, and happiness for God’s children. I have never known prayer to be harmful even when I didn’t see how it could do any good! I cannot explain God. Who can? All I can share is that faith is sort of like a Mayan trying to describe what chocolate is like to the Conquistadors. He can say a few words that probably dont make a whole lot of sense. He can jump around with a big grin like the Cheshire Cat but until someone has some chocolate melting in their mouth (and not in their hand!) they will not know what chocolate is like. That my friend is kinda like LOVE!

    We should all be slow to criticize, slow to anger, and quick to confess our own transgressions. Those seem to be universal practices to living life pleasing to God and to our fellows. Now here’s the rub! For me, and just for me, I have found “loving the unloveable” to be too high a bar without God’s help. I have seen a lot of bad actors, Christian and non, but I have never seen anything in Christ’s example to us to be harmful to anyone. Closing in the words of Mother Theresa (paraphrased) when asked to speak at an anti-war protest, “I am not against anything; I am for love!”

    “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burn ing coals on his head,
    And the Lord will reward you.”- Proverbs 25: 21-22

    God does not discriminate! He rewards anyone who desires to serve Him with even half the fervency we serve ourselves. Peace on earth, goodwill to men.

    • Preach it brother Paul!

  3. Steve Ball says:

    Kendrick, I guess I never thought about being a secular conservative before I read your blog. I am one I guess. Can I be a conservative agnostic, or is that too lacking in commitment? You make me think Kendrick. I like it.

    • Thanks Steve. Perhaps those with certainty enjoy a kind of grace from their God, and their test is to handle their certainty with grace. But it is no disgrace to lack certainty. So yes, you can certainly (as it were) be a conservative agnostic!

  4. Venessa Gomez says:

    Great post, Kendrick. My fiance David and I are both Christians but struggle with the questions that a lot of people can relate to like how can one religion be “right” and the others “wrong”? With the guidance of a good friend, we’ve begun reading some books that tackle these tough questions. The first book we’ve started reading is The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. It’s a fantastic read for believers and non-believers that logically explains common objections about religion and Christianity.

    Mr. Keller explains that religions are exclusive; it is impossible for them not to be. Religion is not just a belief in God. How would you explain Buddhists? It is a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by. By this definition, being an atheist, or believing that all religions come from a good place and are equally right, are “types” of religions. An atheist’s strongly-held belief is that there is no God and what you do with your time here is all there is. This is the set of values they live their lives by. By them saying they know the truth – that there is no God – they are saying they have knowledge that nobody else on the planet does. That’s ridiculous. They cannot disprove God exists just as much as we believers cannot prove God exists.

    The liberal atheist movement is just as exclusive as any other “religion” and just as damaging, if not more so. Christianity at least teaches the acceptance of other’s viewpoints, not disregard, disrespect or hatred towards other people. An overwhelming % of Conservatives are Christian. This Conservative Conference is a great example of what we believe – to be kind and respectful of all people. There is room for everyone regardless of what they believe and you don’t have to treat people like morons just because they have different beliefs.

    My hope is that someday, even if everyone doesn’t believe in Christianity, they adopt some of the principles and values – to treat everyone with respect, acceptance, and love.

  5. Thanks Venessa. Beautifully stated. And I agree that we’re ultimately always talking about clusters of beliefs — whether or not the beliefs include God. I have no problem in general with the exclusivity of religious belief. Religions serve multiple purposes apart from putative vehicles of truth. I do have a problem with exclusivity when it pursues real-world injuries (i.e., more than simply afterlife consequences) against those outside the flock.

  6. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    In a way, Kendrick, this beautifully written post was a prayer. It was a prayer to all of us asking that we learn to accept, to stop demonizing others, and to listen more closely to the goodness that is in there, in our hearts, whether we know God or not. I have walked away from religion because those that practice it too often do what you describe – they treat outsiders as being less worthy of a place at the table. That is not God-like nor is it humane. Wonderful post and enlightening. I didn’t know you considered yourself a secular conservative – and this is my first encounter with those words. I can’t help but be a bit delighted, as a person who does believe in God, by your words, “I do love the possible.” I think that if most atheists could get to that place, they’d be a lot happier. : -)

    • Thank you SDS, and thank you for being here, and for understanding me as well as you do.

  7. William says:

    I’m one of the secular conservatives. I’m an atheist with many atheist friends. However, the majority of them are some variety of leftist, democrat, marxist, socialist.

    After getting beat up too many times, my conservative atheist friends and I now have an understanding with the lefty atheists: They can spew their rabid hate of conservatives and everything conservative.

    We, in turn, stay quiet about our political views. They can’t handle it. They go ballistic when we do. Oh, once in a while, we might let something slip out like Al Gore is not a god, or that Jimmy Carter isn’t that hot. Then we pay a price when we do. They will not tolerate others’ opinions.

    Much of the lefty atheist rhetoric it is irrational and over the top, by the way. Leftism is a religion. I’ve come to this conclusion after surrounding myself with them for many years.

    As long as we stay away from the subject of politics, things are pretty good!

    • Thank you Mac. I see this liberal anger routinely. And yet the prevailing narrative continues to be that conservatives are angry and violent. Tea Party rallies were kindergarten politeness parties compared to some of the vileness spewed in Wisconsin. But many liberals are so busy spewing bile on behalf of victims that they’re blind to their own bullies. I don’t think either side has a monopoly on self-righteousness or vileness. Both do both too much. But it does seem that liberals often have a very difficult time conceiving of themselves as intolerant, or else excusing intolerance in Marcuse-Alinsky fashion as “for a good cause.” I wish more conservatives would come forward, as you have, with tales of bullying. And I know there are tales of liberals being bullied in conservative venues. These human stories are the only hope we have to get beyond the repugnant power-tripping impulse of our species.

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