Secular Conservatives Expand the Tent
February 21, 2011 13 Comments
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.