Sunday, July 13, 2014

Strange bedfellows: conservative politics and the religious right

Cliché alert:  “politics make for strange bedfellows”. The phrase is attributed to Charles Dudley Warner, a 19th Century American essayist, and survives as a cliché because its truth reveals itself so often. 

The Reagan Revolution, the conservative movement that started in 1980, was enabled by the empowerment of three elements:  business interests, proponents of a strong military defense and the Christian right.  Over the last 30 years or so, the former two have had their way with government.  The latter has earned few victories for its agenda.  Until now, that is.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Conservatives rely on the principles of our nation’s founders to guide them. 
Capitalism and freedom are at the heart of those principles. 

The capitalist revolution started in late 18th Century Great Britain.  Scottish thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith defined its philosophy.  The capitalist system ended feudalism and dictatorship, where the fruits of one’s labor were the property of the crown.  Its basis was the radical idea that God granted rights to individuals not to monarchs; and, central to that idea, was the right to pursue one’s own happiness.  Capitalism was (and is) the expression of that pursuit.

Separation of church and state is at the core of this philosophy.  We are so accustomed to taking this freedom for granted that we don’t think about the connection.  However, we have seen how the connection of church and state historically has resulted in the denial of freedom. 

We have recently seen the effect of the Taliban on a society that can only be called medieval.  It’s also easy to find examples in western society – the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials come to mind.  And, there are examples that precede Christianity.  Indeed, Socrates was executed because he refused to accept the polytheistic religion of ancient Greece.

So, the connection between the religious right and conservatives in the US seems more than a bit odd to me.

The recent Supreme Court decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, serves as an example of this anomaly.  The court granted the right for closely held private companies to be exempt from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that require healthcare plans to cover the expense of certain contraceptives.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself again. 

Two years ago, the Court decided that the government has the right to impose its healthcare law (the Affordable Care Act or ACA) on the American public under its right to levy taxes. 


I’m not a constitutional lawyer; however, I have read the Constitution.  The Court’s decision blew me away when it was handed down.

In Hobby Lobby, the Court created an exception.  If the ACA requires you, as an employer, to provide coverage that violates your religious freedom, you have the right to carve out that particular requirement. 

Wait a minute!  It’s either right or it’s wrong.  It’s either constitutional or it’s not.  Why are we making exceptions?

This may seem like a minor matter.  However, the decision is the result of a larger campaign to deny reproductive rights to women.  Lest you think I have come loose from my moorings, I’ll pass on a quote from Judie Brown, president of the American LifeLeague:  “we see a direct connection between the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion”.

If you dig a little, you can find evidence of an insidious campaign to undermine free choice not only of contraception but also of sexual activity.  During FDA meetings in 2005 concerning the morning after pill known as Plan B, Dr. Janet Woodcock, deputy commissioner for operations at the F.D.A., expressed a fear that making the drug available over the counter could lead to "extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an 'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B."

Lest you think that the movement stops short of invading your marital bedroom, here’s Kimberly Zenarolla of the National Pro-Life ActionCenter:  We are opposed to sex before marriage and contraception within marriage…. [T]he sexual act is meant to be a complete giving of self….  [I]ts purpose is procreation… By using contraception, they [a married couple] are not allowing the fullness of their expression of love. To frustrate the procreative potential ends up harming the relationship."

Forty years after women were granted the right to reproductive freedom, those who oppose it, are chipping away at its foundation by any means possible.

Conservatives who espouse freedom – from free markets to free speech to freedom of religion – should see the religious right and their abhorrent influence as a scourge on the principles of our founders and rid themselves of it once and for all.



  1. Eric Hulbert
    Consumer Prod Strat Analyst at Bank of America

    Wow, you dont shy away from controversial topics at all John. I think this highlights the libertarian dilemma quite well. Do Libertarians support Democrats who will fight for their social freedoms but seek to impinge on their economic ones? Or should they support Republicans who will do the opposite? Sadly this is a dilemma because there is no realistic third option.

  2. Paul Byrne
    President - Razoyo

    The Libertarians will lead.

  3. Richard Morris
    Publisher and Editor at Words Feast LLC

    Okay, folks, here we go....

    If we can judge by the behavior of the people who call themselves Conservative, Conservatives do not believe in free society. They believe in a society in which they get to do whatever they want and everybody else has to do as they're told. In this the Religious Right varies by not one whit from the irreligious Right. To turn Pogo into a contrapositive, 'They are Them.'

  4. I am glad you put this in print, and I agree with you. The religious right terrifies me. You cannot have an intelligent discussion with someone who defaults to "but this is God's will." It does not make for good governance either, if your cause is divine you see compromise as evil.

    Much has been made of the GOP losing the demographic war relating to skin color, but few have pointed out that applies to religion as well. The coming generations are far less religious, and those that are seem less concerned with righteousness preferring instead to help those less fortunate.

  5. John W. Stevens, Jr.
    President & Principal at Synergistic Services, Inc.

    John -- As always, you have written a great article on a controversial topic. I am a "Constitutional Conservative." I also claim status as a libertarian. As such, I believe strongly that our Government must abide by the Constitution's restraints and restrictions upon the power of the Government, as well as the Bill of Rights' guarantees and protections of our personal liberties.

    Consequently, in accordance with the First Amendment, I believe in our rights to freedom of religion and freedom from establishment of a national religion. This in no way implies a separation of church and state, which appears nowhere in the Constitution, although it does appear in some of the contemporaneous writing of some of the founders. The First Amendment does not guarantee "freedom FROM religion, only the establishment of a national religion, such as the Anglican Church of England that caused the founders to include this clause in the First Amendment. As far as I can find, there is nothing in the Constitution that gives the Government the power to regulate the availability of contraception, neither to mandate contraceptive coverage through the Affordable Care Act or the executive actions of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, nor to prevent people of religious conscience from refusing to pay for or provide contraception that violates their deeply held religious beliefs. Thus, the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, in my eyes, made perfect sense. It in no way violated a woman's rights over he body in regard to either contraception or abortion while concurrently it protected religious freedom. Hobby Lobby cannot be forced to act against its religious beliefs and women's right to act according to their own conscience in regard to contraception and abortion is not infringed.

    While I strongly disagree with the majority opinion of the court ruling that the Affordable Care Act was a tax, after the members of Congress who passed it went to great lengths to say that it was not a tax. Justice John Robert's logic seems to me to be tortured at best. In law, if a law walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it still only is a duck if it says it is so. How the court ruled differently puzzles me greatly.

    In regard to the broader issue you address: Religious conservatives play an important role in Republican party politics and consequently in our primary processes that are run and decided largely by the most motivated member of the party, many of whom are religious conservatives. However, the Republican Party is overwhelmingly not made up of religious conservatives, who by all measures are a declining minority in the party.

    Concurrently, the libertarian wing of the Republican party is currently in its ascendancy. These are people like myself who believe strongly in limited Government in strict accordance with the Constitution, fiscal responsibility, and a strong national defense that does not include "Nation Building," most especially in parts of the world that are historically unprepared and unwilling to adopt a more republican form of government.

    I would suggest that the third constituency of the Republican Party is made up of the "Establishmentarians," whose interests lie in the maintenance of the status quo and the retention of power and perquisites of office in their hands, regardless of what is good for the nation and the nation's people.

    1. John Calia
      Chair at Vistage International; helping CEO's become better leaders, make better decisions, and achieve better results

      @John. Thanks, again, for a thoughtful, articulate response. Your thoughts on Hobby Lobby are somewhat consistent with my own, to an extent. My reasoning is that if the government can require businesses to carry health insurance (which they shouldn't be), then they should be able to include whatever provisions they mandate. If I had my way, such laws would not be on the books at all (which is where we agree).

      I also like your analysis of the Republican Party. I think of Establishmentarians as the commercial interests that have figured out how to get whatever favoritism they wish from an over-lobbied government. But, your term is broader and probably more accurate.

  6. Nick Butler, CD, CFP
    Investment Advisor at BMO Nesbitt Burns

    While the toxic mix of politics and religion is nowhere near as strong in Canada where I live as it appears to be in the United States, it does exist here too, and it is ultimately what drove me from being a card-carrying member of our now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party to my utter distaste for political parties generally.

    I find there to be a curious mix on the right, particularly on the American right. It seems, at a simplistic glance to consist either those who Richard identifies above as talking boldly about freedom while wanting to actually impose their own ideas on others, while retaining the freedom to excuse whatever hypocrisy they see fit to exercise. (See Joyce Arthur's "The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion", for example), or the libertarian set whose ideas I often see fit only to describe as childish and built on the idea that the individual alone is responsible for modern society's progress, when it does not take much of an observer to see that it's much more complex than that and that indeed societies, governments, and so on evolved with our species for a reason.

    What further galls me, in addition to those who would impose their will on others in the name of "freedom", is that conservatives simply have no track record of doing anything they claim are their core values. They talk about fiscal responsibility. I'm not aware of any recent example of this by conservative governments anywhere, particularly. Canada's current government has something of a record, but they don't like being reminded that it was a Liberal Government that turned deep deficits into surpluses, and set in place much of the regulatory system that allowed us to come through the financial crisis relatively unscated. Similarly Stateside I see a near deification of Reagan, a man whose administration who tripled the national debt, set in motion the largest growth in disparity of wealth Americas ever known, and for good measure negotiated with terrorists and so on. Was Reagan evil incarnate? No. But the lionization is backed by those who think the wealthy aren't quite wealthy enough and have mastered convincing the poor to vote to give the rich more.

    Will ditching the religious right improve conservatism? I am not convinced of that, because that's but one of the problems to be addressed. It might help though, but the thing is, politics ultimately is a numbers game, and pandering to those who reliably turn up to vote for your cause, no matter how you feel about them, will usually wind up being acceptable to those in the game.

    Maybe the curse we bear is rather like Cassandra, we can see how little makes sense in the world and how bad outcomes can be, but can't convince others what is coming.