In recent decades, American politics have been dominated by a series of escalating ideological conflicts that have come to be known as "the culture wars." And, with Christian moralizers like Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal entering the 2016 fray, this is unlikely to change any time soon. So, as we brace ourselves for another GOP primary defined by "traditional values," one question it’s worth asking is: Do these conservatives (and their supporters) have any right to claim the high ground?
Republicans such as Huckabee and Jindal love to use their religion as a prop: They judge and preach and condemn under the cover of Christianity. And they assume this grants them a kind of moral superiority. Well, it doesn’t. Huckabee and Jindal are political hucksters. They fancy themselves Christians, but their preachments are foul and their values are un-Christlike. They are exactly what many other current GOP candidates are as well: political entrepreneurs. If they climb atop the Christian cross, it’s because they want to be seen by more people. They’re chasing votes, not salvation.
As the presidential race kicks into gear, Democrats would do well to remember this. For too long the GOP has controlled the moral narrative in this country. Conservatives have wisely appropriated the language of values, but they’re rarely challenged on this front. When Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Rick Santorum bloviate about family values, someone should ask: What, precisely, are your values? And what are their effects in the real world?
Most conservatives (in today’s GOP, at least) exalt life in the abstract, but they don’t defend it in practice. Whether it’s abortion or capital punishment or contraception or civil rights, they consistently advocate policies that degrade life and run counter to their own values. Despite their avowed humanitarianism, they’ve little regard for human suffering. And that’s because they’re not interested in serving life or other people; they’re dogmatists masquerading as moralizers.
Conservatives, for instance, admonish liberals for not protecting the sanctity of life.
But these same conservatives are often indifferent to the struggles of real people living real lives here and now. They’re not particularly concerned with poverty or inequality or torture or war crimes or a hundred other ethical issues. And they’re never compelled to explain the widening gap between their rhetoric and the political reality they’ve helped create.
Take the GOP’s position on abortion. We know, for example, that banning abortions doesn’t decrease the number of abortions. Sex education, contraception, and access to proper health care -- these are the policies that reduce abortions. And yet pro-life conservatives oppose them at every turn. And they insist on fighting wars they’ve already lost. The Supreme Court, after all, has spoken: abortion is legal in this country. (Although they're doing everything in their power to turn the clocks back.) But rather than pursue policies that might actually reduce the incidence of unplanned pregnancies, something that virtually everyone could get behind, conservatives instead push for policies that actually lead to more, not fewer, abortions. That’s incoherent, and positively stupid, running counter to the ostensible goals of social conservatives.
The GOP, in its current manifestation, is incapable of dealing with its disjointedness. The religious wing of the party thinks only in terms of doctrine. Whether it’s abortion or climate change or marriage equality, reality always gives way to dogma. Because so much of conservative discourse is tinged with fundamentalist rhetoric, compromise or change is virtually impossible. This is terrible for the Republican Party, and even worse for the country.
The corporate wing of the GOP is partly to blame for this predicament. People like the Koch brothers have artfully hijacked social conservatism in order to peddle a particular brand of libertarianism. As a result, we see Christian politicians (like Paul Ryan) professing their love of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy could not possibly be more antithetical to Christianity. Many of the “value voters” (most of whom are Christian and Republican) similarly conflate economic libertarianism with Christianity, as though one follows from the other. This is an absurd contradiction, and it shouldn’t go unchallenged.
These inconsistencies will be on full view at the upcoming Value Voters Summit, where the religious right gathers each year to promote social conservatism. According to the organizers of this event, the “Values Voter Summit was created in 2006 to provide a forum to help inform and mobilize citizens across America to preserve the bedrock values of traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government that make our nation strong.”
This event, which is sponsored by the Family Research Council (a recognized hate group) and funded by various PACs and front organizations, offers a snapshot of contemporary conservatism. And who are the moral luminaries invited to speak at this summit? In addition to all of the Republican presidential candidates, people like Phil Robertson, Tony Perkins, and the thrice-married Rush Limbaugh will all take the podium. These men are hardly paragons of moral wisdom, and while they may be Christian, their values are anything but. Robertson, for instance, has been a fountain of ignorance over the last year or so, spewing hateful bile in several interviews and speeches.
Amazingly, these are the people who speak for “value voters.” These are the representatives of the religious right. Not a single one of them has the right to lecture anyone (especially liberals) about morality or faith. Christians are called to uphold the living love of Christ, not the blind bigotry of people like Perkins and Robertson. Republicans too easily forget that, and liberals ought to say so. Besides, there’s a much better case to be made that alleviating poverty, reducing inequality, and promoting social justice are Christian causes rooted in fundamentally Christian values.
It’s time for liberal Democrats to make that case.