Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Christian Right VI 76

Synopsis of John W. Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience Chapter 3: Authoritarian Conservatism

Authoritarian Conservatism

America was founded as a republic, but the founders knew that republics were vulnerable to despotism, which rides in based on authoritarianism. This is particularly noteworthy because of the close relationship to authoritarianism of conservatism. Many consider Alexander Hamilton the authoritarian conservative among the founding fathers. Dean mentions French nobleman Joseph de Maistre, an outspoken opponent of Enlightenment thinking, as a critically important developer of authoritarian conservatism, noting that Peter Viereck notes in Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill, that Maistre and Edmund Burke represented the two rival schools of early conservatism, with Burke being the moderate and Maistre being the reactionary.

Dean's analysis of modern conservatism points out two forms of modern authoritarian conservatism – the neoconservatives and social conservatives. Though a relatively small group, the neoconservatives have considerable influence. Social conservatives, whose core members are Christian conservatives, are the largest and most cohesive faction of conservatism. “They are, by and large typical right-wing authoritarian followers.

The Christian Science Monitor describes neoconservatives as mostly liberal Jewish intellectuals who became disenchanted with the left in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s they had become Republicans, having found a home for their aggressive policies in the Reagan administration. The Monitor contended that neoconservatives are distinguished from other conservatives in their desire for militarily imposed nation building. They do not trust multilateral institutions to keep world peace; rather, they believe the United States must do it, essentially as an empire. They want to transform the Middle East with democracy, starting with Iraq.

Dean mentions I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby as an example of neoconservatives. Libby worked with Cheney when he was Secretary of Defense under the elder Bush. At the Defense Department, he assisted his former Yale professor Paul Wolfowitz in drafting a defense policy guidance paper calling for unilaterally preemptive wars and the invasion of Iraq – a decade before the 9/11 terror attacks. When this position paper was leaked publicly, the President repudiated it. Yet, a reconstituted version, “Rebuilding America's Defenses – Strategy, Forces and Resources fr a New Century” became the blueprint for the second President Bush's foreign policy.

Enraged that the bogus claim that Iraq was obtaining uranium yellowcake from Niger was exposed by former ambassador Joseph Wilson, Libby retaliated by by claiming that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA operative involved in monitoring weapons proliferation, was involved in her husband's assignment. Libby's authoritarian and vindictive approach to this situation resulted in his indictment and conviction.

Other conservatives regard such policy as reckless and irresponsible, preferring realists like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. Libertarians, such as those at the Cato Institute, also counsel prudence. Such reluctance is more in keeping with the thinking of Americans in general and less typical of the Bush/Cheney administration's foreign policies, which Dean terms “the type of amoral, Machiavellian behavior that socially dominant personalities are known to employ.”

Dean also states that “American-style despotism is possible only if it has a large and influential base, and that potential exists in the religious right's active role in the political arena.”

Authoritarian Origins of Social Conservatism

Major players in launching an authoritarian approach to social conservatism include J. Edgar Hoover, Spiro T. Agnew, Phyllis Schlafly, and Paul Weyrich. Weyrich's “most significant influence on conservatism was the role he played in bringing fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics into the political arena,” Dean notes.

The Religious Right: The Great Army of Authoritarian Followers

After the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925, most evangelicals retreated from politics for decades. The ascendency of Jimmy Carter to the presidency in 1976 changed their minds; Carter himself was an evangelical and received significant support from this community. Subsequent to this, Dean notes that Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich and Howard Phillips but the religious right on its feet. They believed that there were many socio-moral issues that could serve as the basis for an organized conservative movement. So, I 1979, they persuaded Jerry Falwell, a popular fundamentalist Baptist preacher from Lynchburg, Virginia, to head an organization they named the 'Moral Majority.' This was the birth of the modern religious right.

The fire that lighted the movement of the religious right was President Carter's proposal to deny tax-deductible status to all private schools, including Christian ones. This infuriated the Christian evangelicals who had supported Carter in 1976, and they became a core group working for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Dean quotes The Economist: “The religious right's power lies in the lower parts of the Republican machinery, in precinct meetings and the like.” Dean notes that “Without the support of Christian conservatives republicans cannot even get nominated to local, state and national offices, because they have become the filter through which all Republicans must pass today. Christian conservatives have a virtual lock on state and local Republican politics, and have totally outmaneuvered their opposition. Religious historian Mark Noll also points out the inflammatory effect o the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, which had that effect of politicizing evangelicals.

“Noll candidly acknowledged the authoritarian nature of evangelicals. Speaking as an evangelical and a historian of evangelicalism, he noted its incompatibility with the give-and-take of politics because of the rigidity of its beliefs.” Noll explains that Evangelical Christianity is an intolerant religion that, in Noll's words, “claims forthrightly that there is one and only one way to God,” and that is their way.

Cal Thomas, once vice president of communication for Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, has called on the Evangelical community to stay out of politics. Thomas stated “the marriage of religion and politics almost always compromises the gospel,” as politics “is all about compromise” Mix the two and the church gets “its theological pocket picked.” Jimmy Carter has also spoken with such caution. He stated that divisive issues like “abortion, the death penalty, science versus religion, women's rights, the separation of religion and politics” and homosexuality have divided the nation and threatened America's traditional values, specifically, “Narrowly defined theological beliefs have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party.”

Former Missouri Republican Senator John Danforth, also an ordained Episcopal minister, has made remarks similar to Jimmy Carter's. “Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God's truth, and that hey can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God's kingdom.”

[next post: Religious Authoritarianism]

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