Time to Separate Conservatism from Religion—And Fast

Religion and Politics

It is far past time to separate the conservative movement in this country from it’s fanatical marriage to religion, to once and for all put to bed the idea that all conservatives are Christian and that to be a conservative one must be a very religious person.

This is complete balderdash.

Recent surveys have put the number of nonreligious Americans at 20%, or one-fifth of the population. That’s right: one out of every five Americans does not have a religious affiliation. That’s not the same as being atheist or agnostic—we’re only 6% of the population—but it is significant. That’s because almost every argument for social conservative policies, which are a main course in the conservative policy dinner, are argued for on either religious lines or appeals to “tradition” or “Western civilization,” and those almost always come back to religion too.

What that means is that there is automatically one-fifth of the population that disagrees with you, and will always disagree with you, and will very likely always support your opponent.

This is also significant beyond just politics, and just on matter of principle. All conservatives—well, most—and libertarians want a smaller government. But using religious doctrine to drive government policy seems to invariably lead to larger government. A government that pokes it’s nose not only into our wallets, but also our bedrooms. A government that tries to tell parents exactly what their kids should be taught. A government that wants crawl into women’s vaginas. This is not a small government. This is a very intrusive, very large government. The state and religion doesn’t mix very well, which is why the Founders sought that clean separation between them.

Back in 2007, when George W. Bush was still in the White House, Heather MacDonald wrote this excellent piece for the Richard Dawkins Foundation:

Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.

Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

They also find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says that he bases “a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions” on his belief in “the Almighty” and in the Almighty’s “great gifts” to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty’s actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless. True, when a potential tragedy is averted, believers decipher God’s beneficent intervention with ease. The father of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her home in 2002, thanked God for answering the public’s prayers for her safe return. When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: “Thank you God, 9 for 9.” God’s mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami.

But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God’s ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: “For God’s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?” Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God.

The presumption of religious belief—not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it—does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith—nor do we need it to be conservative.

Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or “natural law.” It is perfectly possible to revere the Founding Fathers and their monumental accomplishment without celebrating, say, “Washington’s God.” Skeptical conservatives even believe themselves to be good citizens, a possibility denied by Richard John Neuhaus in a 1991 article.

Obviously, I disagree with her on her ideas of marriage, but the rest is spot on. Religion is unnecessary, and indeed, damages conservatism by closing it off from a wider and more active base.

It also ignores that on many issues, there are secular alternatives. Of course we have the website SecularRight.org, but did you also know there is SecularProLife.org? And what about homeschooling, which is typically identified as a product of conservative Christian households that don’t want their children going to school and learning about scientific things from the pits of hell? Well, guess what—there’s also a secular homeschooling community too, for families who just don’t like the public school system.

Typical right-wing, conservative concepts. Totally devoid of religion. But why shut them out and avoid them?

I realize I’m speaking to Christian conservatives as an atheist libertarian. That makes me an outsider x 2. I get that. But we agree on the fight for a limited government (at least most of the time.) We agree on free markets. We shouldn’t be fighting each other; we should be working together to shrink government. But unfortunately, the GOP has focused with an almost laserlike intensity on evangelicals, shutting out this rapidly growing voter base.

“Oh, but atheists are all liberal,” you might say. Actually, that’s incorrect; Razib Khan of Discover Magazine probed atheists’ political affiliations, and found that probably a quarter were conservative or libertarian; the bulk were actually more moderate and receptive to conservative messages. For instance, 40% of atheists think we spend too much on welfare, and over a third think gay sex is wrong. Again, I don’t agree with the latter point, but still: there are a great many reasons for conservatives to drop the religion, or at least tone it down, and be more welcoming.

If anything, the 2012 election has shown that the fight for free markets and limited government cannot be won by a narrow base, particularly a base that is chiefly comprised of highly religious people who are probably not in step with the rest of the country. It’s time for conservatives to stop thumping the Bible so incessantly, open their arms, and expand this coalition to include everyone who is against big govern,ent.


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