Conservatism, religion work at cross purposes with Constitution

Peter Johnston’s claim that the modern conservative movement actually reflects “conservative” values (“Labels aid brevity but impede understanding,” 9/18) asks us to ignore either current realities or any reasonable definition of the word conservative. Take Johnston’s own conclusion, that “conservative philosophy often proceeds negatively by rejecting ideologies founded on an incomplete understanding of man.” Since I can’t claim to know whether gay marriage, attacking Iraq or cutting taxes for the rich helps or hinders us in a search for complete understanding of the nature of our species, I’m going to look at the exemplar of modern conservatism that Johnston offers us.

Did Barry Goldwater “reject ideologies founded on an incomplete understanding of man”? Let’s start by saying Goldwater rejected quite a few ideologies in his day: communism, the New Deal … and civil rights. Goldwater, the first modern American conservative, voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law intended (according to the text of the Act itself) to “enforce the constitutional right to vote … to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, [and] to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs.” Goldwater rejected an act intended to ensure the equality of all Americans regardless of the color of their skin.

Should Barry Goldwater’s vote against this seminal piece of legislation be indicative of the entire conservative movement? I certainly hope not. I don’t intend to equate conservatism with racism. I hope that our politics have moved beyond considering basic racial equality an “ideology founded on an incomplete understanding of man.” I think it’s safe to say that Johnston’s negative definition doesn’t help us understand Goldwater’s particular brand of politics. So let’s look at some other definitions of conservatism Johnston offers us.

According to Johnston, “The conservative recognizes the unique American tradition of a nation dedicated to a proposition — the equality of all men before God.” It’s too easy to point out the fact that our country’s first modern conservative voted against an act built upon these very principles. I’m not going to go down that road again. But this sentence, or at least a small part of it, symbolizes much of what makes me so uncomfortable with modern American conservatism. The two words “before God” are emblematic of what the right wing of this country has come to stand for. God is literally everywhere in modern conservatism. He is in Kansas’ biology classrooms, in George W. Bush ’68’s speeches, in the Pledge of Allegiance. He made an appearance in Alabama’s Supreme Court building. He shows up in the occasional piece of “faith-based” legislation. American conservative politics have, quite simply, crossed our founding fathers’ line separating church and state.

I have no problem with religiosity. I have no problem with faith. I do, however, have a problem with a movement that brands itself “conservative” and then seeks to destroy, rather than conserve, one of the fundamental tenets of our political system. It is not an American proposition that men are equal “before God.” Rather, we are equal before the law: a law that promises us the freedom to practice whatever religion we want, whether it be a monotheistic one or a polytheistic one or none at all. We are equal before a constitution that explicitly forbids any sort of “religious test.” Any movement that seeks to shatter institutionalized U.S. secularism may indeed be conservative — in the same way that theocracies are conservative. But such movements cannot be both American and conservative. The U.S. Constitution — a document that liberals and conservatives alike seek to preserve — leaves no room for creeping theocracy. It leaves no room for the subtle but insidious penetration of religious doctrine into our everyday political life.

Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College.