Has American-Style Conservatism Become a Religion?
As the American right lurches from traditional conservatism – a go-slow approach to governing that stresses the importance of continuity and social stability – to a far more reactionary brand typified by acolytes of Ayn Rand and Tea Party extremists waving misspelled signs decrying Democrats' "socialism," the time has come to ask whether modern “backlash” conservatism has become a religious faith rather than a pedestrian political ideology.
Ideology is grounded in the real world. It offers us a philosophical lens through which we can efficiently process what's happening in the world around us. Religion is different. It's a fixed belief system, based on faith, and it is immune to – or at least highly resistant to – challenges mounted by objective reality. Which better describes the belief system of a typical Rush Limbaugh fan or Tea Party activist?
Like religious faiths, the hard-right reveres an original text – the Constitution – and, like all religious fundamentalists, conservatives claim to adhere to a literalist interpretation of it while actually picking and choosing from among its tenets. Just as the vast majority of Christian fundamentalists don't actually stone their daughters to death when they're obnoxious to their fathers, the Tea Partiers conveniently ignore more or less the entirety of Article 3. Also like other fundamentalist sects, most conservatives actually have a poor understanding of what the text they revere actually means.
Like the Manicheans – adherents of one of the world's great religions at one point in history – they tend to see a world defined by a conflict between the forces of light and darkness. The forces of good are decent, conservative, "real" Americans – mostly white, married Christians, but with exceptions made for others who keep the faith. They stand opposed to a wide array of diabolical figures: liberals, gays and lesbians, Muslims, Mexicans, socialists and other foreigners, especially the French.
And like adherents of other religious faiths, they hold a special enmity for apostates. When stalwart conservatives like David Frum started talking about “epistemic closure” – “conservatives’ tendency to operate in an information bubble” – they were pilloried by their fellow travelers, accused of the worst offense: liberal heresy. Not only are moderate conservatives like Kathleen Parker or Christine Todd Whitman ripe targets, but so are red-meat Republicans who stray from the party line to any degree. Even people like former Utah Senator Bob Bennett can be painted as RINOS (Republicans in name only) if they stray from church doctrine even slightly.
Backlash conservatives also have their prophets and their saints. Just listen to Republicans talking about the Founders – a groups of liberals, moderates and conservatives of their day who agreed on very little but are assumed by the flock to have been staunch right-wingers. The faithful conveniently ignore the real-world foibles of their Holy Men. Yes, Ronald Reagan offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants, raised taxes 11 times and ran roughshod over the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, but to the believers, he remains as pure as the Virgin Mary is to Catholics. (Reagan would be polling right there at the bottom with Jon Huntsman if he were running for the GOP nomination today.)
Perhaps the easiest parallel to draw between conservatism and religion is the right's vilification of climate scientists, 98 percent of whom agree that human activities are changing our world with dangerous consequences. The attacks are reminiscent of the Catholic Church's running battle with “Copernicans” who believed that the Earth revolved around the sun; a theory that flew in the face of church doctrine. In that sense, Michael Mann of “climate-gate” fame is like a modern Galileo (only Mann has been completely vindicated while Galileo was handed over for trial by the Roman Inquisition and lived out the rest of his life under house arrest).