by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on August 19, 2004.
I confess to having carried out a plot for some time within these pages. On June 24, I praised "Reagan's legacy." On July 8, I criticized corporate-hating leftists. Then, on July 22, as I anticipated, a letter writer tagged me as a "conservative pundit." Never mind the fact that my columns have been about even in their alliance with left and right positions.
As I wrote to some e-mail contacts, "Apparently, it never occurred to the letter's author that both the left and the right deserve criticism."
I consider myself neither left nor right, neither conservative nor "liberal" (as understood today). Instead, I am a classical liberal, a defender of individual rights and free markets and an enemy of undue political force that's advocated by both left and right.
Just because I criticize the left doesn't make me a conservative. The two are not opposites. The general problem with the left-right dichotomy is that both sides think they're right just because the other side is wrong. Thus, both left and right tend to spend more time trashing each other (the traitors versus the big fat idiots) than they spend evaluating their own ideas. The problem, of course, is that conservatism and left-liberalism are not the only possibilities, and in fact they are both substantially wrong.
The main problem with conservatism as a movement is that it depends on what's supposed to be conserved. Do we want to conserve limited government and individual rights, a religious order or the welfare state of the New Deal? Tradition cannot be a primary -- unless one supports a cultural relativism that most professed conservatives despise. Conservatism must rest on some moral base. Today's conservative movement consists of a hodgepodge of incompatible philosophies and policy goals.
One conservative faction with strong moral views is the "religious right" -- a group of people who see their conservative politics and their Christian religion as inextricably linked. Conservatism and Christianity only partly overlap: Many conservatives are not Christians (or they're secularists with a hint of Christian flavor), and many on the left are also Christians.
Religious freedom, which is a subset of intellectual freedom, is a pillar of any free society. Just as important as the freedom to practice religion is the freedom not to. Problems arise when a religious group tries to use political force to implement its moral agenda on everyone else.
Members of the religious right often respond, "But every law implies some sort of moral belief or foundation." That's true, but that does not imply that any sort of morality may properly be imposed by law. It's morally virtuous to safeguard individual rights, and it's morally wrong for a religious group to impose additional behavioral constraints on others.
Thus, I was disappointed to see that the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate supported a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Government has no place interfering with marriage covenants or issuing licenses to couples. Those candidates also supported restrictions on abortion. While I have heard secularist arguments in favor of limiting abortions in the later terms, the notion that a fertilized egg should be considered a human life is tied to Christianity.
Does anyone doubt that some Colorado Republicans tried to push the Pledge of Allegiance in government schools mostly because it contains the phrase "under God?" This is despite the fact that the Pledge was written by a socialist, and, originally, it did not contain a reference to God. Proving they care little about limiting state power, some on the religious right want to direct tax funds to religious charities and schools.
Most Republican politicians at least pay lip service to the religious right, because that group tends to vote heavily in the primaries and organize politically. Just as the left was whipped into a righteous furor by Michael Moore's conspiracy theories, so the religious right is often motivated by visions of demonic forces. The gays are coming to get your children! Abortion is undermining the moral foundation of our culture! The godless ACLU is persecuting Christians by trying to remove religious symbols and prayer from tax-funded facilities! Janet Jackson's breast is corrupting our youth! In reality, few of the policies that motivate the religious right are very important to maintaining good government or cultural morality, and many of those policies undermine such values.
I recently praised Reagan, but some free marketeers disliked him during his presidency. In 1981, Ayn Rand remarked, "Mr. Reagan has been declaring that he agrees with some of their [militant mystics'] ugliest demands, such as the anti-abortion issue and the ‘creationism' issue. It is embarrassing to hear a president of the United States endorse the plain, crude, illiterate superstitions of the populace of the Middle Ages."
Today, the left and the religious right are co-dependents and mutually reactionary. What neither side cares to pause long enough to consider is the possibility of a secularist philosophy of individual rights, economic liberty and limited government.