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Santorum and Big Government Conservatism

For several years now, I have been going on and on about the continuing growth of the religious right in conservative circles. My antipathy to theocratic conservatism had been at fever pitch long before I wrote my essay, "Caught Up in the Rapture," which, with its sister essay, "Bush Wins!," predicted a Bush victory a good six months prior to the 2004 election.

In this context, a recent Jonathan Rauch essay, "America's Anti-Reagan isn't Hilary Clinton. It's Rick Santorum," has been making the rounds all over the blogosphere; it's a dissection of Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum's anti-libertarian philosophy. The fact that Santorum is a Roman Catholic only adds weight to my own long-time contention that a growing coalition of Catholic and Evangelical ideological blocs poses a threat to individual liberty in this country.

What one will not find in Rauch's essay, however, are two words: "Bush" and "Iraq." In my view, Santorum's new book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, is only the newest manifestation of a religious conservative movement, whose titular head is George W. Bush. Whereas the religious conservatives wish to remake the culture and politics of this country, the neoconservatives wish to remake the culture and politics of the Middle East. Together, these tendencies make for one very potent anti-libertarian, anti-individualist politics. As I wrote in my "Rapture" essay:

The Bush administration has thus become a focal point for the constellation of two crucial impulses in American politics that seek to remake the world: pietism and neoconservatism. The neocons, who come from a variety of religious backgrounds, trace their intellectual lineage to social democrats and Trotskyites, those who adopted the "God-builder" belief, prevalent in Russian Marxist and Silver Age millennial thought, that a perfect (socialist) society could be constructed as if from an Archimedean standpoint. The neocons may have repudiated Trotsky’s socialism, but they have simply adopted his constructivism to the project of building democratic nation-states among other groups of warring fundamentalists—in the Middle East.
Bush clearly believes that it is his role as President to change not only American culture but the tribalist cultures of nations abroad in the direction of democratic values. In an interview with Christianity Today, he asserts that "the job of a president is to help cultures change. ... I can be a voice of cultural change." This "cultural change," according to Bush, must begin "with promoting—taking care of your bodies to the point where we can promote a culture of life." It is from this essential principle that he derives his "position on abortion," and his advocacy of "the faith-based initiative," which "recognizes the rightful relationship between hearts and souls and government" (emphasis added).
Got that? For Bush, the role of government is to help construct "a culture of life" that protects the rights of fetuses and politically-funded religious social organizations. Whatever happened to the principle that the singular role of government is the protection of an actual human being’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness?
For a man who once campaigned against the Clintonistas’ penchant for nation-building, Bush seems to have made the building of nations and the building of cultures a full-fledged state enterprise. Bush’s maxim—that "[t]he role of government is to help foster cultural change as well as to protect institutions in our society that are an important part of the culture"—is an attempt to use politics as a cultural and religious tool. ...
It is quite revealing that, during his tenure, Bush has drawn lessons from the most activist Presidents in history: Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, Bush asserts, "gave his soul for the process" of taking America out of the Depression and into a world war against authoritarian tyranny.

What hope does a religiously based conservative administration have to inspire secular, liberal democracies in the Middle East when it is at war with both secularism and liberalism at home?

A recent NY Times article by Michael Ignatieff makes some of this clearer by reference to "Iranian Lessons." While the fundamentalist Shiite elements within Iranian society have embraced a "death cult," a younger generation of more liberal Iranians now longs "for 'a wall of separation' between religion and government, as Thomas Jefferson called it." These Iranians "found it puzzling, even disappointing, that religion and politics are not actually separate in the United States." Surprise, surprise. Ignatieff writes:

Democracy in Iran also means working free of what one student called ''the culture of dictatorship,'' a floating web of patriarchal controls over private life. All of the young people I talked to were under 30, invariably were living at home till marriage and were chafing under restrictions on their personal lives. For young women, living free means the right to choose whom you marry and how much hair to display around your hijab; it means leaving to get an M.B.A. in Australia and then coming back and running a business. For one young man, struggling to find how he might buy his way out of compulsory military service, it means the freedom, he confessed in a whisper, to be gay. Homosexuality is a crime in Iran, and seemingly the only time when conversations do become furtive, with anxious looks over shoulders, is when homosexuality is the topic.
The hostility toward homosexuality is not just a reflex of a deeply traditional family culture. The Shiite regime has waged a 26-year war on pleasures both homosexual and heterosexual. In Persian culture, however, the taste for pleasure runs deep. Just think of the music-making, dancing and the costumed beauty of the men and women in classical Persian miniatures. During the revolution, many of these Persian treasures were hacked off the walls of mosques and palaces by Shiite zealots.
Thankfully, Persian pleasure remains stubbornly alive. When I flew south from Tehran to Isfahan, the astounding capital of the Safavid shahs of the 17th century, I spent one night wandering along the exquisitely lighted vaulted bridges, watching men, not necessarily gay, stroll hand in hand, singing to each other and dancing beneath the arches, while families picnicked on the grass by the banks of the river and men and women passed a water pipe around. Though it cannot be much comfort to those who have to live, here and now, under public and private tyrannies, I came away from a night in Isfahan believing that Persian pleasure, in the long run, would outlast Shiite puritanism.

Give Santorum and his ilk a few years of unchecked political growth, and they'll start enacting laws that would make a Shiite fundamentalist proud. Ultimately, however, their battle is not primarily political; it is cultural. Make no mistake about it: The fundamentalists at home and abroad are at war with individualist culture.

Of course, the bout between secularism and religion is not specific to Iran or to America. It is a bout that is on grand display also within Iraq, that country which was "liberated" by the United States so that it might be free to pursue a majoritarian theocracy. With Shariah being bandied about as the governing code for women and marriage in the new Shiite-dominated government, it is no wonder that so many feel as if the US is "Off Course in Iraq." Yes, as Stephen J. Hadley and Frances Fragos Townsend put it here, "we face an enemy determined to destroy our way of life and substitute for it a fanatical vision of dictatorial and theocratic rule. At its root, the struggle is an ideological contest, a war of ideas that engages all of us, public servant and private citizen, regardless of nationality." But there is no way to "win" this war, ideologically or otherwise, when "our" side is so committed to compromising the very secular, liberal ideals necessary to victory. With mounting American casualties and mounting taxpayer-funded war expenditures, with growing rifts among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, even some of the administration's former cheerleaders are fast abandoning any belief in the success of Iraqi "democracy." Frances Fukuyama, for example, who told us that we'd reached "the end of history" with the close of the Cold War, and who still fears premature US withdrawal from Iraq, had this to say:

The United States can control the situation militarily as long as it chooses to remain there in force, but our willingness to maintain the personnel levels necessary to stay the course is limited. The all-volunteer Army was never intended to fight a prolonged insurgency, and both the Army and Marine Corps face manpower and morale problems. While public support for staying in Iraq remains stable, powerful operational reasons are likely to drive the administration to lower force levels within the next year.
With the failure to secure Sunni support for the constitution and splits within the Shiite community, it seems increasingly unlikely that a strong and cohesive Iraqi government will be in place anytime soon. Indeed, the problem now will be to prevent Iraq's constituent groups from looking to their own militias rather than to the government for protection. ...
We do not know what outcome we will face in Iraq. We do know that four years after 9/11, our whole foreign policy seems destined to rise or fall on the outcome of a war only marginally related to the source of what befell us on that day. There was nothing inevitable about this. There is everything to be regretted about it.

But Fukuyama, who turned on the Bush administration prior to the last election, is still one of the neo-Hegelian founding fathers of today's neoconservatism, and it is this Republican administration's ideological marriage of neoconservative and religious conservative thought that is at the forefront of the very "Big Government Conservatism" at war with individual freedom.

There is only one remaining myth that must be put to rest. This "Big Government Conservatism" is not a fundamentally new development. As I wrote in this L&P post, "Brooks and the 'Progressive Conservative' Project," the GOP was never a "limited government" party to begin with. Yes, it has had its share of post-New Deal interventionist foes, and its Goldwater-Reagan libertarian rhetorical flashes, but in its inception, in its practice, in its essence, it has always been a party of Big Government. That some of today's conservatives are boldly embracing these "Big Government" roots, with a theocratic twist, is simply a return to the Republican Essence. As I put it back in August 2004:

... it is only in war that Bush has begun to solidify the "progressive conservative tradition," rooted in the neomercantilist politics of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. This is the politics that forged government-sponsored "internal improvements" (today, we'd call it "building infrastructure"), the government socialization of risk, government subsidies for business, government land grants for railroads, and national bank cartelization and centralization.

Radical thinking is about integration; it is about connecting the dots dialectically, with an understanding of the full context within which each dot presupposes every other dot. And like the dots that make up a TV screen, it is only by viewing the whole that we can begin to grasp the reality before us.

It is only when we connect the dots between statist and religious barbarism that a genuine ideological revolution will begin to take shape, one that challenges fundamentally the zealots both at home and abroad.

Comments welcome. Cross-posted excerpt at L&P.

Comments

Your point is well-taken about our chances for ultimate success in bringing secular government to Iraq--when we still struggle with this same issue ourselves.

Excelent post chris. I couldn´t agree more, except for a "little" detail. You usually speak of the alliance of neoconservatives and evangelical fundamentalists (and other religious conservative loons, Catholics mostly) as if both were different enteties. They are in the sense of their origins (neocons come from urban trotskiste or ex leftist intelectuals while MODERN fundies have a more rural southern background), but what is common among them is precisly their religious conexions. Neocons have -as i tried to show in my grade thesis- at least three mayor religious pillars supporting their ideology: neoorthodoxy, the eschatological remainings of communist though (where the unavoidable stablishment of paradise on earth was the dictatorship of the proletariat, and later, the rule of US values in the world), and the escahtologies inherent to US protestantism (with is invariable optimism, something I see also in secular libertarians as you), specially of evangelism (who, in its turn, has two conflicting eschatologies within it: the pessimistic premileniarism and the more optimist post milleniarism). You can see the religious conexions of neoconservative specially on Irving Kristol essays, which are very explicit and clear on the role and the key and fundamental role of religion in neocon though.

Sergio, you make very good points here. I have argued, and do think, that there is overlap between neocon and religious conservative. Indeed, the millennial streak you point to was very deep in the Russian-Trotskyite tradition from which the early neocons drew.

But I do think that overlap does not mean that both groups are identical. There are neocons who are heavily influenced by evangelical Christianity, and who believe that the Middle East is the site of the End of Days, which is why they are supporters of the state of Israel: 'When the Jews return to Zion...' the Second Coming can't be far behind.

And there are neocons who are not Protestant or Christian at all, but actually Jewish. So, again, there are many interesting lines of thought that are "cross-pollinating" here. There are also neo-Straussians, democratic socialists, reformed New Dealers, and so forth. It's not a monolithic group by any stretch of the imagination.