I Was a Teen Conservative: How I Learned That Life Is Too Complex for Right-Wing Ideology

Speaking for the Arizona delegation at the Democratic Convention this past summer, Goldwater’s granddaughter cast her state’s votes for Barack Obama

From: The American Prospect, via AlterNet

By:Steve Erickson

Barry Goldwater was my first political hero. The most antiauthoritarian figure in mainstream American politics, who said what he thought without giving a damn, he looked and sounded as Western as Arizona, the state he represented in the Senate. Goldwater and John Kennedy hatched plans in the White House—for what they assumed would be their upcoming presidential campaign against each other in 1964—to travel the country in the Arizonan’s small plane that he flew himself, stopping off at airports in the middle of nowhere to debate one issue or another before taking off again. This two-fisted, free-flying persona made Goldwater the kind of politician that film director Howard Hawks might have come up with; by comparison, government couldn’t help appearing soullessly oppressive. Great Society liberalism had become the norm by the mid-1960s, and this reinforced Goldwater’s iconoclasm, striking a politically attuned, insistently nonconformist teenager as utopian, in the same way that Kennedy embodied idealism for so many others of my generation.

Utopia was in the air where I grew up, though I wouldn’t have identified it as that any more than I could have told you who Howard Hawks was. L.A.’s San Fernando Valley was the no man’s land between rural and suburban, between Wild West and space-age futurism. Ranches sprawled on the other side of the biggest road that ran near my house; three miles away, in the same part of the Valley that would become the porn capital of the world a couple of decades later, were makeshift frontier towns built for Westerns by the Hollywood studios. Overhead, the purple vapor trails of rocket tests streaked the skies. Kennedy’s race to the moon built the modern Valley; every father of every kid I knew worked, as did my own dad, for the bursting aerospace industry—-Lockheed, Hughes, North American, Rockwell. The progress that cut swaths through the Valley brought a disruption matched only by earthquakes. A new freeway (which eventually would be named after President Ronald Reagan) took our house, leaving just the swimming pool that was proof of my parents’ upward mobility; the pool was given to the next-door neighbor whose house fell outside the freeway’s path. This sort of upheaval was too common to be traumatizing.

My mother loved Goldwater, too. She took me to a Goldwater rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and on the morning of the ’64 election, I recall her peering through my bedroom door, gently trying to prepare her sensitive teenage son for the likelihood that our man Barry probably wasn’t going to make it that day. An outspoken liberal in her youth, she was the more ideological of my parents, both of whom grew up Franklin Roosevelt Democrats. In the election of 1948, she missed being old enough to vote by 11 days; my father voted for Harry Truman. Though he remained a Democrat in name, he never voted Democratic again. In the next election, both my parents cast their ballots for the Republican nominee, Dwight Eisenhower, after which began the rightward political trajectory of so many New Deal children, which would accelerate in response to the tumult of the ’60s. In my father’s case, this evolution accompanied the economic ascension that went with swimming pools built and forsaken, while my mother shared with many Americans an alarm that Soviet communism was winning the Cold War, sabotaging democracy and free enterprise. My fascination with politics derived from an interest in the drama of American history; by the time I was 12, I was writing stories about Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Hale (an enthusiasm for patriots making the ultimate sacrifice may be discerned here). I could recite the Gettysburg Address and name all the presidents of the United States in order and the opponents they defeated. Enthralled by Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that “government is best which governs least” (lately there’s some question whether he said this), I believed that the Bill of Rights is the greatest political document ever written, and I still believe it today, even as I take greater note over the years that it was written less as an addendum to the Constitution than as a rebuttal, by the Constitution’s greatest skeptic, its so-called father, James Madison.

Since the liberalism of the time was as smug as the conservatism of the future would be sanctimonious, I was secretly pleased when a history teacher in high school called my opinions “dangerous.” What teenager doesn’t want to be dangerous, especially when he’s so undangerous in so many other ways? The conservatism I embraced was a whole greater than the sum of the parts, the emphasis on individual freedom trumping stuff that I considered to be fine print. While I never liked the sound of a welfare state, I was enough of a softy to have balked at denying help to people who needed it; to the extent that I understood it, the idea that arose from the Great Crash of 1929—that there should be a division between commercial banks and investment banks, without which the great crash of 2008 later became possible—sounded perfectly sensible and, if anything, like a conservative idea. I didn’t really know what the Tennessee Valley Authority was or what it meant that Goldwater mused openly about selling it off. Goldwater mused openly about a lot of things that I took with a nuclear silo worth of salt. When he made jokes about lobbing missiles into the men’s room in the Kremlin, I thought it was funny, something that now mortifies me; I was too immature to understand that a presidential campaign might be better off with a little less humor out of Dr. Strangelove, that election year’s most talked-about film. I never believed that Goldwater was going to start a war, as suggested by an infamous Democratic television ad of a small girl plucking a daisy while counting down to Armageddon, because I didn’t think he was crazy. I had more faith in his prudence than he gave anyone reason to have.

While my hero worship remained unabated, I was troubled that summer of ’64. Liberals recoiled when Goldwater declared at the Republican Convention in San Francisco that “extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice,” but I understood the statement on its face; Tom Paine and Patrick Henry, not to mention Jefferson, said the same thing, more or less. If I was barely savvy enough, however, to comprehend Goldwater’s provocation, the mob fury that gripped the convention was harder to ignore. Rendered in images all the more unseemly by the crude black and white of television, the delegates cascaded verbal abuse at Goldwater’s defeated rival for the nomination, New York’s moderate governor, Nelson Rockefeller. More instinctually than I could articulate, I had the feeling maybe these were people I wouldn’t want to be in the same room with. No ideology holds the patent on rage, and in the years to come, scenes as ugly were played out by the political left. But though I was still too young to fathom what was meant by the better angels of our nature, I did experience my first sense of political alienation, and it was from those who I thought were on my side.

Meanwhile, a month before the convention, on the momentum of Kennedy’s martyrdom, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act. This was the single most momentous piece of legislation since the same institution approved the 13th Amendment ending slavery a century before. Twenty-nine senators voted against the law; Goldwater was one of them. Following World War II, Goldwater had desegregated the Arizona National Guard that he founded and was a forceful proponent for integrating the nation’s military forces as well. In the Senate he had supported every previous civil-rights bill, including the ’64 bill in an earlier, less expansive form. I understood the constitutional rationale behind Goldwater’s vote, which was that the government shouldn’t have the power to dictate the conduct of a private business. Even at the age of 14, however, I had the unambiguous impression of some bigger picture being missed. While I didn’t question Goldwater’s motives, the motives on the convention floor that summer were transparent: There was little doubt that much of Goldwater’s support was racist and that much of what was being expressed on the floor was white wrath. I’m keenly cognizant of how self-serving it is to overstate this now. I was a naïve white kid with half a century between then and this article to cover my tracks. So let’s say that the rightness of the cause of racial justice was too manifest, too bright a line for one not to finally choose a side. In contrast with black people being hosed down on TV and beset by vicious dogs and vicious sticks swung by vicious cops, rhetoric about states’ rights sounded hollow.

Politics is always personal. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the changes I was going through, especially at the ages of 18 and 19, were entirely philosophical. Suffice it to say that when I glanced back over my shoulder at my first 17 years, I didn’t much like what I saw—someone rigid and judgmental, with politics to match. None of this examination took place inside the hermetic seal of my own thinking and feeling; a cultural explosion rocked the decade around me. The facts of the civil-rights movement became as inexorable to me as worries about democracy and totalitarianism. The national dilemma of race, and that dilemma’s resolution, became crucial to my evolving patriotism; not having had a single acquaintance before college who was African American, now I was living with African Americans in the college dormitory. Jeffersonian individualism remained my ideal, but there were more and more examples of how sometimes only the dreaded federal government had the power to protect the freedom of the individual from states and localities. Over and over, the notion that government necessarily becomes more responsive and better suited to protecting liberty the farther down the line from federalism it gets was proved irrefutably false.

By the end of the ’60s, it was clear that the conservatism I so ardently adopted was wrong about the two great issues of the day, civil rights being the first. The other was a war in Southeast Asia that no military or political figure was capable of explaining, a war for which every guy I knew was fodder. One night in 1969, three weeks before Christmas, a great raffle was held in Washington, D.C., in which my fate was drawn from a glass jar. All men of draft age received a number that would determine how soon, if ever, they would be called up for service and combat. Mine was 345, a very good number as numbers went in a situation that nonetheless underscored the absurdity of the lottery and the war itself. The proposition of bolstering an inept and crooked Indochinese country for the sake of American national security was one that few in the country accepted any longer, and when four students were murdered by the National Guard on a campus in Ohio the following spring during a demonstration against the war, what died as well was the last semblance of support for the war and an ideology that justified it. To a Jeffersonian, the brandishing of state power in order to conscript people to fight in a faithless conflagration and then to oppress the right of assembly stipulated by the First Amendment was repellent.

The 1960s were a Rorschach decade. No interpretation of the era’s inkblot is altogether wrong. Conservatism and liberalism were realigned in the process, creeds reassessed; liberal Democrats first escalated the Vietnam War, while some conservatives suggested that if this was an endeavor we couldn’t win, we should withdraw. But while the likes of Goldwater raised ever more blunt questions about the war and the draft, the vast majority of self-identified conservatives supported the state. Up to a point, this was an understandable response to what many ordinary Americans perceived as growing turmoil; faced with chaos, people like my parents had different ideas than I of what was to be conserved. None of this, however, changed the fact that in its deceit about the war’s unfolding and what was and wasn’t at stake, the state itself bore accountability for much of this chaos, and in the conflict between freedom and order, while the Jeffersonian conservatism that I signed up for gave the benefit of the doubt to freedom, a new conservatism now chose order. This state-imposed order was manifested by duplicity in the form of government misinformation and intimidation and surveillance, as well as by an implicit lack of faith in America itself—in an American’s right to know, in the American fabric’s ability to weather such fraying of and even rips in the national life. “If it takes a bloodbath,” Reagan said upon quelling a demonstration at the University of California, Berkeley, during his first term as California’s governor, “let’s get it over with,” a battle cry that not long before would have confirmed everything about the state that conservatives feared.

Ronald Reagan was the conservative Jesus for whom Goldwater proved to be only John the Baptist. Reagan came to the attention of conservatives when he made a speech for Goldwater a week before the ’64 election, advancing the case for Goldwater’s candidacy more powerfully than Goldwater had. Over the next 16 years, Reagan became the personification of a hybrid conservatism forged by times that tested everything. This fusion crossed an eloquence on behalf of liberty with a new trust in the power of the state; deserting the ideal of individual freedom, now conservatives automatically registered protest against the war and on behalf of civil rights as leftist insurrection. While Reagan’s election as president in 1980 appeared to be the apotheosis of what Goldwater started, in fact conservatism and the new president each were remaking themselves in the image of the other. Under Reagan the national debt and size of the federal government exploded; the Justice Department paid a purposely ominous attention to what adults read and watched; the war on drugs grew more ruthless; cynicism about science, particularly as it had to do with the environment, grew more pronounced; antagonism to the freedom of women to make choices about their bodies grew more vehement.

Most striking, three impulses distinguished the new right. The first was how the right’s enmity toward centralized state power was matched by an adoration of centralized corporate power. This constituted an abandonment of the principle of a truly free marketplace—with entrepreneurship and the flourishing of small business becoming more constrained and difficult—- and the overarching principle of decentralization. The second impulse was the displacement of liberty as conservatism’s core priority by a new priority, “values,” by which the right invariably meant sexual behavior, predominantly the sexual behavior of women and homosexuals. The third new impulse was most profound. This was a reconceptualization of the republic as one in which citizens are bound not by a Constitution in which God isn’t once mentioned, euphemized, or alluded to but by an unwritten Christian covenant that implicitly subjects free will to an organizing ethos that’s unmistakably theocratic. What was a freedom movement became an authority/wealth/religious movement. The new conservatism now spoke of the Bill of Rights with thinly veiled contempt. Conservatism continued to pay lip service to freedom in the abstract even as the only freedoms in the specific that it defended with urgency were the right to make a profit and to own a gun. If the language of conservatism, as given voice by President Reagan, hadn’t changed, its very essence had transformed, within two decades of Goldwater’s defeated run for the presidency.

In college I had doubts about everything, and then doubts about the doubts. I didn’t become a leftist: I wouldn’t have contemplated for two seconds putting a poster of Mao on my wall any more than I would have put up one of Hitler, and I found a lot of the revolutionary sentiments in pop music that I otherwise loved simplistic or silly. Calling the United States “fascist” was outrageous and reckless, a neutering of the word’s power by its careless use. I believed the testimony of history was that a managed capitalism made more people free and happy than did communism.

Some of the left-wing ideologues I knew reminded me of the right-wing ideologues I knew, including the one I had known best: me. The extent to which ideology hijacks independent thought, refracting an issue through the lens of an already-settled bias, was all the more disturbing for how long it took me to see it. Ideology is pathological: It provides a psychological structure posing as a theoretical one. This is why fervent communist intellectuals of the 1930s could become fervent anti-communist intellectuals of the 1950s—they didn’t change at all. They became anti-communist communists. In our own day, Keith Olbermann is a left-wing version of Glenn Beck and vice versa; you can switch their soundtracks and notice no difference in body nuance or facial expression or voice inflection, because the inner emotional wiring is the same. The harder a line that ideology hews, the more that right and left have in common, sharing a penchant for rewriting the past to vindicate whatever version of the present each prefers to trust. Stalinists flatly deny that the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 ever happened, in the same way that leaders of the contemporary right recast American history in terms of a mind-set that regards information as an elite conspiracy, science as a plot against God, and the earth as a subversive entity.

Where this story leaves me at the end isn’t really important, but since it began as my story, I should finish it. I’m keenly aware that my present identity as a political nomad may be no less about my ego than knee-jerk obstinacy was in my adolescence, that perhaps I repeat the pattern of my youth in reflexively staking out the vantage point of a contrarian. My politics were right when the country was left, and then moved left as the country moved right. The most flattering conclusion is that my previous life as a teenage right-winger inoculates me to ideology altogether. Consistency isn’t always the hobgoblin of a small mind: Every amendment in the Bill of Rights can’t be interpreted so broadly as to extrapolate from the fourth not simply a right to privacy but to an abortion, while at the same time the Second Amendment is strictly construed as being about a militia rather than the larger freedom of the citizenry not to be disarmed by the state. In turn, the Second Amendment can’t be interpreted broadly, ignoring the actual language, while the other nine are interpreted narrowly. At a social gathering following 9/11, I was dismayed that friends to the left of me condemned what I considered George W. Bush’s legitimate military action in Afghanistan, given the complicity of the Taliban in its alliance with al-Qaeda; the war against Iraq, on the other hand (having nothing to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11 or phantom weapons), made me angrier than anything that any American government has done.

I have my own kids now. Despite gratifying evidence that my 15-year-old son knows who the Koch brothers are, the allure of memorizing all the presidents in order escapes him. My seven-year-old, on the other hand, was reported by neighbors to be heard railing at her playmates, “And don’t even get me started on Paul Ryan!” I honestly believe my children are best served by a free politics that needs two wings to stay airborne and a push-me/pull-you tension between what is a right and what is a privilege, what is entitled and what is not, what reasonably progresses and what responsibly conserves. As recently as five years ago, I voted for a Republican for statewide office, and 12 years ago in the California primary, I voted for a Republican for president. I’m sorry to say that I don’t foresee doing it again. While the man in the middle clings to the vanity of fair-mindedness, contending that both sides are equally right and wrong, perfectly balanced by perspectives that are equally valid and flawed, conservatism has too irrevocably exhausted not just its philosophical credibility but any moral mandate. Run amok, the authoritarian, corporate, and theocratic impulses that were troubling a quarter-century ago have become appalling and indisputable.

Caught between know-nothingism and a faux populism that disguises a predisposition to favor the financially powerful against the disenfranchised, the new right is born of that awful howl that rose from the convention floor in San Francisco and so startled me. This is the ferocity that animates the right’s most prominent spokesmen in politics and electronic discourse. Some will argue it’s gratuitous to characterize a movement in terms of its gratuitousness—debate audiences cheering executions and booing gay soldiers in Iraq. I don’t think so anymore. At its most unforgiving, the incontrovertible id of today’s conservatism insists that an American president is not really an American and not really the president and tries to reject not solely his ideas but also the very fact of him. Over the past four years, the right, exuding bad faith at best and collective psychosis at worst, has intended not merely to end a presidency but to discredit its existence. Even before conservatism betrayed itself so conspicuously I’m not sure my right-wing teenage self thought conservatism was about shipping 12 million Latinos out of the country or supposing that people stupid enough to get sick when they can’t afford it should die. Pressed on the point, I should like to think that I would have allowed that being a country involves the sustenance of a social contract and the recognition that we’re more than 300 million free agents who happen to be roaming the same piece of real estate.

As for Barry Goldwater, before his death he became an exile from the movement that once was his. Following his presidential run, he continued to strike positions in accordance with a Jeffersonian big-individual/-small-government code. He called for an end to the draft. He became an ardent environmentalist. He supported the Voting Rights Act. He promoted legalization of marijuana. He championed gay rights. He espoused abortion rights. He engineered President Richard Nixon’s resignation for having used the levers of power to harass innocent Americans. He advocated (well, mused openly about, as was his wont) the nomination of black Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan for vice president in 1976. He lobbied for the Supreme Court’s first female justice. He blasted Reagan for the 1987 Iran-Contra scandal (“the goddamned stupidest foreign-policy blunder this country’s ever made”). He admonished George H.W. Bush for running a shallow campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988. He endorsed Democratic congressional candidates in the early ’90s. He defended President Bill Clinton from trumped-up Republican charges of corruption. His denunciations of the religious right grew more bitter (“Do not associate my name with anything you do—you’re extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican Party much more than the Democrats have”), and his consternation grew at how the rest of the party became caught in the undertow: “A lot of so-called conservatives today don’t know what the word means,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1994. When Republican nominee Robert Dole went to get Goldwater’s benediction during the 1996 campaign, hoping to shore up his conservative credentials while the news cameras rolled, Goldwater could be seen and heard by millions telling Dole, somewhat wryly, “We’re the new liberals of the party. Can you imagine that?”—not what Dole had in mind. By the time he died in 1998, Republicans had begun a whispering campaign that Goldwater suffered from dementia. Speaking for the Arizona delegation at the Democratic Convention this past summer, Goldwater’s granddaughter cast her state’s votes for Barack Obama.”

Emphasis Mine


Why Is There So Much God in America’s Politics?

From: AlterNet

By:Santiago Wills, Salon

N.B.: “Religion is not a majoritarian issue in the United States.”  Judge John E. Jones.

“His silence about his faith notwithstanding, Mitt Romney will become the first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination. That could put more attention on his religion than any candidate has faced since John Kennedy in 1960, especially as Romney tries to attract skeptical evangelical voters. Meanwhile, President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage and the ongoing social issues surrounding the war on women are bound to intensify criticism from the religious right and the crucial faction of conservative Latino voters.

But religion has profoundly influenced presidential politics since the days of George Washington. As Michael I. Meyerson argues in his new book, “Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America,” a scholarly account of how the framers of the Constitution viewed the role of religion in government, the current campaign has a lot in common with some of the country’s first electoral bouts. Then as now, Meyerson says, the debates were portrayed as a clash between a godless candidate who wanted a secular country and a true defender who was willing to restore the morals of a Christian nation. He says that the study of the formation of the American government can help us understand the reasons behind the growing partisan divide and help bridge the conflicting religious opinions of both political parties.

Salon spoke to Meyerson — a professor of law and a Piper & Marbury Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore. — about the framers of the Constitution, the upcoming elections, and religious discrimination.

Throughout your book, you highlight how some of the writings and actions of the framers of the Constitution have been taken out of their historical context to support the political agendas of both liberals and conservatives. How does the historical record compare to the way both parties portray the framers today?

The framers were generally far more nuanced, complicated and willing to be complicated than the modern political dialogue. They didn’t have to be purely on the left or on the right. Most of them were trying to make a compromise between multiple concerns and constituencies.

Compared to the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, how would you describe the current discussion of religion in politics?

In terms of the role of religion in government, what I’ve found is that much of the modern dialogue is trying to make the framers entirely one thing or another. You have those who want to argue for a strict separation of church and state, and those who believe that America is a Christian nation. The former go through history assuming a lot and use writings by Madison and Jefferson with a very narrow desire to say that government should not have anything to do with religion. The latter look at the large amount of religious reference and activity in the colonies and say that there is a long history of government being entwined with religion. What neither side does is take into account the validity of the history of the other side. What you end up reading are two half-histories, and generally neither political side has been willing to put the two different components together, which is what I tried to do in my book.

You write that it is essential to create an “accurate picture of what freedom of religion meant at the time of the framing” of the Constitution. Why does that matter?

Even though we are a more pluralistic society, it is important to remember that the framers of the Constitution were dealing with a diversity of their own — and with very violent conflicts between the different denominations, some of which were caused and abetted by government. So what we can learn, first of all, is how to balance competing concerns. The debates that we are having about the role of religion in government are not new; we are dealing with a centuries-old debate. The framers, and especially the vastly underrated George Washington, were very aware of the fact that religion could be a force for good and a force for evil. That was what they were trying to balance.

Unlike Madison or Jefferson, Washington was very explicit in saying that he considered divine intervention one of the main reasons we won the Revolutionary War. He saw the hand of Providence in the writing of the Constitution, but he also understood — and this was where his genius was — that if you are sectarian, if you favor any particular religion, you end up dividing, rather than uniting, the nation. So, again, what we can learn from the framers is that government is not barred from acknowledging religion, but that it must do so in an extraordinarily careful and respectful way, in which the goal is making sure that every American feels a part of the country regardless of their religious beliefs.

In your book, Washington emerges as a practical thinker who saw religious freedom as a way of avoiding conflict and promoting morality. While he was in office, he used inclusive religious language in his speeches and was careful not to support the idea that the country was founded as a Christian nation, a belief that many people from the right accept today as an unquestionable truth. Why was the first president so vehement in his refusal to say that Christianity was the nation’s religion?

Washington knew that people don’t go to war for God; they go to war for a particular God. George Washington was unique in American history because he was the first person to look after a united country. He was the head of the military during the Revolutionary War, so he was forced to work with soldiers from all the different states, including those that had different religious backgrounds than his own. He knew that if he wasn’t careful and, more importantly, if his soldiers weren’t careful, then religion was going to destroy his army. Washington had to learn as a military person and as a political person that if you discussed religion, you had to do so in a respectful way. At the same time, he was not going to ignore either his religious views or those of the population.

How have the framers’ views on religious freedom shaped America as a whole?

First of all, they made America, ironically, a more religious country. A lot of the religious movements from the 19th century have their roots in the framers’ actions, given that there was no favored governmental religion. Especially in the newer states, there existed a sentiment that people could find the religion that spoke to them most. Second, once immigrants arrived — and despite the strong anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic views of most people throughout the 19th century — there was always a strong sense that the true American understanding was that all religions were welcome. It became part of the definition of what America was. You had, then, both a space for religion to grow on its own and a welcoming of religion. Finally, the Constitution also allowed for a secular view of society and life to also flourish as government was forced to step away. In the end, there was an ironic combination of more religion and more freedom of religion at the same time.

In your book, you mention the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It was framed in the Gazzette of the United States by the question: “Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; Or impiously declare for JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD!!!” There are some parallels with the current elections.

[Laughs] Yes, yes. The idea of a presidential battle being a proxy for a view of religion is very old. Indeed, there was the sense that the Adams side viewed their efforts as the only way to protect religion, and that Jefferson’s side viewed their efforts as the only way to stop an establishment of religion in a narrow sectarian government. One of my goals in the book is to show that the debates that we are having today are not a creation of our times. We can learn from the lessons of the election of 1800. One of the most radical parts of the Constitution said that no one had to take a religious oath to serve in government. It was a major step, a radical change, perhaps the most important moment in American religious history. However, that doesn’t mean that people can’t vote based on their religious beliefs. The vote of 1800 seems to suggest that the people then didn’t want to have a purely religious government. They were more comfortable with the Jefferson approach, which sought to limit the role of government, than with the Adams approach, which was far more sectarian than that of Washington and Jefferson.

Mitt Romney’s religion played a significant role in the Republican primary. Because of his faith, after winning the nomination, he’s been forced to reach out to some of the Christian groups that had previously shunned him. Do you think there’s an implicit faith test for candidates within the GOP and one for the president within the country?

First of all, I think that surely within the country there is. There are surveys that say people will vote for almost anyone over an atheist. There is a 30 or 40 percent part of the population that will not vote for someone who doesn’t believe in God, so there’s definitely a religious test for the highest office.

Within the Republican Party, I think there is also a small group that does have a sort of religious test. Sometimes the test, if you will, will be passed if the candidate abides by politics that mirror religious beliefs, and sometimes [it will be passed] by the adherence to a specific faith.

In the book I tried to avoid the ongoing debate surrounding what were Washington’s and Jefferson’s specific religious faiths. I think that most American voters get that people’s professed faith doesn’t matter, and that someone’s beliefs can be incredibly complicated. What matters is how they live their lives and their view of government. One of the points of the framing period is that there were people that were very conservative, devout and pious men, who believed in a very limited role of government — for example, my hero John Leland, the Baptist minister. On the other hand you had people that were largely irreligious, like Benjamin Franklin, who supported teaching religion because they thought it was good for the masses. In political thought, there’s a sense that people should not search for a candidate with their same religious beliefs, but rather for one whose politics support their religious beliefs and tenets.

Meanwhile, Obama’s spirituality has been questioned many times … 

Yes, he has been forced to declare his religion far more than most other presidents. While George Washington would never say in public that he was a Christian, President Obama has to do it all the time. Whether he is comfortable with it or not is irrelevant, but it’s a shame. It’s sad that we have to brand him with a religion. First of all, it implies something very hostile, given that he’s had to say that he is Christian because he’s been accused of being a Muslim, as if that were something really bad. On the other hand, the fact that he has to declare his religion implies that that is the right religion for a political leader. I don’t think he believes in doing that, but he knows that politically he has to sort of fit in with this mindset.

Taking Romney into account, what I think you end up with, ironically, are two candidates who consider themselves to be Christian, even though the Mormon faith is not considered to be Christian by some Christians, and Obama is not considered to be a Christian by some Christians. Both of them need to present their bona fide credentials in a way that I think works to divide, rather than to unite, religious faith.

And those credentials are the faith test you mentioned earlier.

Exactly. In fact, it was understood by de Tocqueville and others that the governmental oath test was removed, but the individual’s religious test could remain. It has fluctuated over time, and I think you saw it in the Republican primaries. It might be muted a little in this campaign because I think that many people are going to vote for the candidates’ politics and not for a candidate who represents their faith.

Republicans have constantly accused Obama of waging a so-called war on religion. Many Catholic groups have filed law suits against the government claiming that their religious freedom was violated by the inclusion of contraceptives in basic health care coverage for women. His recent statements regarding gay marriage have only exacerbated that view among his opponents. Do you think those complaints have any legal standing? 

Well, let’s break up the two issues. President Obama had to deal with the religious objections to gay marriage by giving his support in religious language, so that’s not a “war on religion.” Both sides can quote the Bible in support of their own beliefs. You can make a very strong religious argument, as he did, in favor of an inclusive view of society to combat those who use their faith to oppose that view.

In terms of the Catholic Church and other institutions being “forced” to provide contraception, the problem is more complicated. There are two different issues here. First, all institutions, religious or otherwise, must follow generally applicable laws. These are laws which require everyone to do something. For example, there’s a famous case in which the state of Oregon banned the use of peyote, the psychedelic drug. At the time, the drug was used recreationally and also for religious purposes by Native Americans. The Supreme Court said that the law didn’t target religion. It was universal: No one could use the law. Therefore, even though the law had the effect of crippling a religious practice, the law was considered to be constitutional because it was neutral.

However, there was a response to that case that [argued for making] exceptions so that religious groups can follow their faith. This was adopted in all sorts of cases, including conscious objectors to the draft. Since then, the government tries to accommodate minority religions, in part because majority religions are always accommodated. Only minority religions need special accommodations.

In the case of Obama and contraception, though, the administration learned from past mistakes and arranged for private insurance companies to be in charge of the distribution of contraception. Meanwhile, there are ongoing negotiations on how to be sensitive to religious needs.

The second issue has to do with those ongoing negotiations. While they are taking place, the Supreme Court is bound to rule on whether the health care act is unconstitutional. If the court rules against it, the whole issue will go away. Now, what’s incredibly sad is that a religious argument has been put in the midst of a political debate. I think that contraception is a very important and difficult issue because there are the rights of religious institutions and also the right of women to have health care. To drag this into court in the middle of the presidential campaign while the negotiations are under way smells more like politics than religion.

Their complaints aside, the Catholics don’t seem to be the religious group that the government has actually targeted. Since 9/11, Muslims have been singled out by, among others, the NYPD. Are there any similar historical precedents in America?

From what I know of the issue, what happened is similar to what was done with other minority religions in the past. Catholics were viewed as suspect because they were connected with foreign powers, be it the Pope or France. There was a suspicion of the whole group, an assumption that anyone who was Catholic couldn’t be loyal. John Kennedy had to deal with that in the 1960 presidential campaign — this presumption not of divided loyalty but of lack of loyalty to America because of your religion. I think you have the exact situation here. There’s an invidious presumption that if you believe in X religion, then you must be part of an alien culture that’s un-American. The widespread distrust of Muslims, whether in fighting where a mosque is built or regarding the monitoring of Muslim individuals, is part of this view that being a part of a minority religion make you un-American.”

Emphasis Mine


5 Things the Science Doesn’t Say About the Conservative Brain

The science of cognition and ideology has been greeted with a number of common myths.


By: Chris Mooney

“Recently here at AlterNet, and around the web, there’s been a lot of discussion of the science of political ideology—basically, the differing psychological or even physiological traits that separate liberals from conservatives. (For a scientific overview, see here.) (For a scientific overview of how strongly personality in particular predicts one’s political views, see here.) The debate tends to produce an odd effect: Liberals are intrigued, but many conservatives seem to take it all as an insult–based on a major misunderstanding of what the research actually means.

It’s time to set the record straight. So herewith, we dismantle five major myths about the science of ideology, and what it has to say about conservatism.

1) No, Scientists Aren’t Calling Conservatives Dumb.

Conservatives seem to wrongly interpret the new science of ideology as a slight to their intelligence. On the contrary, research on the differences between liberals and conservatives has centrally focused on personalities and styles of thinking, which is quite a different thing.

The idea is that there seems to be something about liberalism, with its openness to new ideas and new things, that does make liberals more science friendly, and more willing to change their minds over time. However, this is not at all the same as saying that conservatives are stupid. The personality trait in question,openness to experience, does tend to produce a higher verbal SAT score, but not necessarily a higher math score. And that makes sense—openness is about exploring (including through curiosity and reading), and seeing the world in a nuanced way, but not about raw intelligence.

In other words, to distinguish between liberals and conservatives on this personality dimension of openness is not at all to call conservatives “dumb”—rather, it’s to say they see less nuance in the world and are less tolerant of ambiguity, uncertainty and change. It’s about a style of thinking, not about differences in abilities.

But of course, there’s an irony: Maybe it’s because conservatives see less nuance that they wrongly think their intelligence is being insulted, when it isn’t.

2) No, Conservatives Do Not Have a Brain Disorder.

Just as insulting to conservatives—and just as baseless—is the claim made by some (like pundit Jonah Goldberg) that the research suggests there is something wrong with conservatives’ brains.

On the contrary, this science falls within the boundaries of normal psychology, not abnormal psychology. It appears that human beings fall along a spectrum on any number of personality traits—ranging from neuroticism to agreeableness or politeness. The spectrum itself is normal. However, falling at different places on it has political implications—particularly scoring lower on openness to experience, or higher on conscientiousness (which tends to make one more conservative).

Once again, there’s an irony here. Intellectual conservatives think we should have a healthy respect for human nature, and build our societies to reflect it. Well, this research seems to suggest that conservatism itself is part of human nature–as is liberalism. Both seem a core part of who we are. So if you want to respect tradition and our heritage, like a good conservative, you really ought to be pretty psyched about the science of ideology.

Indeed, we can go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson on the matter, whostated of the political parties of his day:

The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed thro’ all time. And in fact the terms of whig and tory belong to natural as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution and mind of different individuals.

Modern science is suggesting that Jefferson was absolutely right.

3) No, All Conservatives Are Not Closed-Minded.

It is certainly possible to see the lack of openness as equivalent to closed-mindedness. In particular, scoring very low on openness to experience isassociated with traits like authoritarianism, or seeing the world in a black-and-white way with little tolerance of difference.

But even if that’s so, not all conservatives are being tarred with that brush. Once again, we’re talking about a spectrum here. What’s more, we’re talking about imperfect correlations, so it is not like every single liberal is more open than every single conservative. On the contrary, the statistics suggest that you will find many open conservatives and closed liberals—and even some outright authoritarians among Democrats.

Think about it this way: If you were betting in Las Vegas, you’d win money betting that liberals are open, rather than betting they are closed. But you still wouldn’t win every time.

What this means is that it is no refutation of the science to say, “But what about my Uncle Albert, who’s a conservative who loves traveling the world and reading long novels?” There will always be lots of counterexamples, but they don’t refute the overall picture.

4) No, This Is Not Biological Determinism.

Another misconception is that because we’re talking about personalities—and personalities are at least partly genetic—we’re asserting a form of “biological determinism.” In other words, we’re saying that liberals and conservatives are “just born that way” and they can’t change their views.

That doesn’t follow. Genes are the basic recipe for making us who we are—but if you’re baking a cake, you also have to consider the type of oven, the temperature it’s set at, how long the cake stays in, and so on. In other words, genes are just part of the equation, and the “environment” remains crucial. If there’s any determinism, it wouldn’t be solely genetic or biological—it would have to be both biological and also environmental.

No wonder that genetic studies suggest that only about 40 percent of one’s political ideology can be traced to the influence of genes. Forty percent might sound like a lot—and it is—but that still leaves 60 percent up to “experience” and the “environment.”

And that, in turn, leaves quite a lot of room for a lot of conservatives to turn into liberals, and a lot of liberals to turn into conservatives, whatever their basic personalities or their DNA.

5) No, Conservatives Aren’t All Bad People.

Most baseless of all is the assertion that conservatives are being morally judged based on this research. If anything, the science points out many conservative strengths.

If you consider personality, for instance, the research suggests that conservatives have somewhat more extraversion than liberals—meaning, they are probably more outgoing—and more emotional stability—meaning, they’re less neurotic on average. Neither can be called bad news for conservatives. Quite the contrary. Having more conscientiousness than liberals, meanwhile, means that conservatives are more task-oriented, goal-directed and disciplined.

In the moral realm, meanwhile, there are traits like loyalty to one’s group or team that powerfully reflect conservatism. This research suggests that, relative to conservatives, liberals are less loyal, worse team players. (The flip-side of this is that conservatives tend to be more tribal in nature.)

All of these traits, by the way, also suggest that conservatives are likely to be more effective in mass politics—which, the evidence suggests, they indeed are.

The conclusion, then, if you’re a conservative who’s concerned about the science of ideology is …well, you might want to look at it more closely. In reality, there’s plenty of bad news here for liberals as well.”

Chris Mooney is the author of four books, including his latest, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality.”

Emphasis Mine.

see: http://www.alternet.org/story/155337/5_things_the_science_doesn%27t_say_about_the_conservative_brain?page=entire