What Makes a Conservative? [Restored]

What is a conservative? A few years ago I probably would’ve answered that a conservative was someone who is pro-life, pro-gun, & in favor of less regulation, low taxes, a free market economy, a strong defense, and stiff criminal justice laws. Now I’m inclined to see “conservative” as one of those amorphous terms that can be manipulated to mean whatever the base wants it to mean.

Mitt Romney who was formerly pro-choice, created a liberal friendly health plan, supports/ signed an assault weapons ban, wouldn’t take a position on the Surge and even hinted that he favored secret timetables in Iraq was deemed worthy of conservative support, whereas McCain who has a 25 year pro-life record, who wanted an increasingly free market approach to health care, who is much more pro-gun than Romney and who gave the Surge his full throated support was labeled a liberal regarded as the lowest of scum.

As an unrepentant McCainiac, It’s difficult not to see this as arbitrary, even capricious. Furthermore, it’s hard not to think that some conservatives are more interested in conformity – in having an opportunistic and weak candidate who can be counted on to always appease them despite having no real convictions than having someone who is capable of standing on principle rather than automatically yeilding to pressure and who is – for that reason – less easy to control.

I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying the criteria does not seem clear or consistent and at the moment I’ve come to take a bit of a cynical view of the matter.

Been thinking a lot about Erick’s piece ” Noun vs. Adjective”. As I understand it, he was making a distinction between Republicans who merely have conservative views, and those who truly have conservative convictions similar to how some Christians lead lives that are truly Christ centered and others only go through the motions. Leaving aside the question of who’s a conservative and who isn’t; it raises the question: how do convictions develop? what brings about spiritual or idealogical maturity?  Pastor Tim Keller teaches that the fruit of the spirit cannot be manufactured by human effort. You can and should create fertile conditions (by spending time with God, in the word, in fellowship, etc.) to allow God to work in your life but it is the Spirit that grows your fruit. You can’t shame a person into genuine spiritual growth and trying to force yourself to be more spiritual just doesn’t work. I expect it is the same with ideological growth.

Exposure to conservatism can cause a person to be move to the right. Case in point: Meghan McCain. Prior to the 2008 election she self described as an Independent but after spending time with – as she put it- some of the smartest Republicans in the country she fell in love with the Republican party. Now – I would’nt describe her as conservative (nor, I think, would anyone) but it seems clear she’s become more conservative than she was before.

I’ve seen conservatives get all worked up over Meghan McCain and I really don’t understand why. She’s called a RINO – ok, but even if that were true, so what?  She’s doesn’t hold elected office and I highly doubt she’s likely to become so influential and persuasive as to inspire hardcore conservatives to suddenly be more liberal. She’s been called a useful idiot- again, what does it matter? Is anyone really mistaking her for the voice of the conservative movement? Would it somehow be better for her to be a self described Independent and to be doing interviews, writing columns, etc. that are even more critical of the GOP and less in agreement with what it stands for? Would you want her to conform to whatever views Redstate is currently supporting when she hasn’t been honestly convinced?

There are plenty of passionate ideologues who faithfully parrot the party line but don’t bother to think for themselves at all. Ideology actually can be used as an excuse not to think or to conveniently oversimplify issues. As one libertarian put it ” the great thing about libertarianism is that whatever issue you have – you just plug it into the formula and you know the right position”  I’ve seen libertarians who “plugged into the formula” and came up with conclusions like “We need to legalize private ownership of nuclear weapons.” & “we never should have fought in WWII”   I once attempted to have a conversation with a self professed socialist whose response to even the most obvious questions ( like ” how would you motivate people to work if there’s no financial incentive?” ) was to get flustered and tell me to read Che Guevara. He clearly view Che as a prophet but didn’t really bother to think about what he wrote.

Plato wrote that “evil is unconsciousness” I submit that it is better to have the wrong view honestly than to profess the right views for the wrong reasons.

Erick writes about waging a “civil war” with the “Republican Establishment” well, it’s important to realize that wars have casualties.  There are drawbacks to this kind of rhetoric:

1. Party infighting is very unattractive to new Republicans and also to independents and/or disaffected Dems who may be considering the GOP. Admittedly, I don’t know what has been tried in terms of trying to reconcile differences with the establishment but from Ericks’s blog, Nessa’s diary, and the various comments my impression is that attacking the establishment is something close to a first recourse and there is little interest in trying to iron things out more peaceably.

2. It gives the impression that RedState is very exclusionary. Most people thinking of joining the GOP or of becoming a more active participant are not likely to want to have to prove their worthiness or be interrogated as to their level of conservatism. It’s difficult enough to find time for activism without the prospect of being subjected to a lot of verbal abuse and other nonsense.

3. It starts the finger pointing. When Erick blamed Mitch McConnell for the GOP only having 40 Senators I restrained myself from inquiring whether those self-proclaimed conservatives who grumbled constantly during the last election, refused to lift a finger or give a dime, & proudly stayed home bear no responsibility. (Now, after being called an idiot and a liberal anyway, I’ve refrained from restraining.)

4. Speaking of fellow Republicans as if they were the enemy greatly dampens enthusiasm and tends to cause uneccessary divisions. A lot of the disagreement seems to actually be about tactics not deep ideological differences. I’m reminded of the Bible and Paul’s instructions not to quarrel over matters of decorum, etc. It goes even beyond speaking negatively about other Republicans and whatever happened to Reagan’s 11th commandment?

5. Such a willingness to become unpleasant, to split hairs over who is conservative to the core vs. who is merely conservative in practice, to lump John Boehner who consistently spoke out against the Porkulus in with Charlie Crist who supported it, has the potential to create the impression of narrowness and ideological rigidity which is an impression that is likely to encourage candidates and even activist to pander rather than say what they really think.

But the point about wanting conservatives with genuine convictions is valid. How are such convictions formed?

Exploring Erick’s parallel to Christianity:

Pastor Tim makes an important distinction between a “restrained heart” and a “supernaturally changed heart”.  A restrained heart might refrain from obvious sinning but it will only be going through the motions. There’s no life in it , no real passion (except for perhaps self regard) and the sinful, worldly nature still manifests itself in less obvious ways.)

Since converting to Christianity I’ve attended Bible studies at three different churches. The first was literally a cult and “studying the Bible” literally consisted of telling how each verse was interpreted. I left rather quickly but had time to notice that nearly everyone always seemed to be tired and most of the people I talked to one on one admitted to being really depressed. They were the furthest thing from an example of victorious Christian living.

At the second church there was no attempt at brainwashing but there was far too much willingness to lecture.  I once had a group leader criticize me – within the text of her prayer – for asking that we continue to pray for my agnostic brother. It had been something I’d prayed about constantly for months and that I’d asked the group to pray about for 3 weeks “And he just came to church with me for the 2nd week in a row. God is listening! So everybody, please keep praying that he gets saved!” Rather than praying this she asked ” and please help Andrea to have patience and know that you’ll save her brother IN YOUR TIME.” I’d been reading “The Purpose Driven Life” and the author was big on having strong Christian friends and all my best friends were agnostic or very casual Christians – but I didn’t want to be friends with any of the people in that group and try though I might, I couldn’t will myself to want to.

At Redeemer my experience has been totally different. The first time I attended a Bible study with folks from Redeemer I was nervous and shamefully careless – gesturing with an uncapped pen in my hand- I accidentally marked the hostess’s beautiful suede couch. I was mortified but she assured me, with a warmth that was obviously sincere, that it was not a problem at all.

She could’ve screamed at me, could’ve demanded I pay for a new couch, but what would it have accomplished? I would’ve felt even worse, but it would’ve almost certainly reduced my participation. Instead, her generousity of spirit clued me in that I’d met someone unusually close to God.

A  conforming conservative who has adopted a righteous tone and all the right positions might be able to appease the base, spouting right wing platitudes and attacking the usual suspects but he/she is not going to be able to persuade and attract others. If anything, they will probably repel the rest.  As Pastor Tim teaches, genuine growth is always organic – it takes time and can’t be forced.