Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Thank you for visiting Religion and Public Life. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy:

Latest News Story on Beliefnet

Happy Reading!


I confess to feeling a little bit queasy about the American Values Network’s new video hoisting Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Rand Paul, Rush Limbaugh, and other GOP luminaries on the petard of Ayn Rand and her atheistic philosophy of objectivism. Take a look.

Yes, it’s delicious. But what’s the precise point? In his email announcement, AVN executive director Eric Sapp puts it this way:

Republican leaders are praising Ayn Rand and saying her teachings inspire their politics and the values in their budget.  Yet Rand not only rejected Christ, but she condemned all those who believed in him and said his teachings were evil. Our new video exposes the wolves in sheep’s clothing in Washington.  As Rand herself made clear, people cannot support her teachings and morality while also claiming to support Judeo-Christian values.

The implication here is that because Rand rejected Christ, her acolytes in Washington do likewise. They pretend to be good Christians while advancing anti-Christian legislation.

It’s not difficult to make the case that the Ryan budget plan has a lot more in common with Rand’s teachings than Jesus’. Yet there have been devout Christians in the past who have embraced draconian social policies towards the poor. Call me prissy, but I’d have been happier if the video traded less heavily in guilt by association with an anti-Christian atheist.

I’m fully prepared to believe that Mitch Daniels’ family proved to be the unleapable hurdle in his abortive run-up to the GOP presidential race. Imagine yourself as wife Cheri, having split for the coast to marry on old flame, your husband and young daughters left behind in Boone County, Indiana, and then returned to the nest four years later, going head-to-head with the most assiduously maternal First Lady–to say nothing of the most together family–in the history of the American presidency. I don’t think so.

How far Daniels could have gone is an unknown never to be known, but he was unlikely to have emerged with a lot of white evangelical support, notwithstanding his readiness to stick a knife into Planned Parenthood. Where that support will go is the big unknown to be known in the race, and the best place to start is with good old identity politics. At the moment, the plausible GOP candidates (sorry, RonPau), include two Mormons (Romney, Huntsman), two Catholics (Santorum, Gingrich), and three evangelicals (Pawlenty, Bachmann, and Palin).

Palin claims to have “the fire in my belly”–which I suppose is better than the bun in my oven, but it looks like she’ll also take the family way out. Bachmann has the fire, no sign of family resistance, but huge problems being taken seriously outside her own special world. Pawlenty is both plausible and has serious evangelical bona fides–including having been married by the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson. TPaw officially throws his hat into the ring today. Watch for a gathering of the evangelical powers-that-be behind him.

Pawlenty’s early win in Iowa and Romney’s early win in New Hampshire will be discounted because both were governors of neighboring states. Then things move South. Evangelicals still don’t trust Mormons. Mitt’s going to have his hands full.

With the presidential election cycle getting up to speed, it’s time for reporters and yakkers like me to stop writing about “social conservatives” as if they were an identifiable segment of the voting population. I say this as someone who has happily been using the term since late 2008, when it looked like the religious right was at least organizationally in eclipse, and that the GOP was engaged in a struggle to balance the competing interests of three types of conservatives: social, economic, and foreign policy.

But, as we’ve learned from survey data on Tea Party adherence, social conservatism is thoroughly enmeshed with economic conservatism. Even libertarian standard-bearer Ron Paul opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Paul’s heterodoxy is in the foreign policy realm. American conservatives as a whole are way closer to neocon exceptionalism than to Pauline isolationism.

The point is that these days, virtually all self-described conservatives are social conservatives–and any GOP presidential candidate who wants to be viable has to present himself or herself as one too. The relevant lines of differentiation remain religious. It’s white evangelicals, not “social conservatives,” who looked to Mike Huckabee as their paladin. Social conservatives who happen to be Mormon disliked Huckabee and have Mitt Romney to cleave to. As for frequent Mass-attending white Catholics, they strongly preferred McCain over Huckabee last time around, and need to be carefully differentiated this time around.

Relying on “social conservatives” to analyze the race for the GOP presidential nomination conveniently secularizes our political discourse. For even as religion has always served as a marker of their voting patterns, Americans have always felt uncomfortable about owning up to it. But the term obscures the real divisions in the Republican electorate. Let’s drop it.

Update: Another way to make the point is by noting that the GOP has simply become the (increasing isolated) political home of social conservatism. Thus, according to the latest Gallup Survey showing that most Americans now support same-sex marriage, support among Democrats and Independents has shot up remarkably over the past year, while support among Republicans has not shifted at all.