The theocon moment

Posted: Apr 12, 2006 7:05 PM
The proliferation of new political labels is a sign of the times: The old Reagan coalition, that potent conglomeration of libertarians, entrepreneurs, social conservatives and anticommunists, is cracking apart. The Dems appear headed for electoral victory, but without yet a sign of a coherent governing philosophy among them.

A new political coalition is slouching toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born. What will be its contours?

Now is the theocon moment. Or so argues Ross Douthat, one of the interesting young Atlantic Monthly conservatives, who says in The Wall Street Journal that theocons should embrace the label with a wink and a grin. Theocons, he says, offer "the closest thing to a credible public philosophy the GOP has to offer."

Maybe. But before I sign up I'd like to know one little thing: What the heck is a theocon? As far as I can tell, a "theocon" is someone who a) believes in God and b) rejects at least one political position passionately advocated by Andrew Sullivan.

Antitheocons adopt the pose that they are advocating something called "modernity," which includes liberal democracy and moral pluralism. Except when they don't. Opponents of "theocracy" tend to define democracy in a peculiar and self-serving fashion, in which the only legitimate political opinions are those a) uninfluenced by religion, unless you b) agree with the conclusion, in which case religious influence is fine. "Theocrat" is a political label intended to delegitimize disagreement. The people who use this label for their opponents typically seek to exclude as democratically illegitimate the political beliefs of fellow citizens with whom they disagree.

Antitheocons often pose as rationalists. They proclaim that only moral views supported by science and reason (like their own) should be allowed to enter political discourse -- except when they don't. "All men and women are equal," for example, is a moral and political value that (I promise you) has absolutely no scientific validation. Yet equality concerns are used by antitheocons to trump democracy, or liberty, in the public square.

Antitheocons are tribalists, of that special kind Nietzsche would have recognized and approved: "We who are beautiful, successful, dominant -- it is our virtues and values that are good." They are building a world in which they are free to hate, exclude and demonize the people with whom they disagree. One need not be an evangelical, or approve of every statement of Pat Robertson, to notice that evangelicals are probably among the most detested minorities in America.

Contemporary "theoconservatism," Douthat argues, is "best understood as an heir to America's long line of Christ-haunted reform movements -- the abolitionists and the populists, the progressives and the suffragettes, the civil-rights crusaders and even the antiwar activism of the middle 1960s. ... More broadly, it means finding a rhetorical mode that is moral without being moralistic, religious without being sectarian -- and finding a new generation of leaders who are more articulate and less polarizing than the last."

Well, who could argue with that? But in his focus on tactic and rhetoric, what Douthat elides is a core meaning. If "Christ-haunted" reformer is our working definition of a theocon, then Ralph Nader and I both fit. A label that flexible may indeed assemble a winning coalition, but would it know how to govern?

So for now, I remain simply an American conservative, deeply committed to our constitutional tradition, a tradition that certainly excludes theocracy (so how can I be a theocon?). The genius of the American experiment is that we excluded theocracy not in defense of secularism but in defense of religious liberty.

I remain deeply committed both to my Catholic faith and to the American creed, which states clearly in terms no scientist can prove, but all American scientists I know approve, that "all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."