January 9th, 2012


Can Conservatives Lose Some Religion? (And Santorum, Too?)

Originally published at Quantum Matrix Scribe. Please leave any comments there.

Steven Chapman is one of my favorite syndicated columnists. He’s about as centrist as they come, and it’s really refreshing to find someone who is not married to a certain ideology, just to the truth. (Even if that ideology was libertarianism.)

He has a great column that I found on Reason‘s online edition, called “Rick Santorum’s Moral Delusions.” In it, he writes:

Santorum takes it for granted that religious belief, at least of the Christian variety, is a powerful force for moral behavior. That’s not apparent from looking at this country.

He thinks America has been on a downhill slide for many years, thanks to feminism, gay rights, pornography, and other vile intruders. But where is the evidence that the developments cited by Santorum are producing harmful side effects?

In the past couple of decades, most indicators of moral and social health have gotten better, not worse. Crime has plummeted. Teen pregnancy has declined by 39 percent. Abortion rates among adolescents are less than half what they were.

The incidence of divorce is down. As of 2007, 48 percent of high school students had engaged in sex, compared to 54 percent in 1991. What “decaying culture” is he talking about?

This is something that just plum irritates the hell out of me. Of course, I’m an ignostic libertarian, so what do I know, but I do agree with conservatives on a great many things, mostly related to economic policy. Yet, they always seem to go back to social issues when arguing about economic policy, such as in one blog post where a major complaint of the Federal Reserve was that it ordered a local bank to take down some Christian posters. I mean, really? Of all the problems we face, that’s what you’re going to argue about?

Yes, what the Fed did in that case was bad. The government should be in the business of regulating religion. However, going straight to that as your crutch in an argument is nonsensical, and I think in the long run detrimental. I would be honestly surprised if, in 50 years, barring some absolutely inexplicable event, a majority of Americans would be Christian. A plurality? Possibly. A majority? Heck no.

Conservatives also seem to be missing out on a very important strain of conservatism. Heather MacDonald wrote about it on the Richard Dawkins’ Foundation website a few years ago:

Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.

Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

Apart from the heterosexual marriage part, I agree with the above. And going off that skepticism, I would be very skeptical of what Santorum is peddling, especially since all the datapoints indicate that we are living in a far safer, far more enlightened, far better society than we were a century ago. Are there problems? Of course (though I would argue a lot of them stem from the War on Drugs, which is something that Santorum supports.)

Chapman continues going through the numbers:

America is a good place to judge the value of faith in promoting virtue. There is a great deal of variation among the 50 states in religious observance—and a great deal of variation in social ills. It turns out that religiosity does not translate into good behavior, and disregard for religion does not go hand-in-hand with vice. Quite the contrary.

Consider homicide, which is not only socially harmful but a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Mississippi has the highest rate of church attendance in America, according to a Gallup survey, with 63 percent of people saying they go to church “weekly or almost weekly.” But Mississippians are far more likely to be murdered than other Americans.

On the other hand, we have Vermont, where people are the most likely to skip church. Its murder rate is only about one-fourth as high as the rest of the country. New Hampshire, the second-least religious state, has the lowest murder rate.

These are no flukes. Of the 10 states with the most worshippers, all but one have higher than average homicide rates. Of the 11 states with the lowest church attendance, by contrast, 10 have low homicide rates.

Teen pregnancy also tends to follow a course precisely the opposite of what Santorum preaches. Almost every one of the most religious states suffers from more teen pregnancy than the norm—while the least religious ones enjoy less.

What impact does gay marriage have on how kids handle sex? Massachusetts, the first state to legalize it, has less teen pregnancy than the country as a whole. Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont, which have also sanctioned same-sex unions, are also far better than average.

Does gay marriage undermine the health and stability of heterosexual marriage? Not so you can tell. Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest divorce rate. Iowa and Connecticut are also better than most. Vermont and New Hampshire are about average. In the Bible Belt, by contrast, marriages are generally more prone to break up.

Game, set, match.

This is the other place that truly upsets me: when Christians and social conservatives argue that their religion and their morality is somehow better. Actually, there are pretty good signs, as Chapman and other writers note, that Christian morality really isn’t any better, and in some cases, is actually worse. Granted, the document that is the foundation for Christianity was written some 2000 years ago, so it was a product of its time, but it promotes slavery, is demeaning to women, has a lot of what you might call pornographic smut in it, and is a very violent work. Again, that was how things were back then, so you have to cut it some slack, but Christianity’s moral code does come from that.

And what is this moral code? It boils down to essentially one word: obedience. Obedience to your father, obedience to your church, obedience to god, even when they are wrong or nonsensical. This has led to some disastrous consequences as noted above; having a hard or heavy hand does not result in good behavior, you have to let people explore a little bit. It’s kind of like an explosion or expansion, like, say, from champagne. Don’t bottle it up, give it room to expand, and it’s fairly peaceful, since the expansion wave is not bumping into anything. But put walls around it, try to channel it, contain it, and the resulting explosion will be violent and perhaps have dangerous consequences.

Yes, I have just made a metaphor comparing human beings to explosions. And yes, this is about Christians, not Muslims (though Islam has its own problems.)

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic also has a great piece on Rick Santorum vis-a-vis same-sex marriage:

There are an estimated 131,729 same-sex married couples in the United States, a Census Bureau figure that would be significantly higher if not for the fact that the vast majority of jurisdictions still prohibit gays and lesbians from marrying. Still, more than a quarter of a million gay people are married to one another. And it’s worth explicitly pondering what that means.
For wedded gays and lesbians, it means more financial stability, more emotional stability, better access to health care, hospital visitation rights, and fewer legal burdens in the event of their partner’s death. It means a more formal investment in their relationship, and in many cases, vows uttered before family and friends to strengthen their union. It means emotional fulfillment, and the end of the feeling of being discriminated against by one’s own government, a valuable thing in itself.

And for the one-third of lesbians and one-fifth of gay men who are parents? For them, It means more stability for their children, plus an opportunity for their socialization into what a loving marriage looks like. For society as a whole, it means gay people share in the same method of family formation as their parents, their straight colleagues, and their heterosexual friends. It means that gay culture is more invested than it would otherwise be in the success of marriage as an institution and in the norm of long-term coupling.

Rick Santorum, of course, would like to end all of that by banning same-sex marriage.

Conservatives who are truly pro-family would recognize that this is absurd and stupid and counterproductive. They would recognize that these are anti-family policies. They might also, if they’re devoutly Christian, remember a special line: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) The conservative movement in America really needs to lose its religion.

That’s not to say they must all become atheists; on the contrary, I think trying to forcibly “convert” 78% of the American population would be a waste of time, and against basic principles. What it does say is that they should stop trying to force Christianity down everyone else’s throats: not only is it not pro-family, the evidence points to it not even accomplishing its goal. Certainly, the conservative focus on civil society, and not the state, as the foundation for principled living is sound (such ideas are greatly expanded upon in David Boaz’s work Libertarianism: A Primer, which I think is required reading if you want to be a libertarian), but following fundamentalist Christian beliefs does not necessarily get us there.

Conservatives just need to drop the religion from public policy if they want to get anywhere in the 21st century. If they keep nominating people like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who are both widely out of touch with the American people and totally inappropriate as leaders, then they deserve to be sidelined and ignored.