Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Against Political Gnosticism: Why Francis Beckwith should vote for Newt Gingrich, Part II:

In yesterday’s post, I discussed, as part of my campaign to convince my friend Francis Beckwith to vote for Newt Gingrich, I discussed New York Times columnist Russ Douthat’s mistaken assumption that the Republican nominee for president doubles, by virtue of his nominee status, as the “standard bearer” for conservative Christianity—a belief, I argued, that no conservative Christian could reasonably accept.

I hold that no conservative Christian should enter the voting booth under the mistaken impression that he is voting for the “standard bearer” of his faith. His faith should inform his voting, but his voting is not an act of faith. Any act should be judged on the basis of whether it achieves its purpose. The purpose of voting is to elect a person who would best discharge the duties of the office he is running for. Now the duties of the office of president admittedly preclude dishonoring the office with moral scandal, and so the character issue is not irrelevant. But I will discuss that in my last post.

Today I deal with Rod Dreher, whose thoughts on this issue Frank also mentioned in his explanation of why he was not voting for Gingrich. Now I happen to share many beliefs with Dreher, who is famous for his championing of “crunchy conservatism”—the idea that conservatism consists not only of a belief in the efficacy of free markets and anti-communism, but that, as a matter of practical living, small is beautiful, the natural is better than the artificial, that real community is local, etc. To all that I say, "Amen." But I think Dreher has got the Gingrich thing all wrong.

Dreher begins his argument by discussing Douthat:
He points out that conservative Christianity is facing a big demographic challenge in this country. Younger American Christians are much less engaged by the same culture-war fights that have preoccupied their parents’ generation of Christians. As Robert Putnam and others have documented in social science research, many of the Millenials have turned from Christianity itself, or from conservative Christianity, out of dissent from the “Republican Party At Prayer” model of Christianity they discern there. Gingrich is a classic example the kind of thing that younger Christians (and ex-Christians) find so objectionable about the Religious Right, Ross points out, in that he is an icon of partisan piety that looks an awful lot like rank hypocrisy.
The more I consider Douthat’s arguments on these issues the more I think he is the conservative equivalent of Screwtape. There are two assertions here, the first is utilitarian through and through, and the second assumes a blatant falsehood. The first is that candidates should refrain from promoting conservative cultural ideals in order to be more electable. I can’t believe how easily this assumption is stomached by conservatives like Dreher. Does Dreher really buy into this?

Are they demanding that conservatives downplay their conservatism in order to win elections? I thought that was the liberal media's job. And what kind of conservative cheers them on for doing this?

And where are Douthat and Dreher getting the idea that Gingrich comes off as some kind of fiery-eyed religious cultural warrior? If anything, Newt’s problem is that he sounds like an overly-professorial policy wonk.

Dreher also accepts hook, line, and sinker Douthat’s argument that Newt, despite his Catholic conversion--and because he is no saint, he’s not qualified:
St. Paul was a persecutor of Christians, and look what he became. Okay, but is Newt St. Paul? St. Paul’s conversion, and later life, did not serve for his worldly glorification and entree to power. In fact, it landed him in prison, put his life in jeopardy, and, according to tradition, ultimately led to his martyrdom. Newt’s conversion has not borne similar fruits.
Okay, I’m just not getting this. Newt can't be the Republican nominee because he isn't as holy as St. Paul?

I noted yesterday that the criteria Douthat employs for a candidate for public office cannot possibly be met by any but a few stray candidates who could never win anyway. Now Dreher enters the fray, proposing, not just sainthood, but martyrdom as a necessary condition for the Republican nominee for president.

Now there's a qualification that narrows the field.

I’ve said it before, folks: if you’re looking for saints, you need to go somewhere else besides politics. If you are restricted to voting only for saints and martyrs, you might as well just stay home because there wouldn't be anyone to vote for anyway. It's one thing to say that character matters; it's another to say that a candidate must have a spotless background.

Look, Newt has some major league baggage, no question. But I'm trying to figure out why, if you're trying to establish a threshold over which Newt can't jump, you would set the bar so high that no candidate can make it over.

What Dreher and Douthat are articulating is a sort of political Gnosticism whereby the Christian voter is to see his practical act of voting, an act inherently plagued by imperfection and lack of clarity, as an act akin to the selection of a pope.

To my knowledge, Douthat and Dreher have not announced their own favorites for the Republican nomination. I guess we'll know when, from their chimneys, we see white smoke, and from their mouths hear the words, "Habemus praesidem."

I'll address Frank's post itself on Thursday.

1 comment:

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Self-mastery is not Newt's strong suit, which was demonstrated when he uttered this OWS-type screed against Romney: http://www.time.com/time/video/player/0,32068,1322840286001_0,00.html

He is still afflicted with verbal diarrhea.