The conservative meltdown in response to the visit of Pope Francis has reminded me once again of the sorry state of conservative thought in America today. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other titular leaders of modern conservatism are what I like to call the "materialist right." WHAS-AM's talk show hosts Leland Conway (getting closer to home) and Mandy Connell, as well as commentator John David Dyche, lapse into this mode frequently.
The leaders of the Materialist Right are card carrying members of what Edmund Burke, the original conservative, once called the "sophisters and calculators." They worship "The Market." They're concerned with the economic bottom line. They're all about stuff. They exemplify the modernist tendency to think that something is valuable only to the extent that it can be quantitatively measured.
This why they have fortitude breakdowns when it comes to social issues. With the possible exception of Limbaugh, who has hung surprisingly tough on the marriage issue, most of these people begin to swoon when it comes to having to defend traditional conservative social positions. They are in dire need of a personal assistant to stand by whenever they are forced into a discussion about a values issue, ready to administer smelling salts.
When it comes to economic issues, they're Julius Caesar; but when comes to social issues, they're Ferdinand the Bull. If the issue is whether there should be a new government program, they're unlocking the gun case; but if the issue is traditional marriage, they're out smelling the flowers.
If I hear one more self-professed conservative talk show host ask of a caller defending traditional marriage (as Leland and Mandy have done repeatedly), "but how does it affect your family?" I think I'm going to lose my lunch.
When PBS Nightly News asked me that question in the interview before the Supreme Court rewrote the 14th Amendment last year, I just questioned the assumption behind it, which was that it's all about me. It's the idea that we have no standing to take a position on any public policy issue unless we can quantitatively demonstrate that we will sustain some concrete personal benefit or harm. And, of course, the only kind if proof that would be accepted would be some kind of financial or economic gain or loss.
You're asked why you believe in traditional marriage and you're expected to produce your bank statements. This is the state of conservative thinking in the early 21st century. What do these people do in their spiritual lives? Is that decision too made according to some kind of strict individualistic, economic calculus?
The common good is now a weed in the conservative garden that must be rooted out so the economic plants won't be threatened.
The other thing about America's high profile conservatives is that, to them, everything is political--or at least everything important. Traditionalist conservatives like Russell Kirk used to warn against "immanentizing the eschaton"--in other words, of thinking that, through political ideologies, we can have salvation in this world.
It used to be the liberals who were the utopians. But now we have conservatives who seem to think that, once we have a free market, we will have reached Nirvana.
It's fine to think that the free market is the most efficient economic system. I believe that too. But when that is made the be all and end all of your political position, when you subordinate every other political and cultural issue to that one, you make it into an ideology, which is to say, a political religion.
I'll state this bluntly (as I have before): The self-professed conservatives (particularly libertarians) who worship "The Market" are radicals--in the same sense to the same extent as the people to whom they are always applying that label.
And that's ironic, because real conservatism is anti-radical.
Because of this conservative ideology (a contradiction in terms), when the Pope speaks on something from the perspective of, say, the Christian responsibility to be good stewards or how we should treat immigrants, it is immediately seen as some kind of political policy statement, and criticized in the same manner.
And, of course, the reaction of some conservatives has been to try to draw some hard and fast line between religion and politics. It's a rather ironic statement for Republicans to make at this particular time, given the high profile of religious issues in the presidential primary, but there it is. Marco Rubio, I am sorry to say, is one of the people who has said publicly that the Pope should stick to religious and moral issues and leave other issues alone.
In other words, His Holiness can go ahead and talk about peripheral values issues, but when it comes to the important issues (economics and foreign policy), he needs to take his censer and go burn some incense somewhere and leave things in the hands of the politicians--which, come to think of it, is even more ironic given what everything else they've said this year about politicians.
Of course, Rubio grew up Catholic, became a Mormon, and now goes to both a Catholic and a Protestant church. It's a good thing he doesn't have to observe immigration restrictions in his church life--or maybe the dual citizenship he apparently possesses gets him out of those restrictions, it's hard to tell.
It's one thing to disagree with the Pope. I might disagree with him on the Global Warming thing myself, although I haven't read Laudato Si yet, so I can't really say (I have learned to refrain from comment about what any Pope says or believes until I read what he actually said). But it is thing another to say that he has no business to say it. I'd rather a pope say something false than to think that he has not standing to say anything on other important issues--particularly when the people telling him to keep quiet are the very ones most responsible for screwing things up.