The Radical Change in Conservatism
Editor’s Note: In earlier times, conservatism had a far different meaning than it has taken on today, conveying a sense of practicality and a respect for reason then, rather than an irrational belligerence and a disdain for empiricism now.
In this guest essay, Daniel C. Maguire, professor of moral theology at Marquette University, asks whether modern conservatism has lost its soul:
"Conservative" can mean a lot of things, even good things, but today "conservative" has sunk to the moral basement.
Dwight Eisenhower was being a good conservative when he warned that "the military-industrial complex" would milk our economy dry if not stopped, as indeed it has.
Nelson Rockefeller was being a good conservative when he said pregnant women should be in charge of their pregnancies and not the government.
Teddy Roosevelt was being a good conservative when he pioneered ecological sanity. Abraham Lincoln was a good conservative when he took on slavery and when he supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, improve infrastructure and public education.
These true conservatives did not embrace the currently ensconced dogmatic naiveté that government is the root of all evil. That was then.
More recently "conservative" is reduced to a bundle of mean-spirited, ungrounded, and, ultimately self-destructive assumptions. And yet for Republicans, it is the byword of their campaigning.
The conservative record is gory. Theologian Obery Hendrick sums it up:
"Conservative politicians opposed at their inception Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, unemployment compensation, the right to form labor unions, government guaranteed student loans, child labor laws, the minimum wage, workplace safe regulation, guaranteed bank and savings deposits, oversight to insure the purity of our food and drugs, the environmental protection movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, civil rights legislation, even anti-lynching legislation. Indeed, conservatives have opposed virtually every policy that might narrow the gap between rich and poor, particularly taxation of the wealthy."
Anybody see a trend there? And since many of these folks claim Christian credentials, anybody see any of Jesus' "good news for the poor," there? (Luke 4:18)
Theologian Hendrick: "Despite the clear-cut anti-classist, egalitarian disposition of both the Hebrew Bible and the gospel pronouncements of Jesus, the social economic and tax policies promoted by political conservatives have been routinely skewed toward the interests of America's wealthier citizens, with only secondary consideration at best given to the less privileged, particularly the poor."
Of course, conservatism gone awry is nothing new. In 1884, the anarchic, anti-government, elitist tilt of conservatism was noted.
"Conservative and Liberal, as we ordinarily use the terms, are distinctions having reference to a particular practical struggle, the gradual substitution of government by the whole body of the people (Liberal) for government by privileged classes.(Conservative)."
The Tea Party passions are the rancid emissions of class-based greed disguised with flags and Christian symbols. They are reminiscent of a description of the British Conservative movement of 1845 as "Organized Hypocrisy."
Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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