By Theo Anderson ’15
“If [the Religious Right] succeed in establishing religion as a basic Republican Party tenet…they could do us in.”
-Barry Goldwater, 1994
In the 2010 election, atheists and agnostics overwhelming supported the Democratic Party over the Republican Party – 68% to 30%. As a very fiscal conservative and an atheist, this astounded me. I don’t really think about politics in terms of my atheism. Conservative principles like free markets, low taxes, small government, and deregulation don’t inherently overlap with religion. Indeed, there isn’t much religion in debates on fiscal issues.
Even when considering social issues instead of fiscal issues, there isn’t much religion in political debates. Gun rights, legalization of marijuana, affirmative action, and immigration are basically separated from religion. The glaring exceptions are abortion and same-sex marriage. Given the close ties between religion and marriage, it’s not surprising that religious arguments find their way in the same-sex marriage debate.
However there is nothing inherently religious about taking a conservative stance on any of these issues, not even abortion. To illustrate my point, suppose that a fetus does in fact have the same natural rights as a newborn baby. Then an abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide. Just as religion is unnecessary to condemn infanticide, religion is also unnecessary for an anti-abortion argument. Although I’ve oversimplified the issue, it’s clear that anti-abortion stances don’t need religion.
While I see religion and politics as essentially separate, Republicans give religion center stage in the public discourse. To wit: Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) recently professed that the Earth is 9000 years and that evolution and embryology are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Representative Todd Adkin (R-MO) recently said evolution was “not a matter of science.” Newt Gingrich attacked atheists in the primary by asking “How can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” Representative Katherine Harris (R-FL) made inflammatory comments calling the separation of church and state a lie and warning that “if you’re not electing Christians…you are going to legislate sin.” These are just a few quotes of many that would probably make even most religious Republicans cringe with embarrassment.
Republicans need to rethink their priorities. Once Republicans have seriously addressed our ballooning social security problem, balanced our trillion-plus-deficit budget, changed our rigidly-unionized government monopoly on education, passed tort reform, reduced illegal immigration, reduced wasteful pork, simplified the income tax, and downsized about seven federal departments, then maybe I can turn my attention to federal legislation on same-sex marriage. America isn’t crumbling under same-sex marriage, but we will be in for a lot of pain if we continue our unsustainable social security structure, for example. Republican candidates, eager to get votes from the Religious Right, give lots of attention to same-sex marriage and other clearly religiously motivated issues, even in federal elections. But how often do you hear Republicans discuss tort reform or simplifying income taxes? Republicans are having a crisis of priorities, and atheists are running away from them in droves because of it.
It’s not just atheists either. Agnostics, secularists, deists, etc. are likewise turned away by the Religious Right. All of these groups are on the rise in America and will become increasingly important in elections. Republicans can’t ignore these groups forever, especially as the Baby Boomers, a crucial subgroup of the Religious Right, die
s out. Moreover, many theists are put off by the Religious Right. Gay marriage is a prime example; a vast majority of young voters favor legalizing gay marriage. This will haunt the Republican Party as these voters age. Pandering to the Religious Right may get short-term electoral goodies, but in the long run it will hurt Republicans because it pushes other groups away.
American conservatism is supposed to be about limited government, pro-capitalism, and strict constitutionalism. None of these have anything to do with promoting a religion, but the public influence of the Religious Right is large. Unless Republicans stop their aggressive religious rhetoric and reprioritize their political agenda, they will alienate the growing mass of secular voters and neglect the issues most important to the future of our country.