Why do conservatives conserve?

An online acquaintance recommended that I read the book “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin. This is a book of previously published essays, with an introduction in which the author introduces his thesis. The thesis, basically, is that conservatism/reactionism/rightism (he uses the terms synonymously) is an ongoing effort to stamp out any attempt by the lower orders of society to improve their lot. (Also they’re violent and racist.)

I just finished the (39-page) Introduction of the book, before the essays start. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but find myself calling foul or BS on every other page.

First, his attempt to define the right as the side which always tries to beat down the lower orders, seems like a tautology. Rightists try to beat down the lower orders; those that beat down the lower orders may be identified as rightists. If you define it that way, then any time you see this happening in history you can attribute it to the right. But what if there is an instance where the left does it? Or is that possibility defined out of existence?

Shouldn’t you first define an ideology, and then talk about what its adherents have or have not done historically? That way we can identify the subjects first, and observe how they act afterwards; and not define them by how they act — those who do good on the left and those who do bad on the right.

For example he speaks of the abolition movement as a movement of the left, and the resistance to it as a movement of the right; apparently based on the definition of the right as that which tries to suppress the efforts of the lower orders to better themselves. But the abolitionists were mainly Christians and Republicans. Aren’t modern rightists also mainly Christians and Republicans?

If I’m called a conservative at the present time because I want to conserve certain things, or return them to how they were, that’s fair enough. But I may not be aligned ideologically with someone who wanted to conserve things 150 years ago. Possibly someone who agrees with my worldview would want to change things at one time, and conserve things at another. Shouldn’t our purported ideological affinity depend more on the kinds of things I/they want(ed) to conserve, rather than the desire to conserve per se?

People often say, “But Christians and Republicans weren’t conservatives back then,” as if they had mysteriously switched roles with modern atheists and Democrats. Well, maybe that’s because slavery wasn’t something that they wanted to conserve! If you brought them in a time machine to the present day, do you suppose the Christians of 1860 would be conservative or liberal with regard to the question of, say, gay marriage?

Is it mysterious that devout Christians of today, and devout Christians of 150 years ago, would agree in opposing both slavery and gay marriage? I for one would have expected that, since the motivating factor in both cases is the Christian faith, which remains essentially the same.

Up to now I haven’t had a problem with the labels “conservative” and “liberal” to describe political leanings or identities in the present context. But I’m realizing that it does present problems when trying to tie together people from one era to those of another, based solely on their tendency to want to progress or conserve. It’s often remarked by modern conservatives that “progress” is meaningless unless you have a fixed standard by which to judge whether or not you’re progressing. Simply moving “forward” can be neither good nor bad in itself; it’s only good if you’re moving towards something good. But how is “good” to be defined? To define it as “that which progresses” is to reason in a circle.

Well, the same applies to the word “conservative”. It can’t be a virtue to conserve per se. Whether to conserve or progress must be judged by some standard. That standard is the better criteria by which to group the people of one age with those of another. I happen to be conservative today because I consider some of the values that are being discarded by my society, to be worthy of conservation. It doesn’t follow that I would have considered slavery as being worthy of conservation. I conserve (at the present time) for the sake of what I consider good, in accordance with my faith and not just for the sake of conserving; certainly not for the sake of preventing the “lower orders” from bettering themselves!

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38 thoughts on “Why do conservatives conserve?

  1. People often say, “But Christians and Republicans weren’t conservatives back then,” as if they had mysteriously switched roles with modern atheists and Democrats. Well, maybe that’s because slavery wasn’t something that they wanted to conserve! If you brought them in a time machine to the present day, do you suppose the Christians of 1860 would be conservative or liberal with regard to the question of, say, gay marriage?

    Is it mysterious that devout Christians of today, and devout Christians of 150 years ago, would agree in opposing both slavery and gay marriage? I for one would have expected that, since the motivating factor in both cases is the Christian faith, which remains essentially the same.

    I think it would be very interesting to conduct an analysis of the evolution of the denominations 150 years ago to now with their political viewpoints then and now. At least for Protestants, it seems to me that there were obviously splits in denominations over slavery, and a lot of the “southern” denominations that I would associate as being most conservative/Republican and most anti-same-sex marriage (e.g., Southern Baptist Convention) got their roots in denominations that supported of slavery.

    It’s tough for me to follow the history of northern denominations (and I think part of it is because there have been so many following splits, such as the modernist-fundamentalist controversy), but it *seems* to me that with even with denominations with large abolitionist presence (e.g., Presbyterians), we can point to similar splits over slavery (e.g., PC-Confederate States which would be come PC-US vs the northern PC-USA), and we can note that the splits occurring in the Presbyterian church today over acceptance of same-sex marriage are happening in the descendants of the Northern denomination (the current day PCUSA). I’d hate to oversimplify but it seems that there would be something to say that slavery-supporting Protestant denominations then tend to be conservative/Republican now, whereas slavery-opposing denominations have more liberal/progressive political sentiment now.

    But I want to get at your 2nd paragraph I’ve quoted here. You seem to be writing as if devout Christians had their stuff together back then, and I don’t know if that’s just a way for you to slip in a “no True Scotsman” argument about slavery-supporting Christians. To me, it’s not as if abolitionists were all the devout Christians and slavery supporters were heretics, apostates, and atheists. Even as someone who would like to see Christianity accept same-sex relationships, even I think there’s probably less in support of that than there has historically been for slavery in Christianity. But as conservative Christians have absolutely told me (in the 21st century!), the Bible is actually fairly tepid on slavery, so the diversity of Christian perspectives on slavery is not that mysterious after all.

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  2. I’m not trying to trace what denomination I as a modern conservative am “descended” from, as if by a kind of genealogy. I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. What I’m saying is that being a conservative today, does not convict me as someone who would have supported any action in the past that may be construed as “conservative” in the sense of maintaining the then-status quo. Rather, the people I should be identified with back then are those who share the values that I hold.

    I agree with you that the Bible doesn’t specifically condemn slavery as such. Nevertheless most abolitionists opposed slavery on the ground that it was opposed to the Gospel. Obviously other Christians thought it was not opposed to the Gospel. But I happen to be a Christian who thinks that it is. So why don’t I get the presumption that I should be lumped in with the former rather than the latter?

    It seems to boil down to a hypothetical argument along the lines that the kind of person who is a conservative today, if he lived back then would have been in favor of slavery. But what is this based on, some kind of psychological profile? The premise seems to be that anyone who resists “progress” today would always have resisted progress, regardless of the particular issue, or which standard is used to gauge “progress” (not to mention how he might have been raised, had he been born in the past).

    Also note that the converse (if that’s the right word) of this argument is that the kind of person who is a liberal today, if he lived back then would have been opposed to slavery. A corollary of this, is that the people who opposed slavery back then, would favor gay marriage today. Again, a very dubious argument in my opinion. What’s it based on? That Christians who opposed slavery were morally loose or doctrinally wishy-washy Christians?

    I submit that whether or not a person today would have opposed slavery back then, if we were to suppose that his DNA could be injected into a living zygote or something — to the extent there is any point whatsoever in such speculation — has much less to do with whether he’s a liberal or a conservative now, but in all likelihood, primarily would have been affected by where he grew up and how he was raised.

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    • Agellius,

      It seems to boil down to a hypothetical argument along the lines that the kind of person who is a conservative today, if he lived back then would have been in favor of slavery. But what is this based on, some kind of psychological profile? The premise seems to be that anyone who resists “progress” today would always have resisted progress, regardless of the particular issue, or which standard is used to gauge “progress” (not to mention how he might have been raised, had he been born in the past).

      I think you’re discounting how much race is still very much an issue. We don’t need to do apples to oranges anachronistic kinds of comparisons across different because we can note that even today, southern conservatives tend to be more open in supporting racial attitudes that ameliorate or sympathize with the actions of the slaveholding South. I won’t go so far as to say that conservative Southerners now still support slavery, but… There is something about the interpretation of religious conservatism that still seems very anemic at opposing white nationalist or white supremacist interpretations of scripture and history. So it’s not: “southern conservatives then were in support of slavery, southern conservatives now oppose same sex marriage”. It’s more a note that the same folks now who are most against same sex marriage have particular views that make it very easy to connect them back to those in the past who started slavery.

      “That Christians who opposed slavery were morally loose or doctrinally wishy-washy Christians?”

      to the extent you think modernist interpretations of Christianity are doctrinally wishy washy (that’s your call, not mine), then yeah, that is my analysis. The sorts of Christians who opposed slavery were, at their time and as history went on, theologically innovative in a way that split them from conservatives and fundamentalists. (Take for example Presbyterian abolitionists like Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher… They were absolutely “new school” in a way that completely rankled the old school conservative Presbyterians. I accept that following Presbyterian theological history is fairly complicated, but it’s telling that if you want to look at who is theologically innovative but also theologically lax, it’s the new school. That’s why I said the exercise of going through history would be interesting — because if we accept that these Christians were profoundly motivated by their theological beliefs, then it’s very interested to see the same sorts of critiques we now associate with modern liberal or wishy washy theology tracks REALLY well with the criticism of leading abolitionists then.

      I agree this is not really a DNA thing, but a socialization thing. So pointing out that racial and anti-same sex attitudes all seem strongest in the American South (and abolition and modem progressive though seems strongest in the North) seems relevant. I’m not saying geography determines belief either, just that for any metric that you want to talk about different groups, it just doesn’t make sense to make southern conservative modern Republicans to the northern, “liberal” antebellum Republicans.

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  3. ugh, a few autocorrect issues and typos on phone.

    1st para should say: “…across different ISSUES because…”

    Last line of 1st para should say “SUPPORTED slavery” instead of “started slavery”

    Last para, last line should say something like “…it just doesn’t make sense to equate southern conservative modern Republicans to the northern, “liberal” antebellum Republicans”

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  4. The situation among Southern racists is one thing. Undoubtedly some modern racist Southerners are the direct heirs of antebellum racist Southerners, raised with those attitudes as were their parents before them, and their parents, and so forth, as you say. But this is the opposite of the method that the book uses that I’m criticizing. You’re drawing a direct line from father to son to son, among people living in a particular geographical area, with sentiments *on a particular issue* that are demonstrably the same as, or at least similar to, those of their ancestors.

    What bugs me is being lumped in with so-called antebellum conservatives, even though my attitudes are demonstrably different from theirs *on this particular issue*, on the sole basis that I’m a “conservative” in my time and they were “conservatives” in their time. This ignores the possibility that people who were progressives on an issue in one era, might be conservative on the same issue in another.

    There is no basis for asserting that people who are conservative at one time would always be conservative at all times (and likewise for progressives), and that therefore the conservatives of later times are always the ideological heirs of the conservatives of earlier times. This is in fact an absurd position to take.

    An example of this is that the conservatives around the time of the French Revolution favored monarchy, whereas neither conservatives nor liberals of our day hold that position. And again the French liberals of a later time supported freedom of speech, press and religion, and the conservatives of our day do the same (whereas some modern liberals are starting to question whether freedom of speech and religion is such a great idea). Positions that were liberal at one time often become conservative later on, when the context shifts.

    By the same token it no longer requires a liberal attitude to be opposed to slavery (granting for the sake of argument that it ever did); that is now an utterly conventional opinion, open to anyone and disputed only by those on the very outermost fringes of public opinion. Neither I nor my conservative friends and family were raised in the South. And so I find it utterly unfair to be told that I am the intellectual heir to the pro-slavery position; that because I am relatively conservative today, mainly on moral issues, I must necessarily have also been conservative on the issue of slavery 150 years ago.

    My conservatism on moral issues has its basis in my religion, including my opposition to slavery — just like the abolitionists. So why I as a conservative must be heir to the views of the pro-slavery side, and not those of the Christian abolitionists, I cannot fathom.

    While doing a bit of googling on these topics, I came a cross a statement that startled me. According to this French author, “there is still a significant difference between the conservative, more authoritarian right that favours an economy in which the state plays a regulatory and protective role, and the liberal right that favours deregulation, less restrictive labour laws and more entrepreneurship.” [http://theconversation.com/the-evolution-of-frances-left-and-right-politics-from-the-1789-french-revolution-to-this-years-election-76226 ]

    Exactly the opposite of what Americans would have called liberal and conservative for the past several decades. Though it really does make more sense to me to refer to those in favor of more economic liberty as “liberals”.

    The same article says, “While it is possible to identify broad schools of thought that can be classified as right, left or centre over the long term, policies vary greatly over time. We cannot ascribe unchanging, universal content to these categories.” Just so!

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  5. There is no basis for asserting that people who are conservative at one time would always be conservative at all times (and likewise for progressives), and that therefore the conservatives of later times are always the ideological heirs of the conservatives of earlier times. This is in fact an absurd position to take.

    I think that’s fair. I guess the main thing is trying to address the following paragraphs of yours:

    For example he speaks of the abolition movement as a movement of the left, and the resistance to it as a movement of the right; apparently based on the definition of the right as that which tries to suppress the efforts of the lower orders to better themselves. But the abolitionists were mainly Christians and Republicans. Aren’t modern rightists also mainly Christians and Republicans?

    and

    People often say, “But Christians and Republicans weren’t conservatives back then,” as if they had mysteriously switched roles with modern atheists and Democrats. Well, maybe that’s because slavery wasn’t something that they wanted to conserve! If you brought them in a time machine to the present day, do you suppose the Christians of 1860 would be conservative or liberal with regard to the question of, say, gay marriage?

    You appeal to Christian/Republican back then as if there is continuity to now on *these* aspects. I think it’s reasonable to ask if that’s true, but I think there’s a good case to say the story is more complicated.

    But what I’m suggesting is that

    1) if you socialized the abolitionists of 1860 in today’s atmosphere, they’d probably be the ones pushing for gay marriage because the theological descendants of those movements *are* the ones that are more gay marriage affirming. (Yes, it’s the same drawing of lines of father to son to son.) The abolitionists were different kinds of Christians than were slave-holding Christians, and if there is any continuity between Christian groups from then to now, there’s something to be said that the same sorts of groups were socially progressive then and now.

    2) We do have reason to believe, prima facie, that the political parties have “switched”, so to speak. It’s far easier to point out that attitudes track more consistently along geographical lines rather than on religious/political lines, so it’s easier to say, “Whatever party or religious groups are most prevalent in the North seem to be consistently socially progressive, whereas whatever party or religious groups are most prevalent in the south seem to be consistently socially conservative” and the hypothesis that the antebellum democratic south and Republican North “mysteriously switched roles” to our modern day secular democratic north and religious Republican south really makes a lot of sense in that context. I’d go further to suggest that to the extent you want to call mainline churches “wishy washy” theologically (and thus, prone to churning out atheists or secularists or whatever else), those sorts of religious interpretations have direct connections to the same sorts of religious interpretations that made the abolitionists who they were.

    Without reading the book, I feel like a stronger contention to be made is that it’s probably glossing over a lot of distinctions. Like, obviously, even in my comments, I’ve tried to be careful to speak about protestant groups, geographical distinctions, etc., But I think you’d agree that Catholicism has theological groundings that puts it a bit outside of the analysis, or that northern Republicanism has different political groundings that may put it outside of the analysis.

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  6. You write, “You appeal to Christian/Republican back then as if there is continuity to now on *these* aspects.”

    Not necessarily. I’m basically just saying that a modern, non-Southern Christian Republican who is anti-slavery has more obviously in common with an antebellum Christian Republican who is anti-slavery, than to an antebellum pro-slavery Southern Democrat; because the likenesses between them are based on actual positions that they hold (Christian, anti-slavery), and not mere labels the meanings and applicability of which may change depending on time and context.

    Regarding your points 1 and 2, again I have no problem with trying to trace lines between groups from different eras, if you can show a continuous development of ideas within a group, or from group to group. So long as it’s about substance (past and present) and not psychological profiling or guilt by association.

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  7. Hello Agellius, not sure if you remember me. Periodically visit, haven’t commented much. As someone whose faith informs my politics to a great degree, I find the secular labels of Liberal and conservative to be troublesome. Neither really fits. I agree with your assessment of the problem with sweeping over-generalizations. And the idea that conservative thought is always reactive and always responsible for beating down or oppressing to me writes the book off as likely not worth reading.
    If I may delve into a comparison, communism is seen as “the far left” communism in practice as opposed to the theory..is little different than the extreme right…the words may be different, but the resulting totalitarian vision that tramples individuals who disagree are hard to distinguish.
    The fact is, I could make the case that in modern America, churches and people who oppose legalized gay marriage as a matter of faith are quite probably a minority…tell me that it isn’t being forced upon them. The fact is, too often we humans, whatever our political or ideological bent, believe that if our group is in power, we have the right to silence those who disagree with us. We denigrate the other, vilify the other..often using God as a pretext

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  8. Hi Brian!

    Of course I remember you and it’s great to hear from you.

    The author not only contends that “conservative thought is always reactive and always responsible for beating down or oppressing”, but actually defines conservatism that way. It makes sense in a way: The side that suppresses uprisings is obviously trying to conserve something. The problem is that it’s a meaningless definition. Otherwise why do we not include, e.g., the Chinese Communist Party under the conservative umbrella for their efforts to suppress the Tiananmen Square uprising?

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    • Agellius,

      Otherwise why do we not include, e.g., the Chinese Communist Party under the conservative umbrella for their efforts to suppress the Tiananmen Square uprising?

      Regarding the Tiananmen Square uprising, and from the wikipedia article you mention

      The comprehensive and wide-ranging reforms created political differences over the pace of marketization and the control over the ideology that came with it, opening a deep chasm within the central leadership. The reformers (“the right”, led by Hu Yaobang) favoured political liberalization and a plurality of ideas as a channel to voice popular discontent, and pressed for further reforms. The conservatives (“the left”, led by Chen Yun) said that the reforms had gone too far, and advocated for a return to greater state control to ensure social stability and to better align with the party’s socialist ideology. Both sides needed the backing of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to carry out important policy decisions.

      Recall that of these, the right/reformer Hu Yaobang’s “laxness” and “bourgeois liberalization” was said to spur the student protesters on. In the Tiananmen Square happened in the aftermath of his death. To the extent we assign liberal and conservative here (and this article does, in fact, do so), we do in fact describe those who suppressed the student reformers as the conservative side.

      Please note that of course liberal vs conservative are flipped from the “left/right” distinction because for China, the CCP conservatives are conserving the legacy of the “left”, whereas the rightist reformers are calling for liberalization and further refromers.

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      • Agellius,

        This book seems fairly sloppy for numerous reasons, but if someone wanted to focus on the United States, where the right-wing are conservative and reactionary, that wouldn’t be its sloppiness.

        I wonder what you think of the wikipedia article for “right-wing politics”? Obviously, wikipedia isn’t a flawless source, but at least for purposes of this discussion, it does represent a collection of voices who have come together to agree (and rally various sources to speak to the idea) that right-wing can generally refer to “the conservative or reactionary section of a political party or system”. This article also associates the right-wing with the belief in the inevitability and desirability of social orders and hierarchies (although, I grant that it associates different bases together, when those bases may not create the same social hierarchies. That is to say, a social hierarchy on a racist tradition is different than a theological hierarchy that makes mankind equal to each other but all below God, makes righteousness higher than sin, and so on.

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  9. Brian:

    You wrote, “As someone whose faith informs my politics to a great degree, I find the secular labels of Liberal and conservative to be troublesome. Neither really fits.”

    This is well said also. Now that you mention this, I realize that intellectuals must be defining liberal and conservative from a purely secular perspective; probably because they’re trying to be “scientific” about it. But I agree with you: my faith informs my politics to a great degree, indeed almost entirely, in the sense that the ultimate standard determining whether I favor a candidate or policy is whether he or it opposes my faith as I understand it. If there are multiple candidates none of whom I consider hostile to my faith, then I may use lesser criteria to choose between them. But if one of them favors, for example, abortion rights, then he’s immediately off the list.

    But the point is, NEVER are my political choices based on supporting the rich, harming the poor or oppressing people of any race or nationality, regardless of anything my supposed ideological forebears may have said or done.

    Now it’s possible that I’m being duped by conservative politicians who know how I feel about abortion, and proclaim themselves pro-life just to get my vote. But you know what, I would be more than happy to consider voting for a Democrat who opposed abortion and favored religious freedom and liberty of conscience, even if he was a socialist.

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  10. Andrew:

    I’ll read the Wiki article and get back to you. I’ll just say off the top of my head that I don’t necessarily have a problem defining “right” as “the conservative or reactionary section of a political party or system”. But it should be acknowledged that it’s a substance-less definition since people with very different values could both be conservative depending on the context (e.g. American and Chinese conservatives of 1989), and people with the same values could be liberal in one era and conservative in another (as explained in a previous comment). Therefore I object to being painted with the same brush as people who happened to be conservative in a previous era, on no other basis than that I am conservative in my own era, when our substantive values may be clearly at odds with each other.

    But I’ve already said all that. I’ll see what the Wiki has to say.

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  11. The book sounds like a polemic against conservatives rather than any kind of intellectual exercise. You and I differ in our politics, but not our basis of belief. I think that measured, thoughtful responses are much more interesting than knee jerk reactionary responses. When I look across the political landscape, as well as that landscape of ideas within the Catholic Church, especially here in America…I see people more driven by their political ideologies than by the teachings of their faith. People on both sides twist their faith to fit their politics. I suspect you and I have done that as well, but I see in you a serious attempt to think things through using the lens of your faith. The premise of the book in calling conservatives reactionary ignores the fact that there are very reactionary forces on the left as well…just as eager to silence dissent. I think the beautiful thing about our Faith is the Unity in Diversity. The various religious orders, the ability to attend a Latin Mass or not. Too often people buy into the my way is the only right way, and assume that of course people of good will would agree with them.
    In your example of choosing candidates…it is all about one’s reasons for supporting a candidate rather than a black and white issue. Take the election of our last president. My guess is that you supported Trump..and can give very compelling reasons why you did so…based on your faith. I supported Clinton, albeit unhappily, despite her support of abortion, because I could not in good conscience look my daughters in the eye and say I voted for a man who talked about his ability to grab a woman’s private parts, or sit on the Howard Stern show and listen to his daughter referred to as a Piece of A__. I felt him to be immoral and dangerous. I felt that while he gave lip service to the Religious Right, that is all it is. And I believe that the makeup of the Supreme Court will have little to do with whether abortion remains legal. But I also respect that you may have very different opinions, and that I can respect that. And that is what is missing in our country…the willingness to dialogue respectfully, honoring differences

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    • Brian:

      That’s why I’m always happy to hear from you, I know that whatever you have to say, regardless of whether I agree, it will be said in a spirit of fairness and kindness.

      I didn’t vote for Trump for basically the same reasons. But I didn’t vote for Clinton either. Between the two I preferred Trump, but I could see myself being ashamed to admit that I voted for him, so I didn’t.

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  12. I consider myself fairly conservative..just not in a way that is recognizeable within our political system. One of the most conservative people I can think of is Wendell Berry, if you are familiar with him…but it is not a conservatism that fits our political definitions.

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  13. Andrew:

    I apologize in advance that this goes on too long. But it’s a big subject.

    In response to your question, “I wonder what you think of the wikipedia article for ‘right-wing politics’?”

    Having read both the “right-wing politics” and “left-wing politics” Wikipedia articles:

    The articles reinforce the feeling I have had for a while, that the definitions of left and right are rigged so that any time people are doing something nice in history, or at least well-intentioned, they’re leftists; and whenever they’re doing something hateful and mean, they’re rightists.

    The two sides are defined in their opening paragraphs as:

    The left likes equality, the right likes social hierarchy.

    Why does the left like equality? Because “leftism typically involves a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others (prioritarianism), as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished (by advocating for social justice).” In other words they’re nice people.

    And why does the right like hierarchy? Because it’s natural. Note that there’s no parallel attribution of good intentions on the right, only some kind of an urge to adhere to “nature”.

    Rightism is supposed to be elitist, but right-wing populism is anti-elitist. So why are they both rightist? Leftism is also anti-elitist due to its egalitarianism; so why isn’t it populist? The racism of populism purportedly is what makes it right-wing. But I can’t help wondering if it’s simply branded right-wing because it’s racist, and racism is bad, and anything bad is right-wing. I understand that the alt-right is in favor of big government that takes care of people. [http://www.dailywire.com/news/8638/what-alt-right-ben-shapiro] This is rightist?

    I honestly don’t think that, deep down, either side has more or less of an inclination to maintain power than the other. The left claims not to be interested in authority and power because its ultimate goal is equality for everyone. But in fact leftists have always sought power and fought to maintain it once they had it. They (the ideal leftists that I have in mind) would probably claim that they’re forced to fight for power because the right is always resisting their goals. If the right would just lay down and acquiesce, then the leftist agenda could be fully implemented, after which they would relinquish power as well.

    But the reality is that the left craves power and authority to implement its agenda, and will exercise force to compel it (and has done so) no less than the right. And when the left has power it is every bit as elitist towards the common man as the right.

    ***

    But all this assumes that we know who we’re talking about when we say “right” and “left”. During my childhood and most of my adult life, “left” was equated with communism and “right” with capitalism. The leftists want to control society and make everything OK for everyone; and the right wants to let society run wild and let every man fend for himself; survival of the fittest.

    Yet at the same time, the left wanted to undermine any moral authority that existed in society that served to limit personal freedom. Thus, the sexual revolution and opposition to the drug war were a leftist phenomena. So morally, it’s every man for himself. But economically, it’s state control all the way.

    Whereas the right thought people should adhere to principles of traditional morality, and that laws should reflect that morality. Thus opposition to abortion and strict prohibition of drug use.

    Within this paradigm, I could define leftism as economically controlling do-goodism but moral freedom; and rightism as morally controlling do-goodism combined with economic freedom.

    ***

    The economic freedom of the right I could equate with the belief, noted in the Wiki article, in a natural social hierarchy. You let people perform as best as they can, and the hierarchy sorts itself out. This is the best way to ensure that those with the most talent are able to use it for society’s benefit.

    The desire for economic control on the left, I can equate with its belief in egalitarianism, since the goal is to make sure no one has too much money and no one too little.

    The moral dichotomy is harder to assign to the principles of left and right named by Wiki. But in any case, the right was the religion party and the left the party of irreligion.

    This was how the Cold War was portrayed, as I recall it: The Communists wanted to stamp out religion — and this was true, they did stamp it out in the countries under Soviet domination. Whereas the West stood for freedom of religion. Also the Communist countries were dirt poor — also true, whereas the capitalist countries were filthy rich due to their lack of economic restraint.

    Within the U.S., the left were those who sympathized with the communists on some level, though they denied it; whereas the right stood for forceful and resolute resistance to the spread of communism — which made them, in the eyes of the left, warmongers.

    ***

    Now this is an entirely different paradigm from what Wiki describes as the situation during and after the French Revolution, where the left was for democracy and the right for monarchy. You might say the right was for a more authoritarian form of government, that of Church and King. But during my lifetime the right was for the *less* authoritarian form of government. And during French Revolutionary times the left was for democracy; but during my lifetime the left was for communism, which was decidedly undemocratic; and/or socialism, which was not necessarily antithetical to democracy, but was a curtailment of economic freedom to the extent that it took certain sectors of the economy out of private hands and handed them over to the government — to which the rightist would say, why doesn’t that smack of authoritarianism?

    ***

    So honestly, I can’t make heads or tails out of the attempt to make left and right into terms that are univocally applicable across time and space. They seem to be applied to one situation or another by mere instinct. You can’t take one criteria and say “right” applies to these people in this context, and to these in this context, and to these in this context, all for the same reasons. Instead you end up using different criteria in each case: Here it’s because they wanted a king; here because they were racist; here because they were populist. Whereas in other situations, people seem to be identified as leftist in spite of the fact that they were authoritarian or racist or populist.

    I think it’s better to speak of people as monarchists, or racists, or authoritarians, or egalitarians, and note the fact that sometimes these traits are combined and sometimes they’re not; but not always try to fit them into categories of “left” or “right,” which I’m convinced is most often translated into “good” or “bad” for use as a stick to beat people with in the present political context.

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  14. no need to apologize! firstly, it’s your blog. 2ndly, i’ve been writing some pretty long comments too.

    i can agree that it seems fair to note that these definitions apply using different criteria. For example, even if i wanted to go on the “rightists enforce hierarchy”, I’d have to say that for the french rightists, that was based on criteria of divine right of the monarchy and nobility, whereas for slaveholding rightists, that was for their theological beliefs regarding different statuses of different races, and for the economic right, that relates to different statuses according to market “merit”. (I’d probably note, however, that each of these groups at least partially tie their views to theologies, but I think we’d quickly realize that’s more complicated than we could go through. The Calvinist/protestant work ethic driving economic liberalism probably isn’t the same as the royalist theology promoting monarchism.)

    The rightwing populism that seems to be picking up steam now seems to be enforcing a hierarchy of cultural values that are battered by the “left”. (To put it in another way, what the left fights as xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia of the “basket of deplorables”, the rightwing populists say: “hey, those are traditional values we hold and you ivory tower coastal liberals don’t understand!”)

    I think we can note the different criteria criticism for the left — whether it’s movement toward more equality on economic grounds (e.g., socialism/communism) or on moral grounds (e.g., movement to normalize LGBT issues, etc.,), it’s fair to note that those are different categories, and that the same folks who press for one may not press for another, necessarily.

    And we can point out that the methods used to achieve said goals may introduce their own issues. (E.g., the regulations and government force needed to implement communism are absolutely more authoritarian than the lack of regulation or government force needed for a laissez faire capitalism.)

    And I think it’s also helpful to point out that equating one to good and one to bad can be challenged. Obviously, a Catholic such as yourself would say that a movement to equate same-sex relationships with opposite-sex relationships should be opposed. This looks bad to a leftist, but that’s the entire point of the disagreement, so that cannot by itself establish whether it is bad or good. So, challenging the equation of “left” = “good” and “right” = “bad” is to be expected, but it need not affect the analysis of whether we can find commonalities in leftist vs rightist movements in an western context, even if in the end, you say, “I don’t think there are any meaningful commonalities”

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    • Andrew:

      You write, ‘So, challenging the equation of “left” = “good” and “right” = “bad” is to be expected, but it need not affect the analysis of whether we can find commonalities in leftist vs rightist movements in an western context, even if in the end, you say, “I don’t think there are any meaningful commonalities”’

      I agree, it need not affect the analysis of commonalities. I’m just saying, the commonalities that people claim to find, to me are too confusing and convoluted and contradictory to be credible on their face. I’m not saying no one can find commonalities, just that so far, I’m not convinced. Maybe I’m just stupid; I’m open to that possibility.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. From a strictly political viewpoint, I grew up as a Republican, and came of age watching politics in the Reagan years. I have also watched as conservatives have idolized Pres. Reagan…but find it amusing that many modern day Republicans like to talk about the Reagan Revolution…but the fact is that Ronald Reagan would be seen as liberal by current standards…he wouldn’t ideologically pure enough.
    I grew up believing that the Republicans were the party of values, of the rule of law etc. but became convinced that those ideals were simply that, ideals…and politicians being politicians, only adhere to those values that they feel will help them attain and maintain power.
    The Republican’s (or Democrats) of my youth would have never set out saying that their number one priority was to make a presidency fail.
    We are devolving into a space where the common good is less important than imposing one sides or the other’s will on the system.

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  16. Sure…any of the following would have put him at odds with current conservatives:
    Under Reagan- federal employment grew by more than 60,000 (in contrast, government payrolls shrunk by 373,000 during Bill Clinton’s presidency). The gap between the amount of money the federal government took in and the amount it spent nearly tripled. The national debt soared from $700 billion to $3 trillion, and the U.S. transformed from the world’s largest international creditor to its largest debtor. After 1981, Reagan raised taxes nearly every year: 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1986. The 1983 payroll tax hike even helped fund Medicare and Social Security—or, in terms today’s Tea Partiers might recognize, “government-run health care” and “socialism.”
    he signed more wilderness-protections laws than any president before or since. “Oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants”? In 1986, Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which eventually granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants, and he continued to speak out for immigration rights after leaving office. Support “the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership”? Actually, Reagan was a staunch backer of the Brady Bill, urging Congress in 1991 to “enact it without further delay.”
    he refused to send more troops to the region when Hizbullah murdered 243 U.S. servicemen in Beirut in 1983, choosing instead to immediately withdraw the Marines remaining in Lebanon. Now, that would be a violation of the RNC resolution requiring candidates to back “military-recommended troop surges” in the Middle East. And in 1981, Reagan condemned Israel’s preventive strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, which doesn’t jibe with the RNC’s demand to “[support] effective action to eliminate th[e] nuclear weapons threat” in North Korea and Iran.
    his record on social issues while in office was remarkably undogmatic, especially for his time. In 1967, he signed a law in California that legalized millions of abortions. In 1978, he opposed California’s Proposition 6 ballot initiative, which would’ve barred gay men and women from working in public schools, and risked what his advisers predicted would be political suicide in taking to the airwaves to denounce it. Later, Reagan would become the first president to host an openly gay couple overnight at the White House. In 1981, he defied Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders by nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. A moderate, she would go on, along with one of Reagan’s other nominees, Anthony Kennedy, to vote to uphold Roe v. Wade.

    I can’t claim to have dug all this up…I took it from http://www.newsweek.com/even-reagan-wasnt-reagan-republican-72693
    The fact of the matter was, Reagan was pragmatic as hell. He wasn’t some bomb throwing ideologue.

    A few years back someone in the RNC proposed a “Purity test” based on 10 Reaganite Principles. At best it shows that the Reagan Myth has surpassed the Man…at worst it is idealogues assigning ideas to him in a way which he never espoused which to me is disrespectful of who he really was and what he did. By the way, I think Reagan was a great leader…even if I disagree with a number of policies

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  17. Oh I absolutely agree that he was pragmatic. But he was also genuinely conservative. Otherwise why did he drive the left so crazy? : )

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    • I get brian martin’s argument — it’s a commentary on how much ideology has shifted over time. Tea Partiers, for example, are hardly the same kind of Republicans or conservatives as Reagan was. Even though today Republicans hold Reagan up as this ideal, the current actions by the GOP really do support that Reagan would not pass muster these days.

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  18. I don’t see the shift in ideology, except that I think more conservatives are open to the government intervening in the economy to help workers who have been “left behind”. Would you care to elaborate on what you see shifting from Reagan’s time?

    If you’re saying that a lot of Republicans are less pragmatic, less willing to compromise than they used to be, I could agree with that. I wouldn’t say it’s the entire party, but enough of it that the party has to appease them or risk losing their votes.

    I also understand those who don’t want to compromise. Time after time we would elect Republicans and yet the country still seemed to be moving ever more leftward, and people started saying “Why are we voting for you?”

    There is a similar element on the left.

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  19. I don’t really see Republicans as wanting to spend money to help workers who have been “left behind” — even if that’s the rhetoric. Rather, what I see is happening is the the Republicans want to loosen restrictions or give tax breaks to those industries that, per the narrative, were unduly burdened by liberal/Democratic regulations. The hope is that by doing this, then the effect will trickle down. Although “trickle down economics” is associated with Reagan (“Reaganomic”), as Brian pointed out, Reagan raised taxes several times. This would be anathema in today’s political climate.

    Although the national debt rose with Reagan (and it continues with today’s Republicans), I think that today’s rise is mostly due to Republicans trying to “starve the beast” through tax cuts. They would like to cut services too (see health care reform), but this hasn’t been very successful.

    And I do see the Democrats as generally shifting rightward as well (to the extent that as per Brian’s comment, Bill Clinton would be fairly comparable with Reagan.) This has caused some party tensions in terms of a split between leftists and liberals, where liberals (see folks like Hillary Clinton) are really more of pragmatic centrists, and the leftists (e.g., Bernie Sanders fans) are to the left of them.

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  20. ‘Although “trickle down economics” is associated with Reagan (“Reaganomic”), as Brian pointed out, Reagan raised taxes several times. This would be anathema in today’s political climate.’

    Did Reagan raise taxes, or did he acquiesce in raising taxes as part of a compromise budget package?

    ‘And I do see the Democrats as generally shifting rightward as well …’

    I agree that Democrats are shifting rightward economically, in the sense of adopting traditional conservative free market principles. But not morally or socially. I feel like they still want to “control us for our own good” in a lot of ways.

    But I don’t see anything in what you wrote that shows a sizeable shift in ideology among Republicans.

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  21. I found this on PolitiFact:

    ‘Our Ruling: Responding to Cruz’s assertion that Reagan “signed the largest tax cut in history,” Colbert said he “reversed” it and “raised taxes when revenues did not match the expectations.” Legislation that Reagan signed over his time in office and raised taxes did not completely reverse the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act.’

    http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/sep/25/stephen-colbert/stephen-colbert-brings-ronald-reagans-tax-raising-/

    In other words, he signed a big tax cut in 1981, and later signed tax increases, but the increases added up to less than the cut, so there was a net tax cut.

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    • The difference between then and now is that now, Republicans wouldn’t “later sign tax increases”. In particular, looking at the 1983 increase to keep social security afloat — Republicans now would say, “Social security going broke? Good riddance!” and try to privatize.

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  22. I won’t say you’re flat-out wrong. But as I see it, that’s not a matter of changing “doctrine”, it’s more the extent to which people will be pragmatic and compromise. There were conservatives in Reagan’s time who thought SS should be privatized, but then, as now, getting rid of SS was politically inexpedient. In fact Reagan himself apparently entertained the idea at one time or another: http://www.ontheissues.org/celeb/Ronald_Reagan_Social_Security.htm

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    • In either case, I believe the original comment was that Reagan wouldn’t be viewed as pure enough. Your admittance that conservatives them were more pragmatic and willing to compromise really gets at that.

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  23. That’s a good point. One important thing to keep in mind, though, is that Reagan needed huge amounts of funding for his military buildup in his effort to win the Cold War. I’m sure he would have liked to both keep his tax cuts and also spend like hell on the military, but the Democrats held a majority in the House. So without researching it in detail, I’m pretty sure it was a situation of, you want your massive military funding, you give us our tax increase.

    Would today’s Democrats and Republicans be capable of making such a deal? Maybe not, but I’m not so sure. It was a very different situation, foreign policy-wise. The Republicans probably really hated to raise taxes after fighting so hard to get that massive tax cut in ’81. But they reeeeeallly wanted to build up the military too. There’s not quite that urgency today. I don’t know if a youngster like you can appreciate what it was like having the Soviet Union looming over the horizon all the time …

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  24. I think the sad thing is on both sides of the debate is that the ideologues are winning. The I’m right and if you don’t agree you are an f’ing ignorant traitor who hates this country people. The bomb throwers. The idea that people of faith, people of good will can disagree on issues and not be enemies who hate each other. I will vote against that..even at the expense of voting against other beliefs.
    I also contend that anyone voting based on a candidate’s stance on abortion is sadly misguided. The republicans have been in power, and even then…nothing changed. Trumps pick for the supreme court acknowledged Row v Wade as established law. I am cynical enough to believe that Republicans use the issue to fire up the religious part of their base at election time…and then happily sell them down river in between.

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  25. Whoa! Brian’s getting riled up. A rare occurrence. ; )

    The very feeling you describe, that Republicans use various issues — not just abortion but also immigration and some other things — to fire up their base and then nothing changes when they get elected — is exactly what has led to the unwillingness to compromise among some elements of the party. People got tired of voting for Republicans and having nothing done about e.g. immigration. Thus, the Tea Party and Trump.

    I think there is also a faction of the left that resented Obama getting elected and then compromising too much and not doing enough to implement the leftist agenda (not closing Guantanamo, continuing drone strikes and deportations). Thus, the Occupy Movement and Bernie Sanders. There is also a faction of the left that believes no Democrat should work with Trump or compromise in any way that allows him to implement any part of his agenda.

    Regarding abortion: Obviously I don’t agree that I’m sadly misguided. The only way abortion will ever be outlawed is if enough voters demand it. And you let them know that you want it outlawed by refusing to vote for anyone who favors it, while in the meantime trying to win people over to the cause. If there was any other issue that was as purely and massively evil as abortion then I might have to take that into account and balance the conflicting evils. But nothing even comes close. So it’s either, refuse to vote for pro-abortion candidates, or give up, and I’m not ready to give up yet.

    By the way, the Democrats milk the issue just as much. If it’s a done deal, no chance of ever overturning it, then why do Democratic candidates always harp on it? They are apparently BSing their constituents every bit as much as the Republicans are. Either that or they’re concerned that there really is a danger.

    Besides, abortion is not the only issue affected by the makeup of the courts. There are religious freedom and transgender issues waiting to make their way up the chain. I have very serious concerns about religious liberty going forward.

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    • I believe that you are absolutely correct. I think there are issues like abortion that both sides use to fire up their base..and i also agree that the disingenuousness of both parties has led to the tea party movement and the occupy movement…looking at them, they say very similar things about the ruling elite.
      My feeling is that abortion is absolutely evil…and should be outlawed.
      I have little faith in our political system to accomplish that.
      I think in the mean time, we need to work with those people who support the “right to choose” but want to limit the need…to do just that..limit the need. My understanding of the numbers is that the only demographic that has not seen a decrease is among poor people.
      I think it is far past time for people to start being creative.
      My daughter’s high school spends thousands of dollars each year on sending students to the march for life rally in Washington DC. a couple of years ago the tried to send the whole high school. Pragmatically speaking..how many abortions did those thousands of dollars prevent? What would happen if they chose to sponsor and mentor a woman considering an abortion because of economic reasons..and actually prevent an abortion..or two..
      Neither is right or wrong…but people get so caught up in..this is the only way to do things.
      When I called and said my daughter was not going to be going, and I was also excusing her from going to school..sitting in the gym and watching the rally on TV…I ended up getting the beginning of a lecture on Well..The sanctity of life is a basic tenet of our Catholic Faith…which I gently interrupted and said I am very aware of that, and the fact that I don’t send my daughter to a March in Washington does not mean my family doesn’t understand Catholic Teaching or that we do not work on issues pertaining to Life.
      But my daughter was called a Dirty Damn Liberal so often that the teachers had to be asked to intervene.

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  26. Brian:

    I hear you. I agree that people shouldn’t try to shame you into doing things in the way they think best. Just curious: What do you think of World Youth Day?

    I was once a member of a group that was going to WYD in Poland, and the leaders were pressuring me to go. The problem was that I was driving an old piece of junk car and was trying to save up for something more reliable. The guy told me, “Believe me, if you go to WYD, God will make sure you get your car.” Well, I was skeptical. I think God wants us to exercise our prudence and make the decision we think is best after weighing the options. I had not received a prophecy that God intended to give me a car in exchange for going to WYD. So based on the knowledge available to me, I declined. Also, I’m no longer in that organization.

    The kids who called your daughter names were jerks.

    That being said, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. This is not meant to offend you or judge you, but to present some ideas that I think are worth considering.

    One thing you said that struck me was that we should work with pro-choicers to “limit the need” for abortion, noting that “the only demographic that has not seen a decrease is among poor people”. The point seems to be that people are killing their children for economic reasons.

    It’s a great idea to try to alleviate the economic conditions that lead mothers to kill their children. But I think it’s an even bigger problem that this whole idea of killing children for economic reasons is not met with horror by the society at large.

    Let me try to illustrate: Suppose slavery was still legal, and so widely accepted and approved that there seemed little hope of it ever being abolished by law. So people decide to be creative and work with the slaveowners to try to alleviate the suffering of the slaves. Some even propose that we provide economic incentives to slaveowners to give up their slaves, for example by providing them with money or machinery, in order to lessen their dependence on slave labor.

    This would be fine as far as it goes. But would it be acceptable as a permanent state? The suffering of slaves is alleviated, and the need for slaves is lessened. But is this really the point? Doesn’t the real problem lie in the fact that people still claim the *right* to own other people and treat them however they wish — and that the rest of society acquiesces in this state of affairs? Isn’t that the real horror of it?

    In other words pragmatic is good, but principles matter too.

    In the scenario I described, would you consider it acceptable to vote for a candidate who openly professes the pro-slavery position? No? But what if there was no hope of ever ending slavery anyway, and he had really good positions on other issues, say on education or social welfare? What if voting for him is likely to save thousands of lives by avoiding a war?

    I’m pretty sure that you and I would both say, no way am I voting for an avowedly pro-slavery candidate. Ever. It’s a matter of principle.

    So what’s wrong with refusing to ever vote for a pro-abortion candidate, as a matter of principle?

    The principle has to be stood up for, and I think refusing to vote for pro-abortion candidates is one way of doing this. The March for Life is a way of bearing public witness to the principle, and for that reason I think it’s important and worth the time and expense.

    This is not to lessen the desirability, and commendability, of taking practical steps, to reduce the actual numbers of babies killed. But just as you say that standing up for the principle is not enough without practical action, so also practical action is not enough without taking a stand for the sake of the principle.

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  27. Agellius,
    Have no fear of offending me by simply engaging in discussion. Perhaps a small background. I come from a very fundamentalist ethnically Finnish protestant background. (Laestadian Lutheran) It was stifling. They believe they are the only group of true believers, and there is no salvation outside their small group. I found my freedom in the Catholic church…in the diversity of thought, the variety of expressions of spirituality. So I have a reflexive dislike for anything that smacks of someone telling me they have the “right way: So within the Catholic Church, there must be room for people who believe that the March For Life is important to them, and there must be room for people who believe otherwise. It would be foolish of me to try to take statistics and say I know all the reasons for abortion. I know from my work as a therapist that reasons may range from sinful selfishness to sinful desperation and anywhere in between. It is always a sinful choice. But I don’t believe that everyone intends evil. And I believe that there is room for working with people to find other alternatives. I cringe at the idea of warfare…of protesters at clinics screaming vile things at people in the name of God. i cringe at people saying vile things about homosexuals in the name of God. Jesus always called sin out as sin, but wasn’t hateful. I believe that both principal and practical are worthy…and we all need to discern where we are called. But I know, my faith tells me, that we all need to be in prayerful discernment of what God wants for us…and it may not be what the local priest thinks we should do, or the local bishop thinks we should do. If you feel that the March For Life calls you, and you have been in prayer, and someone tells you not to go..I believe you follow your conscience prayerfully.
    As far as your example of slavery…I would never support a pro-slavery candidate because they are pro-slavery. Just as I can never vote for pro-choice candidate because they are pro-choice. But if I believe that a pro-choice candidate is actually likely to create a situation where less babies are killed, or there are other factors..like the fact that I truly believe that the other party’s opposition to it is lip service, and history backs me up..then I can vote for them despite that. Because if I were to say I can only vote for a candidate who supports things I can support morally, them I may as well decide I will never vote again.
    I believe that the Catholic Church, in it’s best expression, is about both/and rather than either/or. And I believe our conversation illustrates that.

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