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A Defining Moment
Conservatives have diverse opinions, except when it comes to the federal courts.

by James Leroy Wilson
July 7, 2005

Anyone who has attempted intellectual discussion in an e-mail group will inevitably be forced to define his terms. Capitalism to one person may mean a society and government dominated by greedy corporations, and to another it may mean a system of voluntary exchange. A statement like "That will lead to anarchy!" sounds frightening to those who believe anarchy means chaos, but sounds like good news to an anarchist.

There are precise definitions, and then there are practical, or pragmatic, definitions. The precise definition refers to the "ideal" sense of the word and they are used by people trying to make a point: "We live in a republic, not a democracy;" "Creationism isn't real science" But the pragmatic definition is best for identifying who people are and what they do and believe.

In a formal sense, it is probably best to identify Christians as those who have been baptized in the name of the Trinity and who have not renounced it. But when people complain about "Christians," they are complaining about a narrower group of people and their attitudes, beliefs, and practices.

And those beliefs, themselves, require definition. The Christian religion requires a precise definition by which believers can be distinguished from non-believers. Even then, there is controversy, such as what "sin" is. On top of that, there are supplements to fundamental Christian doctrines which cause schisms. And then there are private interpretations. These are so varied that it is hard to believe that all these Christians worship the same God. Jesus' life and teaching are appealed to in support of both war and pacifism, both capitalism and socialism, both exclusion and tolerance. The inferences and consequences of Christian doctrine are so varied that few if any can speak with credible authority as to what Jesus would have us do.

Even narrowing the field doesn't do much good. "Orthodox" or conservative Christianity is little more than restating the agreed-upon doctrines, with perhaps a more stern and careful defense against "liberalism" and anti-religious intellectual fads. But there is such a wide gulf between, say, the claims of Roman Catholicism and Calvinism that, save for a few common doctrines, you'd hardly think they were the same religion at all.

And this indicates that precise definitions are not always so useful. What is a "conservative Christian?" Leaving aside the philosophical precision of what "conservatism" means and what "Christian" means, the most useful definition is the unanimous agreement among all self-described conservative Christians on a controversial point. The latter part is crucial: to say "conservative Christians are united in their view that carjacking is wrong" isn't true, because the agreement is so apparent among them and among the rest of humanity that it isn't a controversial or divisive point. The one common and unique point that unites conservative Christians is the belief that homosexuality is sinful. If someone identifies himself as a conservative Christian, you can conclude that he believes in a certain small set of doctrines and that he believes homosexuality is sinful. You can not conclude anything more than that.

Unanimous agreement on a controversial point. That's probably the best practical definition for an ideology or political label. There are many "precise" definitions of, say, libertarianism, but they are also very general. Even if all libertarians agreed on one, there would still be disagreement as to strategy, tactics, and even policy itself. There are self-described libertarians who support the War on Iraq, for example. There are libertarians who support tax and spending cuts in principle but oppose tax cuts today, and others who believe that terrorism is a big enough threat to justify greater federal powers in the PATRIOT Act. There are libertarians who are anarchists, and others who support taxes on land values. There are libertarians who believe in states‘ rights, and others who would use the federal government to check abuses in local government. There are libertarian Republicans and libertarian Democrats and Libertarians and libertarian independents and libertarian non-voters.

Looking beyond these issues, and questions of who is and who is not a "real" libertarian, you will find unanimous support from self-described libertarians on two issues: repealing drug laws and repealing gun laws. This not to say that libertarians think these are the most pressing and important issues of our day. But these are the defining marks. If you hear somebody say, "I'm a libertarian," you can make a lot of assumptions about his beliefs and policy preferences. You may be right on most of them. But on the repeal of drug and gun laws, you are guaranteed to be right.

Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement will be a "defining moment" for political conservatives. Conservatism has always been hard to define in a practical sense. It has always been a drift, a state of mind, rather than a coherent ideology. Conservatives have been foreign policy realists, idealists, and isolationists. Protectionists and free traders. They have been supply-side tax cutters and deficit hawks. They have been hard-line against drugs, and also against it. They have called for a stronger role for the federal government in some areas, and have resisted the growth of government. Conservatives praise capitalism, and the agrarian life. They tend to be flag-wavers, but some of those flags are of the Confederacy. Some derive their ideas and attitudes from Edmund Burke, others from Sean Hannity.

Where is the agreement? What makes a conservative? Conservatives are united in their opposition to activist federal judges. They believe judges should strictly interpret an unchanging Constitution. They resent federal courts striking down abortion laws, outlawing prayer in school, and forcing school integration. They resent courts allowing "affirmative action" policies that violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They believe that social and moral questions should be left to states and local communities to decide. They believe that our federal courts, and especially the Supreme Court, should be filled with judges who refuse to let the spirit of the times sway their judgment. When someone identifies himself as a conservative, it is safe to assume that he believes this. It is not safe to assume anything else.

President Bush is in office because of this issue. This is the main issue of the Religious Right. There are lots of people who didn't like Bush or his policies, but who voted for him anyway because of this one issue. It's payback time. If Bush doesn't nominate a conservative now, his support base will abandon him. So it's a fight worth waging for Bush, even if the Democrats in the Senate filibuster the nomination. He needs all the political support he can get.

Also, it will provide a contrast between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. In thinking about this article, I wondered, what is the practical definition of liberalism? What do all liberals believe? I couldn't think of anything. Liberalism has no unifying theme, and unfortunately for Democrats, a fanatical devotion to abortion rights appears to be the closest thing to one. (What else is there? Support for teacher's unions? Gun control?) By nominating a conservative to the Supreme Court, the Republicans can rally their base, who are more likely to vote with abortion and the judiciary as their main issues. What can rally the liberal base?

About the Author:
James Leroy Wilson blogs at Independent Country (

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