Why Conservatism Lost

Earlier this week, Dr. Hurd wrote a Daily Dose of Reason article entitled “William F. Buckley: A Symptom of the Problem.” The article was also sent out to the media. (Subscribers to DrHurd.com PRIORITY ACCESS can view the article in the Archives). One member of the media forwarded these comments to Dr. Hurd, the comments of an economist/conservative who read the article and did not agree with it. The comments of this economist, and Dr. Hurd’s reply, further illustrate the clash between conservatism as we know it (and as Buckley practiced it) and the actual basis for individual rights in a free society.

Dr. Hurd’s critic wrote: “The man is wrong. Western civilization is the basis upon which [the] conservative movement rests. Its purpose is to conserve traditional values that comprise western [civilization]. Christianity is a fundamental part of this basis. Sure it needs to be separated from the state … BUT it must not be thrown out. I am not talking about the concept of after-life but about the code of ethics that people have to pursue to get to heaven–and it is wholly irrelevant whether heaven exist[s] or not. It is the survival and efficiency friendly traits of this code of behavior that counts. It is part of our culture. And that code of ethics would have not been with us without Christianity. Christian God created an individual, not collective–and gave us the very basis for individualism. Christian God established the relationship between Him and the individual, thus pulling the individual out of the collective; something that no other religion has done. . “

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

Yes, I’m familiar with this argument. In essence, the argument is as follows: A free society must be grounded in Christian ethics.

Two things are wrong with this argument. One, ethics does not have to be Christian. There are other forms of ethics, and I would even argue that an entirely secular code of ethics can be practiced and maintained. Christianity does not hold a monopoly on ethics, and not even all Christians agree, in full, on what constitutes ethics.

However, we are talking politics and freedom here. The state, in a free society, has nothing to say about ethics. It neither endorses the Christian ethics nor relies upon it in establishing a government. The purpose of a government is to place a check on the initiation of force. That’s it–and that’s enough. A government does NOT exist to enforce a Christian ethics, or to impose any form of ethics (including the rational, secular form I advocate) on any individual. My critic tries to have it both ways. On the one hand he argues, “Sure [religion] needs to be separated from state.” But he also says “it must not be thrown out.” What does this mean, exactly? It can mean only one thing: Religion must be kept in the doctrine of government. Some unspecified amount or kind of Christian ethics must be enforced–some, but not “too much.” My question is: Who will decide how much religion in government is appropriate, by what standard, and with what consequence for the individual to be the recipient of this policy?

I say there must be NO religion in government. The role of government is to protect the freedom of individuals. This means keeping individuals safe from violent criminals, from violent invaders/terrorists, and from fraud. People can choose their form of ethics, or no ethics at all–and deal with the consequences. They can believe in the “god” of their choice or no god at all. This is not the concern of government. The concern of government is to keep people free from the threat of violent force–including the force of doctrines that would be foisted on them in the name of religion.

I completely disagree that there would be no individual, and therefore no individual rights, without Christian ethics. The individual exists, and therefore he has rights. He doesn’t have rights because advocates of the Christian doctrine say so, and he doesn’t have rights only on the condition of Christianity, Islam, or any other system of faith, no matter how widely practiced.

Buckley and other religious conservatives failed because they tried to have it both ways, like this critic of my article. It can’t be done, and it isn’t right to try.