Although the American Atheist booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference has been canceled, David Silverman has still been there working the room:
“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”
I’ve been hearing these sorts of arguments for decades now, and they’ve never amounted to much. We need to remember that there are many streams of political thought that come together in the American conservative movement, and many of the strongest are predisposed to be religious.
While most conservatives will use stock phrases like “small government,” it will have very different meanings depending on the speaker. Someone in the Christian republican tradition might argue that a small government would stay out of the way while churches and local majorities taught their religious traditions in schools, for example.
So, they’re closet atheists? “A lot of them, yes.” And beyond that, he says, “a vast majority of Christians here would support atheists being part of the movement.” Well, they need all the help they can get.
Iffy. There may be a lot of atheists lurking about. But ever since Edmund Burke the conservative tradition has emphasized the need for religious institutions and religious indoctrination to ensure social order. Even an atheist might endorse religion if they think it will keep the masses in check. I’m reminded of Emerson’s line that his aunt was not a Calvinist but wished that everybody else was.