Conservatives v. the Police

Conservatives v. the Police December 3, 2014

Many conservative websites and writers, significant, sane ones, have become more and more critical of the police in the last few years and the number and the force of the comments have increased a lot in just the last couple of years. What had been — for decades — the conservative’s automatic deference to the police’s side in any conflict is no more, and growing numbers of serious conservatives are beginning to react in favor of the other side.

This is the kind of story I mean, from The FederalistHands Up, Don’t Choke: Eric Garner Was Murdered By Police For No Reason, by the website’s co-founder Sean Davis:

And what was his crime? As the video below shows (note: it is incredibly disturbing, so watch at your own risk), he wasn’t a mortal threat to anyone. He carried no weapons. He did not shove or attack any police officers in such a way to be considered an imminent threat to their health and safety.

No, his apparent crime was selling cigarettes without paying taxes on them. And for that, he was killed.

The grand jury’s decision not to bring any charges against the officer who killed Garner is inexplicable. It defies reason. It makes no sense.

Or take these two tweets from Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: “I am astounded speechless by the #EricGarner case. Come, Lord Jesus” and “A state that can choke a man to death, on video, for selling cigarettes is NOT Rom. 13 justice.”

Or take the retweet by Gregory Thornbury, the president of (the very Evangelical) King’s College in New York, of a tweet with this information: “Deaths from police shootings US 461 (*updated FBI #, undercount) Germany 8 Britain 0 Japan 0.” He later retweeted a tweet with the title “Hundreds of police killings go unreported to federal authorities.”

That many of the people I’m talking about are Christians is important. They have an identity and a source of belief and ideas completely separate from the organs of the right. The popularity of Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre’s thinking among these people was an early sign of this movement toward a Christian and ecclesial identity distant from and to varying extents antagonistic to the society’s. (I don’t know what if any religious commitment Davis has, but Moore and Thornbury, both friends of mine, are very serious traditional believers.)

These Christians, who include lots of Catholics, especially those whose family traditions are working class Democratic, now instinctively take the side of the marginalized and question the agents of the state. They recognize that a gap has grown between Christian commitment and the America their fathers felt they could support without question.

Many of those who are still social conservatives are becoming cultural liberals (and economic liberals as well, but that’s a different subject). They are now the kind of people whose support for racial minorities and the civil rights movement in the sixties National Review made fun of.

And they’re now fine with that. They don’t care nearly as much as they did to be identified with the conservative movement. They’ve also ceased to be a reliable ally of the Republican Party, whose establishment many view with disdain or contempt. They — men like Moore and Thornbury — are people trusted by many, who will follow them rather than the leadership of the right.

This could mean a lot for American politics. Political observers have long discussed how long conservative Christians would support the Republican party. Everyone assumed that abortion would be the divisive issue, if the Republicans failed to deliver pro-life laws or gave up the party’s (formal) opposition, and to some extent it is. But more significant, I think, is this greater division over the marginalized, as seen in their growing criticism of the police. They are now in play in a way they were not before and not just in electoral politics.

Just a few years ago you would not have found a conservative website concluding a report as Davis does his report on the non-indictment of the policeman who killed Eric Garner:

John Edwards was right: there are Two Americas. There’s an America where people who kill for no legitimate reason are held to account, and there’s an America where homicide isn’t really a big deal as long as you play for the right team.

Unfortunately Eric Garner was a victim in the second America, where some homicides are apparently less equal than others.

Russell Moore commented somewhere else on the Garner non-decision: “Not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice.” This is not your father’s Christian conservatism.

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