Atlantic Monthly Associate Editor Ross Douthat writes here about the emergence of the “Theocon” political movement. Douthat would class himself as a conservative pundit. I wrote here about an article cowritten by Douthat that promoted ‘conservative’ social engineering policies that I said were “breathtakingly socialistic.” Nevertheless, Douthat’s Theocon observations are cogent.
The moniker Theocon merely puts a name to the religious right—the movement based on conservative principles mingled with religious morality in general and Christian morality in specific. Douthat says that this movement is the successor to “America's long line of Christ-haunted reform movements--the abolitionists and the populists, the progressives and the suffragettes, the civil-rights crusaders and even the antiwar activist of the middle 1960s …”
Douthat asserts that two other significant conservative movements currently find themselves at weak points, leaving Theocons in an uneasy alliance with business interests with which they have historically been at odds. “"National greatness conservatism" has foundered, at least temporarily, on the rocks of Iraq, while the starve-the-beast right looks in the mirror and finds the beast staring back, wearing Jack Abramoff's fedora.”
Douthat’s commentary about the uneasy partnership between business and Theocons struck a cord with me. I think this helps define some of the issues I discussed here and here. This may be overly generalized, but business interests have economic efficiency as their ultimate goal. The stance as I understand it is that economic efficiency in its ideal state will produce the greatest amount of personal liberty as well as the greatest amount of wealth, and that all virtues will be maximized by it.
Theocons, on the other hand, believe that the pure business approach cannot adequately address the needs of the human soul. They feel on a very deep level that a certain amount of social engineering is requisite to achieve the greatest good. There is a wide diversity of opinion among Theocon ranks as to how much social engineering is needful.
Theocons have had some successes and some failures, but the main reason for the failures is that they have “failed, thus far, to capture the winnable political middle, either through compromise or through persuasion.” Douthat says this is in part due to the fickleness of public opinion. The result is that the business side of the conservative partnership largely rides roughshod over the Theocon side, occasionally tossing a bone to what they view as their somewhat loony junior partner.
The question posed is whether the Theocon movement will ultimately thrive, merely survive, or follow the path of many other noteworthy movements to history’s dustbin. Obviously the only way for them to thrive is to co-opt the great American middle. Douthat says Theocons must “[temper] their own bigotries and bad habits” while getting their message out.
My question is whether Theocons will be able to make that message palatable to middle America. A significant core seems to feel that this would require the abandonment of some principles deemed elemental to the movement. Basic Christian theology seeks willing converts to established principles, but rejects adopting worldly ways merely to win converts (although, Christians have not always followed these principles).
While Christians are willing to make friends with the world, many want to stay sufficiently aloof to remain unsullied. If getting ahead politically requires what they view as wallowing in the mire, this group will accept remaining a junior partner in politics. And there may be enough in this group to impact the entire Theocon movement.