Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Moral Welfare State

Conservatives rail constantly about the "handouts" that they claim government is giving the poor. Instead of making the poor work for their income, they are creating (as George Will puts it) a "culture of dependency" where the poor just mooch off the government. One conservative described it as "hard" vs. "soft" America, where the liberals were willing to coddle the poor while conservatives gave them "tough love," thus making them more likely to succeed.

I could spend a couple of columns arguing with this claim and its distortion of the liberal point of view. But let's ignore all that for the moment. There's a point here.

Keep in mind that these same conservatives are the people who believe that a constitutional amendment against gay marriage is a good idea. They are the same people who support government-sponsored prayer in schools. They scream and shout about the removal of "under God" from the official incarnation of the Pledge of Allegiance. In other words, they battle any effort to disestablish religion, despite the constitutional injunction to the contrary.

There's the major inconsistency in conservatism. Conservatives, through this so-called "moral" legislation, seek to establish a sort of moral welfare state. They exhort government to give religious "handouts" to people, whether they want them or not. While in their mindset it is bad to give people economic handouts, it is perfectly okay to tell them how to live their lives.

Conservatives are somehow deluded into believing that religious belief must be validated by appropriate government legislation. Somehow, removing "under God" from the official Pledge is an assault on the religious faith of people. Therefore, people must be coddled by putting religion in the Pledge. I think this is a severe underestimation of the religious willpower of the average American. I don't think that any of the religious people I know would be any less inclined to believe in God if God weren't in the Pledge.

The culture of religious dependency - the idea that the religious beliefs of Americans are dependent upon validation by the government - doesn't exist yet. But conservatives want it to exist. Their constant complaints about "taking God out of the public sphere" are evidence of this. A reasonable person recognizes that only Americans can take God out of the public sphere. But conservatives wish to attribute to the government a power which it does not possess - yet.

Continued unchecked, though, moral legislation will create a culture of dependency. By the constant government endorsement of monotheism, conservatives want to make people look to the government for help when determining what to believe. How is this any different than giving economic handouts - the very things that conservatives (wrongly) deride liberals for doing?

To use the language some conservative commentators use, liberals believe in religious "toughness." We believe that religion flourishes when people are forced to come about their beliefs on their own. Conservatives believe in religious "softness" - i.e. that religion is best given to people directly by the government. The choice is clear. Religious entitlements or freedom of conscience?


Anonymous said...

That's a good tack to take in an argument with religious conservatives. I'm going to use that!

-- Jacob

Mike said...

There is of course the greater irony, that true Christian values would strongly support the so-called "coddling" of the poor. There was no greater ally of the poor and destitute than J.C. himself, and I have a feeling he would sacrifice the mention of his name in the Pledge (because let's be honest, we all know it's a Christian God they're referring to) in favor of aiding the least of his brethren.

Anonymous said...

Being no fan of church-state mix, I still think your argument's a huge stretch.

Religious conservatives aren't really thinking in terms of government support...that is, it's not that religion will die w/o government support. In their view, the 10 Commandments in courtrooms and Under God in the pledge are just visible manifestations of an entire culture's collective movement away from God.

Let me mention an example from the private world. Joy Craun and a friend were praying together out on West End sometime a couple years back. As they were doing so, a Vandy student walked past and hissed at them. Yes, literally hissed. When Joy asked what was up with that, he just said "sorry, automatic reaction to prayer."

The Religious Right sees instances like that as intimately linked with, say, the movement to remove "Under God" from the Pledge: it's all evidence of a growing hostility toward the Christian God. And, just as ancient Israel slid into depravity and oppression when they abandoned God, so is America.

THIS IS NOT WHAT I BELIEVE but this is a basic summary of the Religious Right as I understand it. It's not that they think government is needed to coddle religion. It's that, to them, there's an all-out attack on religion on every front (political, cultural, you name it) and they feel the need to fight back on every front.

Anonymous said...

In case you didn't guess...that was me (Ben) who just posted that.

Jeff said...

Ben - I agree with your analysis of the motivation of religious conservatives. But while they believe that they are making the government more dependent on God, the effect would be exactly the inverse. I guess a necessary premise of my argument is that without church-state separation, people will learn to look to the government for validation of faith instead of to their community or within themselves. Thus, such attempts to "fight back" in the political sphere are nothing more than moral handouts which feed people pre-processed beliefs and make them dependent on the government for their morality - whatever their motivation. Therefore, this is at odds with their opposition to what they consider economic "handouts." Hope this clears things up a little... good point, though. I erred in not addressing religious conservatives' motivations in this column.

Anonymous said...

Your analogy still doesn't wash to me, but whatever. Perhaps it will to others.

- Ben

Anonymous said...

I think you're right, Ben, when it comes to many religious conservatives. However, if it were just a matter of wanting to fight anti-religious sentiments, I don't think we'd hear the common refrain that this is a "Christian nation." Many of them seem to take the view that differing religions should be tolerated, but Christianity (or Judeo-Christianity) should be promoted by the state in ways such as the Pledge or the 10 Commandments as legitimate expressions of the communal will.

-- Jacob