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Yesterday morning, I bookmarked a Reagan speech to which John Hawkins linked on his main page, my intention being to read it while I ate lunch. Before that break had arrived, a layer of dispirited frustration had coated my general sense of loss as a result of Andrew Sullivan's telling and predictable emphasis while writing about Reagan. From his initial reaction:
he paid respect to religion but never turned Republicanism into what it is today - a repository for sectarian scolding
Expanded the next day, first in context of the Texas GOP's platform:
If you want to know why someone who loved Ronald Reagan can no longer support the Republican Party, then the extremism of George W. Bush's own party in his home state is Exhibit A.
Then, answering the question, "What does Reagan's legacy demand of us now?"
... he would not have played the anti-gay card that Karl Rove has; and he would never have recast his party into one where only fundamentalist Christians are ultimately, fully at home. Unlike Bush, Reagan was a man of ideas, an intellectual, a man who had thought long and hard about the world and developed keen ideas about what was needed to fix its problems. ...
It is a long road from [Reagan's benign, chuckling steeliness] to the dour cynicism of Karl Rove and joyless puritanism of John Ashcroft. There was always the old Democrat in Reagan's new Republican, a deep sense of civility, a wry sense of humor, a faith leavened with skepticism, a conservatism informed by liberalism's faith in the future. It is not too late to rescue this legacy from the clutches of today's acidic, sectarian GOP. But time is running out.
As did Ramesh Ponnuru, I saw this as an instance of the manifest and active desire of some "for a Reagan in their own image." The dispirited frustration mentioned above was not unlike the feeling a child has when, throughout the course of playing a game, his cousin simply claims all of the pieces for himself. There is no effort, on Sullivan's part, to take Reagan as common ground with those who oppose same-sex marriage and thereby to pursue understanding and resolution.
So then I ate lunch and read Reagan's 1984 remarks at an ecumenical prayer breakfast in Dallas:
I believe that faith and religion play a critical role in the political life of our nation -- and always has -- and that the church -- and by that I mean all churches, all denominations -- has had a strong influence on the state. And this has worked to our benefit as a nation.
Those who created our country -- the Founding Fathers and Mothers -- understood that there is a divine order which transcends the human order. They saw the state, in fact, as a form of moral order and felt that the bedrock of moral order is religion. ...
George Washington referred to religion's profound and unsurpassed place in the heart of our nation quite directly in his Farewell Address in 1796. Seven years earlier, France had erected a government that was intended to be purely secular. This new government would be grounded on reason rather than the law of God. By 1796 the French Revolution had known the Reign of Terror.
Is this merely an example of what Sullivan means when he writes that Reagan "exploited the religious right"? If so, his exploitation was thorough, gigantic, apocalyptically cynical.
The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality's foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. We need religion as a guide. We need it because we are imperfect, and our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they're sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.
Recall that, last June, Sullivan declared the Republican party mere steps from imposing theocracy because Bill Frist called marriage a "sacrament" that overlaps with the "legal entity of a union between... a man and a woman." Taking that as the measuring scale, Sullivan has a Lewisian choice: Ronald Reagan was either a wicked liar or a "theocon," by the Daily Disher's definition.
Now, Sullivan could point to Reagan's calls, within the speech, for tolerance of all religions and even of non-religion. Although requiring quite a reach to same-sex marriage, that would raise a valid field of discussion, essentially addressing whether such tolerance necessarily draws a distinction between Reagan and Frist whether Reagan's insistence that we "mandate no belief" would have made the transition from private practice to public institution, or whether he would have sided with traditionalists in this instance of applying "moral teaching to public questions."
It would go beyond my knowledge, into presumptuous dishonesty, were I to claim to know. However, one needn't have extensive understanding of Reagan's views to observe that Sullivan assumes, as is his wont, that there are no exits before support for same-sex marriage from opposition, for example, to laws barring homosexuals from teaching in public schools. This simplistic progression is fine, as a personal belief, but a public intellectual ought to be able to trace the thinking of the other side in all of its complexity. Instead, Sullivan claims for his policy preference the inevitable cloak of "modernity," about which Reagan "was definitely more easy-going... than the current Republican leadership." But modernity, whatever its definition, changes from decade to decade.
Sullivan cites the public school example in his reply to Ponnuru. Widening the gap between the two issues is that California's 1978 ballot initiative Proposition 6 included, as public homosexual conduct, "advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity." As part of his statement against it, Reagan wondered whether even opposition to the proposition, if it had passed, might be considered advocacy. The distinctions are manifold. Surely there are people who opposed or would have opposed Proposition 6, then, who also oppose public recognition of same-sex marriage, now, and I'd argue that Reagan would have been among them.
In his speech at the prayer breakfast, Reagan traced the judiciary's assault on public expression of religion, beginning with the 1962 case in which the Supreme Court "banned compulsory saying of prayers" and expanding from there, until:
Today there are those who are fighting to make sure voluntary prayer is not returned to the classrooms. And the frustrating thing for the great majority of Americans who support and understand the special importance of religion in the national life -- the frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance, freedom, and openmindedness.
Such arguments are very much in line with those presented against same-sex marriage particularly judicial imposition thereof. Isn't there direct route from Reagan's stated position on public religion in 1984 to opposition to SSM now? Aren't there lines crossed between standing up for homosexual teachers in 1978 and advocating for the redefinition of marriage now? Of course. Many conservatives including myself drew the line on the tolerant side of the sodomy issue.
Reagan expressed one more truth, on that August morning in 1984, that Sullivan seems to have forgotten:
When John Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he said that his church would not dictate his Presidency any more than he would speak for his church. Just so, and proper. But John Kennedy was speaking in an America in which the role of religion -- and by that I mean the role of all churches -- was secure. Abortion was not a political issue. Prayer was not a political issue. The right of church schools to operate was not a political issue. And it was broadly acknowledged that religious leaders had a right and a duty to speak out on the issues of the day. They held a place of respect, and a politician who spoke to or of them with a lack of respect would not long survive in the political arena.
Can Andrew Sullivan not step outside of his advocacy far enough to see, from a social conservative's perspective, the differences between America now and the America that watched Ronald Reagan leave office? Let alone the California of 1978. I think he can or at least he once could but that it requires a proximity of sympathy that his activism precludes.Posted by Justin Katz at June 8, 2004 2:36 PM