On the eve of the Conservative Political Action Committee gathering in Washington DC this Wednesday, over eighty conservative leaders led by former US Attorney General Edwin Meese unveiled a manifesto reaffirming the principles of what they call “constitutional conservatism.”
The Mount Vernon Statement is a twenty-first century appreciation of the conscience of America’s Founders. The constitution, it declares, “created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law.” The Founding Fathers “sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.” These principles define the United States and “are responsible for a prosperous, just nation unlike any other in the world.”
Although publicly, these conservatives stress that they are not trying to change a recipe that has thus far proved successful for the Tea Party protests, their statement does share the grassroots movement’s fear that, “Each one of these founding ideas is presently under sustained attack.” Politically, both Democrats and Republicans have undermined and redefined the backbone of Americanism whereas on the moral plane, “The selfevident truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist.”
The initiative is “not a partisan effort” therefore. “It’s a philosophical effort,” according to Colin A. Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, who appeared on Fox News Thursday morning to talk about the document.
Hanna spoke of a “contemporary restatement of [our] founding principles,” upon which, he claimed, “the entire conservative movement rests.” Sadly, that is not quite true, though the Tea Parties and the newfound tone of Republican legislators combined do appear to represent a moral conservative backlash against perceived government encroachment of individual liberties.
Limited government, individual liberty and free-market enterprise are at the core of this conservative appeal which harkens back to the more libertarian days of Senator Barry Goldwater.
During the 1950s and 60s, Goldwater singlehandedly revitalized the GOP by redefining the meaning of American conservatism. “I do not undertake to promote welfare,” he wrote in The Conscience of A Conservative (1960), “for I propose to extend freedom.” Repeatedly, Goldwater stressed the importance of constitutional conservatism. Misinterpreting the meaning of equality, he said in 1964, “leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”
As the influence of the Christian Right within the party grew from the 1980s onward, Goldwater became increasingly disillusioned with its positions on issues as abortion, gay rights and the waning separation of Church and State.
The signers of Mount Vernon Statement aren’t entirely willing to distance themselves from the “family values” conservatism that previously ensured Republicans such electoral success. Although the declaration “recognizes man’s self-interest” it also values his “capacity for virtue.” How this virtue is to be understood is left ambiguous although, supposedly, constitutional conservatism “informs [a] firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.”
Goldwater, an Episcopal his whole life, wasn’t afraid to contend that faith had no place in politics. In September 1981, he spoke before the Senate and said that, “On religious issues there can be little or no compromise.”
I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
As late as 1994, four years before his death, Goldwater warned that should ever the Republican Party turn into a “religious organization”, Americans could “kiss politics goodbye.”
If modern-day conservatives truly intend to redefine their philosophy while appealing to proponents of individual liberty and limited government from both sides of the political spectrum, they must, no matter its prior success, abandon their religious wing and attest that America is no Christian nation foremost but a country rooted in freedom and free-market enterprise.