Friday, November 26, 2010

Conservatism's Founding Father on the Christian Right

Barry Goldwater was more than just a five-term United States Senator from Arizona; he was indisputably the founding father of modern American conservatism.

During his campaign for the presidency as the Republican nominee in 1964, Goldwater mobilized an entire generation of dormant conservative ideologues and helped the group once dismissed as "the radical right" take control of a party they hadn't been able to dominate since the days of Herbert Hoover. Major right-wing figures from Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to Rush Limbaugh and Charles Krauthammer are all Goldwater's direct beneficiaries - and have admitted to being so.

That is why I thought it would be interesting to devote a blog article to some of the thoughts he had about the Christian Right, a group that also began its political activism due to his election bid but with whom he eventually became disenchanted.

We began walking separate roads, however, when the New Right began pushing special social agendas involving legitimate legal, religious, and other differences. I support much of what they say, but not at the risk of compromising constitutional rights. Nor do I believe Republicans should splinter into a wrecking crew of special interests as the Democrats have done. And that is where these narrow but gifted men have been leading us.

For years, the New Right preached little or no spirit of compromise - political give-and-take. Viguerie, Weyrich, and others failed to appreciate that politics is the ordinary stuff of daily living, while the spiritual life represents eternal values and goals. Public business - that's all politics is - is often making the best of a mixed bargain. Instead, the New Right stresses the politics of absolute moral right and wrong. And, of course, they are convinced of their absolute rightness.

James Madison, the father of our Constitution, once wrote, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." But men are not angels, and government is necessary. We settle our daily battles by reason and law, not on the basis of narrow interests or individual religious beliefs. Madison said the great paradox of representative government is this: How does a nation control its factions without violating people's basic freedoms?

Our Constitution seeks to allow freedom for everyone, not merely those professing certain moral or religious views of ultimate right.

We don't have to look back centuries to see such dangers. Look at the carnage in the name of religious righteousness in Iran. The long and bloody division of Northern Ireland. The Christian-Moslem and Moslem-Moslem "holy war" in Lebanon.

Barry Goldwater also had some interesting views on the issue of allowing homosexuals to openly serve in the military.

After more than 50 years in the military and politics, I am still amazed to see how upset people can get over nothing. Lifting the ban on gays in the military isn’t exactly nothing, but it’s pretty damned close.

Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar. They’ll still be serving long after we’re all dead and buried. That should not surprise anyone.

But most Americans should be shocked to know that while the country’s economy is going down the tubes, the military has wasted half a billion dollars over the past decade chasing down gays and running them out of the armed services. It’s no great secret that military studies have proved again and again that there’s no valid reason for keeping the ban on gays.

Some thought gays were crazy, but then found that wasn’t true. Then they decided that gays were a security risk, but again the Department of Defense decided that wasn’t so. In fact, one study by the Navy in 1956 that was never made public found gays to be good security risks. Even Larry Korb, President Reagan’s man in charge of implementing the Pentagon ban on gays, now admits that it was a dumb idea. No wonder my friend Dick Cheney, secretary of defense under President Bush, called it “a bit of an old chestnut.”

When the facts lead to one conclusion, I say it’s time to act, not to hide. The country and the military know that eventually the ban will be lifted. The only remaining questions are how much muck we will all be dragged through, and how many brave Americans like Tom Paniccia and Margarethe Cammermeyer will have their lives and careers destroyed in a senseless attempt to stall the inevitable.

Some in congress think I’m wrong. They say we absolutely must continue to discriminate, or all hell will break loose. Who knows, they say, perhaps our soldiers may even take up arms against each other.

Well, that’s just stupid.

Years ago, I was a lieutenant in charge of an all-black unit. Military leaders at the time believed that blacks lacked leadership potential – period. That seems ridiculous now, as it should. Now, each and every man and woman who serves this nation takes orders from a black man – our own Gen. Colin Powell.

Nobody thought that blacks or women could ever be integrated into the military. Many thought that an all-volunteer force could never protect our national interest. Well, it has, and despite those who feared the worst – I among them – we are still the best and will continue to be.

The point is that decisions are always a lot easier to make in hindsight. But we seldom have that luxury. That’s why the future of our country depends on leadership, and that’s what we need now.

I served in the armed forces. I have flown more than 150 of the best fighter planes and bombers this country manufactured. I founded the Arizona National Guard. I chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. And I think it’s high time to pull the curtains on this charade of policy. What should undermine our readiness would be a compromise policy like “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” That compromise doesn’t deal with the issue – it tries to hide it.

We have wasted enough precious time, money and talent trying to persecute and pretend. It’s time to stop burying our heads in the sand and denying reality for the sake of politics. It’s time to deal with this straight on and be done with it. It’s time to get on with more important business.

The conservative movement, to which I subscribe, has as one of its basic tenets the belief that government should stay out of people’s private lives. Government governs best when it governs least – and stays out of the impossible task of legislating morality. But legislating someone’s version of morality is exactly what we do by perpetuating discrimination against gays.

When you get down to it, no American able to serve should be allowed, much less given an excuse, not to serve his or her country. We need all our talent.

If I were in the Senate today, I would rise on the Senate floor in support of our commander in chief. He may be a Democrat, but he happens to be right on this question.

In short, it makes sense that, in his later years, Barry Goldwater made the following observation about the Christian Right to "The Washington Post":

When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.

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