R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, a leading voice for Catholic conservatives, spoke recently of the challenges facing the Catholic conservative movement. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/our-challenges One of the heartening themes of the essay was a concern over the libertarian excesses of the Republican party coupled with a concern that religious people may become taken for granted in that party and that religion may end up implicated in the “inevitable failures and corruptions of the Republican Party.” The Republican Party, in Reno’s eyes, has become “undisciplined and its political culture exotic, often to the point of embarrassment.” If its libertarian themes become more pronounced, “religious people in general may find themselves at once more dependent on and alienated from American conservatism.”
I do not find this heartening because I think Catholic conservatives will leave the Republican Party. Nor do I think that First Things will lead the way for a revival of moderate Republicans within the party. (For an excellent book on the downfall of the moderate Republicans, see Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin). I do take solace in the opposition to a hedonistic, materialist, and individualistic culture. The press for some moderation from an anti-materialist, communitarian direction seems entirely welcome.
On the other hand, Reno’s essay is marred by the failure to come to grips with the sociology of religion. The tone is triumphalist in declaring victory given the decline of mainline Protestantism. But Anglo-Catholics have left the Catholic Church in percentages that virtually mirror the decline in mainline Protestantism. In the absence of immigration, the similarity between the two in terms of decline would be obvious. Even more important, Reno maintains that in appealing to the “nones” – those who do not affiliate with any organized religion, the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign in particular took a “tacitly anti-religious stance.” Let us leave aside that President Obama is a religious person. Reno paints a picture of religious people being conservative against the secularists being liberal. Aside from ignoring the existence of the religious left and the decline of the evangelicals which corresponded with the rise of the nones, the notion that the nones are not religious depends upon a contestable definition of the term. As Putnam and Campbell have documented in American Grace few of the nones are agnostics or atheists; most of them believe in God and the afterlife. Their numbers have risen as a backlash against religious conservatism. They are uncomfortable with the extremism of institutional religion. That does not make them secular.
So the agenda of First Things is more complicated. Instead of triumphalism, it needs to ask why Anglo Catholics are leaving the Church in such high numbers and whether that is a problem. It needs to stop pretending that religious people are overwhelmingly conservatives (though concededly most who go to church vote Republican) and that the Democratic Party is anti-religious (though concededly the relatively small percentage of atheists and agnostics in the U.S. vote Democratic). It needs to recognize that the business wing of the Republican Party controls the governing process and that the interests of the business wing are often at odds with the aims of religious conservatives. Perhaps religious conservatives need to discuss whether the campaign finance rules that give business such power in elections and concomitant influence in governing are really to their benefit.