There’s a lot to admire about conservatives. By conservatives, I mean people who believe that when you cast aside the inherited wisdom of past generations in a bid to make society dramatically better, you usually make it worse. The problem with many in today’s Republican Party isn’t that they share this skepticism about change. It’s that they apply it selectively. When conservative principles restrain their country, their religion, their class, today’s conservative leaders cast them aside.
Take Newt Gingrich. Nothing angers Gingrich more than liberal “social engineers” who think they can radically reshape America just because some Ivy League professor told them they have big brains. And yet, when asked a public-policy question, Gingrich invariably promises to “dramatically, fundamentally, radically overhaul government policy from the ground up.” Isn’t there something unconservative about, for instance, casting aside more than a century of civil society laws just because big-brain Gingrich thinks they’re outmoded? It doesn’t matter, because those civil society laws help labor unions, a group that Gingrich and his corporate allies disdain.
Similarly, there was nothing conservative about believing in 2003 that you could level the Iraqi government and military, bring in some folks from the Federalist Society to draft a new constitution and investment code, and produce a model for the Arab world. But many right-wing politicians and pundits argued exactly that, because a genuinely conservative outlook would have restrained American power.
Which brings us to the burning of Qurans. Conservatives—even those who don’t believe in God—generally admire organized religion, as it has stood the test of time and helps buffer society against the destabilizing winds of cultural change. There’s nothing folks like Gingrich love more than to jump to the defense of religious believers disrespected by the power-hungry secular state. In recent weeks, for instance, Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Mitt Romney have whipped themselves into a fury over the Obama administration’s requirement that Catholic hospitals pay for contraception, a fury that didn’t stop when Obama amended the rule so women could get birth control directly from insurers. On CBS’s Face the Nation, Gingrich called “the war against the Catholic Church, which the Obama administration has launched ... the most outrageous assault on religious liberty in American history.” (It’s moments like these when Gingrich’s expertise as a historian—the same expertise for which Fannie Mae paid so dearly—comes in handy. Only a man of Gingrich’s subtle historical understanding could explain why Obama’s contraception rule constitutes a greater infringement on religious liberty than say, Oregon’s Compulsory Education Act of 1922, which made it a crime to attend Catholic school.)
But as it happens, in the same month that Gingrich and his fellow GOP contenders rose to defend the Catholic Church from White House assault, another group of Obama-administration employees, ones clad in fatigues, decided to burn some Qurans. Afghans responded by rioting, partly because many Afghans are devout Muslims and more likely because many already hate the U.S. occupation and are thus easy prey for people eager to undermine it.
Barack Obama, seeking to quell the violence, apologized for offending Muslim sensibilities, an apology widely praised by his Republican opponents for exhibiting a sensitivity to people of faith that liberal secularists rarely display. Actually, no. Santorum and Romney denounced the apology. Gingrich called it “astonishing,” noting that Obama “is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the president of the United States.” And who might those people be? Obama, after all, was not apologizing to the rioters in Afghanistan’s streets. He was apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and, through him, to those Afghan Muslims who might have been offended.
Why does respecting the religious sensitivities of Muslims bother Gingrich so much? For the same reason he compared the people who wanted to build an Islamic cultural center near ground zero to Nazis. And for the same reason that in 2010 he warned that “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Because when it comes to Muslims, Gingrich isn’t a true conservative, he’s a Christian (fine, Judeo-Christian) culture warrior, interested in no principle deeper than his team’s triumph over theirs. I’m sure many of the people rioting in Afghanistan’s streets feel exactly the same way.