Can Atheists Be Conservatives? Can Conservatives Be Atheists?

Sorry, Charlie.

That was what the Conservative Political Action Conference told the American Atheists recently when CPAC rescinded the atheists’ invitation to have a booth at the upcoming CPAC meeting.

The conservative planners apparently took offense to American Atheist leader David Silverman’s plans to shake up the meanings of American conservatism.  As Silverman told CNN,

Conservative isn’t a synonym for religious. . . .  I am not worried about making the Christian right angry. The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives. The Christian right should be threatened by us.

Threatened or not, conservative Christian leaders objected to the atheists’ presence at the meeting, a gathering that plans to attract 10,000 conservative activists to Maryland next week.  Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council crowed, if the atheists are welcomed, “they will have to pack up and put away the ‘C’ in CPAC!”

Other conservatives disagreed.  As the proudly atheist conservative Charles C. W. Cooke opined in the pages of National Review,

given the troubled waters into which American religious liberty has of late been pushed, it strikes me that conservatives ought to be courting atheists — not shunning them. I will happily take to the barricades for religious conscience rights, not least because my own security as a heretic is bound up with that of those who differ from me, and because a truly free country seeks to leave alone as many people as possible — however eccentric I might find their views or they might find mine. In my experience at least, it is Progressivism and not conservatism that is eternally hostile to variation and to individual belief, and, while we are constantly told that the opposite is the case, it is those who pride themselves on being secular who seem more likely and more keen to abridge my liberties than those who pride themselves on being religious.

From an historic point of view, Cooke seems to have the better of this argument.  As Jennifer Burns has argued, the atheism of Ayn Rand has played a crucial formative role in post-war American conservatism.  Though some contemporaries such as William F. Buckley rejected Rand precisely because of her atheism and her aggressive moral embrace of capitalism, later conservative leaders such as Paul Ryan proudly claimed Rand’s influence.

But even when Ryan did so, he explicitly rejected the atheism at the heart of Rand’s thinking.  David Silverman is asking CPAC to do something much more difficult: welcome conservative atheists as atheists, not in spite of their atheism.



President Carson 2016: The Education President?

What would a President Carson mean for education?

Recent reporting in the New York Times asks if prominent neurosurgeon Ben Carson is a 2016 GOP contender.  Carson has become hugely popular among conservatives.  In a recent speech at Conservative Political Action Conference, Carson received rousing applause when he mentioned that he had some good ideas . . . “if you should magically put me into the White House.”

Conservatives at CPAC loved Dr. Carson.  They should.  Carson has a dramatic life story and is a compelling public speaker.  His values are profoundly conservative.  He wants more public religiosity.  He wants a flat tax and a smaller public debt.  He wants America to beef up its military strength and return to a vision of the past in which Americans shared common values.

New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel noted that a recent Carson speech at a National Prayer Breakfast “criticized the health care overhaul and higher taxes on the rich, while warning that ‘the PC police are out in force at all times.’” True enough.  But those were just the starting points and final words of Carson’s half-hour talk.  By far the bulk of Carson’s address concerned the vital importance of education.

I wonder if reporter Gabriel ignored the bulk of Carson’s speech because Gabriel considered education to somehow be of lesser political interest than health care and tax policy.  If that’s the case, Gabriel couldn’t be more wrong.

Check out the speech itself if you have thirty minutes to spare.  You’ll see that Dr. Carson focused almost entirely on traditional conservative themes in educational policy and reform.

First of all, Carson lamented the sad state of American public education.  Citing statistics about high high-school dropout rates and low college completion rates, Carson deplored the fact that too many Americans are not getting a good education.  This had echoes of the ugly history of slavery, when it was illegal to educate a slave.  The lesson, Carson insisted, is clear: “When you educate a man you liberate a man.”

Carson shared his own remarkable educational history.  As a child, he grew up in a very poor household.  His mother had been married at age thirteen, soon abandoned by her bigamist husband.  She herself had only attained a third-grade education.  But she insisted ferociously that her two sons would be different.

She required young Ben and his brother to write two book reports per week for her to review.  Eventually, of course, Dr. Carson went on to his spectacular career as a leading pediatric neurosurgeon.

In Carson’s prayer-breakfast speech, he argued that Americans had always loved formal education.  But recently, Carson complained, “We have dumbed things down.”

That is not okay, Carson insisted.  America’s form of government requires a well-informed citizenry.  That is why Dr. Carson offers two programs for low-income youth: a college scholarship fund and reading rooms in low-income public schools.

Education, Carson promised, will prevent criminality.

More important, education will prevent cultural decay and decadence.  Look at Ancient Rome, Carson said.  “They destroyed themselves from within.  Moral decay, fiscal irresponsibility.”  The same thing could happen to the United States, Carson worried, if we don’t beef up our education system.

So what would a President Carson do for education?  Could he combine traditionally leftist education policies—such as financial assistance for the lowest income schools and students—with traditionally rightist policies—such as teaching traditional values and public religiosity in schools?

Even the superhuman brain surgeon himself couldn’t answer that.  But it is worth more consideration than some journalists and commentators seem willing to give it.