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That was what the Conservative Political Action Conference told the American Atheists recently when CPAC rescinded the atheists’ invitation to have a booth at the upcoming CPAC meeting.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

Boo!

Boo!

In the News: Anti-Fundamentalist Hate Crime?

FRC President Tony Perkins.

According to a story from Religion News Service, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of inciting a hate crime against them on Wednesday.  The irony is beyond painful.  The SPLC has long been a leading voice identifying and condemning right-wing hate violence.  Is Perkins’ accusation a mere stunt? Or does the SPLC have to acknowledge its role in this crime?

On Wednesday, Floyd Lee Corkins II allegedly entered an FRC office in Washington DC and shot unarmed security guard Leo Johnson in the arm.

FRC President Perkins blamed the SPLC for inciting this violent act.  Perkins claimed,

“Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been reckless in labeling organizations as hate groups because they disagree with them on public policy.”

The SPLC has, in fact, accused the FRC of some despicable actions.  According to the SPLC, the FRC demonizes homosexuality.  FRC leaders, according to the SPLC, have publicly advocated the expulsion of all homosexuals from the USA.  The FRC, according to the SPLC, has also equated homosexuality with pedophilia.  These are not insignificant claims.

As Chris Lisee reported for Religion News Service, the alleged shooter had been an activist at some local gay-rights organizations.  Even more curious, he had been carrying a large bag of Chick-fil-A sandwiches.  The symbolism seems unmistakeable.  After all, given the recent culture-war dust-up over Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, a gay activist might not usually purchase fifteen sandwiches from the chain.  Fox News claims that just before opening fire,  Corkins said, “I don’t like your politics.”

So was this an anti-fundamentalist hate-crime?  Can the SPLC be held accountable?  The SPLC’s Mark Potok called the FRC claim “outrageous.”   Other gay-rights organizations quickly condemned the shooting.  Potok’s defense makes an important point.  The FRC shooting was a tragedy, Potok claimed, but Perkins was cynically taking advantage of this event to claim a “false equivalency” between the FRC and other victims of hate crimes.

Nevertheless, Perkins’ accusation raises important questions.  As we’ve seen with other recent culture-war violence, such as the deadly shootings at the Sikh temple near Milwaukee, the dangers of escalating America’s culture war are real.  Language that demonizes the opposition hurts us all.  The solution must be more along the lines of Matthew Lee Anderson’s and John Corvino’s response to the Chick-fil-A affair: we must talk to one another.  Openly, honestly, and even painfully and awkwardly, if necessary.  We don’t need to agree, and we must avoid the false solution of merely papering over our disagreements.  But we must also all agree–as most groups do in this case–that violence is not part of these discussions.