The Theocon Agenda

A reader writes a long email, but it's so smart and insightful I'm running all of it. If you're tired of this debate, by all means skip it. But if you care about the future of individual freedom in America, read on:

"I've long debated whether to write you about this and other matters, but as a frequent reader I feel I can no longer remain silent.  Thank you for your follow up on Ramesh Ponnuru's comments in The Corner.  His attacks on your earlier blogging regarding prof. George were wholly unwarranted.

Bear with me as I digress ... You see, I was president of Princeton Pro-Life from 1993 until 1995 and president of Princeton College Republicans from 1992 until 1996.  I also studied in the politics department with Robert George (junior paper advisor 94-95; thesis advisor 95-96) and was a close associate of Father C. John McCloskey.  Ramesh Ponnuru was a class ahead of me and an avowedly moderate member of the conservative movement on campus at the time.

In the interest of full disclosure, my position is and always has been that the murder of abortion providers deserves the full application of state criminal sanctions regardless of spurious claims of moral justification.  Except in extreme cases, I do not support the criminalization of abortion -- there are far more effective and less conflictual means to reduce the number of abortions and ease our collective culture away from the attitude that life is disposable.  Further, I am gay and support full and equal legal rights, including marriage, for LGBT individuals and their families.  I also wholeheartedly endorse masturbation as a natural, normal and enjoyable part of physical existence.

So, onto the matter at hand: how could Ponnuru take offense at your characterization of Prof. George's position?  The good professor deliberately humorized the issue of whether killing abortionists is morally justified in an attempt to sidestep the logical conclusion to which his other views on abortion must necessarily lead.  Your emailer is exactly right - George has a predilection for cloaking his positions with the appearance of good-natured (though sometimes snide) humor, especially on issues where taking a genuine stand would cast him in an unfavorable light.  The piece you cite, along with your comments, illustrate this modus operandi perfectly, and Ramesh doesn't like that the cliched cat is out of the bag.  Ponnuru's attempts at rolling out "prudential" arguments notwithstanding, it's clear to me that much of their slipperiness is caused by the political environment, not their moral views.

Moreover, George's recommendation that Christians should pray for the redemption of abortion providers is beside the point - and Ponnuru knows better, but this is really just another dodge. It is quite possible to craft an internally consistent position that advocates praying for a transgressor's soul in this life and the next while also favoring a certain specific punishment (legal or otherwise) for his transgression.  And the idea that compassion requires taking a lighter view of killing fetuses seems a hollow one.  Would George and Ponnuru take a similar view about a certain mother who murdered her born children out of the "compassionate" view that doing so would relieve them from a great deal of suffering?  Would they take the same view with respect to a psychopath who has a mistaken but honestly held view of the worth of adult human life?  It's absurd if you ask me.

All that having been said, you've missed the point with George's statement that you cited on policing private sexual conduct.  This particular claim turns on whether government retains the power to regulate such behavior in the absence of an individual right to the contrary (George believes there is no broad federal right to privacy).  On the surface, his position seems closer to the following:  "There is no right to masturbation (or fill in the blank with sinful sexual acts of your choosing).  Thus, the states retain the power to criminalize it, but if I were a member of a legislature I might vote against such a law because it is unenforceable."  If this is his position, then it's really more about judicial review than outright advocacy of a particular substantive law, and it has appeal across a broad swath of the political spectrum.  It also appeals to me.

Of course, George and his allies ARE advocates for including the norms of their sexual morality in the law, but they prudently recognize that such controversial moral debates are likely to go against them on the national scale.  So, they stick to the more general, structural arguments and omit the real focus of their attention:  "Then again, I might vote for such laws because criminal prohibition of masturbation (or other sinful acts) would be 'instructive' regardless of whether it could be enforced, and my morality demands that the government strongly condemn non-generative sexual acts."

Is it a purely cynical move?  For some yes, for others no -- the structural arguments do have independent merit.  However, there's no denying that the theocon right has used this issue masterfully as a political tactic: attack the uses of judicial power that accomplish ends you disagree with as an incremental step toward your substantive goals.  This tactic has become both a shield and a hammer with which to build intellectual and political coalitions that chip away at "bad" precedents while ruffling as few feathers as possible by defending nominees and politicians from hard questions.

Would George and his allies really criminalize masturbation if they could? I don't know, but I sure wouldn't want to find out the hard way. I do know for a fact they would roll back Griswold, Roe, Lawrence, and the right to privacy, as most Americans understand it, in the hopes that they could secure regional political coalitions to recriminalize abortion, sodomy, and contraception - not to mention dispatching Roemer and repealing the few anti-discrimination laws protecting gays.  The ongoing experiement in South Dakota is proof that such coalitions are not only possible but probable, and I doubt it will end there substantively or geographically.  Many modern First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment protections likely face an equally uncertain future.

And you've hit the nail on the head -- these people are bright enough to know that their radical agenda would scare the pants off most Americans, even many Republicans (it scares me and I fall into both categories).  Thus, their best option is to engage in disingenuous rhetorical games designed to leave their opponents tied in intellectual and political knots, and with Roberts and Alito on the SCOTUS, they can smell victory around the corner. They most certainly don't want a bunch of hayseeds ruining it with their corn-belt idealism. Of course they get upset when you call them on it!

As for your tongue-in-cheek comments regarding Ponnuru's "hysteria", I can only say that I have always known him to hide himself behind various facades depending on the circumstances.  Liberal, moderate, conservative?  Whatever works at the moment."

For me, an instructive moment was when Rick Santorum insisted that he was only opposed to judicial activism in banning sodomy laws. Then he let it slip that he'd support an anti-sodomy law in his own state if the courts let legislatures decide. The theocons often use the legitimate judicial activism argument to conceal their real agenda. Gay people have borne the brunt of this so far, but we are not their ultimate targets. We're a tiny minority, easily beaten up on in the public discourse. But the broader aim is the policing of all private morality, straight or gay. You're next. But they're not exactly going to tell you that, are they?