Recently, a good friend of mine summed up their interpretation of conservatism today as, I got mine, now you go get yours. They saw the entire political philosophy as little more than an unfeeling ideology that is lacking in compassion and morality.
Such sentiment is not surprising when it comes from those on the political left, who reflexively oppose conservatism's core principles. However, this friend is not a liberal; he is on the right of the ideological spectrum. And he, like me, are exasperated at how the conservative movement has abandoned the very principles of morality they once championed.
There has been a remarkable erosion of compassion from conservatism, which is particularly evident among conservative and religious leaders, as well as figures that align themselves with the Republican Party. They have willfully walked away from evangelizing how conservatism is a vehicle by which to improve the general welfare of the public in favor of espousing a warped ideology that is, at best, apathetic to problems in society, but more likely devoid of warmth and kindness toward those facing such problems.
Nowhere is this erosion of morality more apparent than in the interview with Jerry Falwell Jr. published in the Washington Post earlier this week.
Falwell repeatedly argued that the United States government and its leaders have no duty to be moral on an individual level, provided that they do what he feels is in the best interest of the country as an institution. He even insinuated that a view of the state — that poor behavior by leaders attempting to help the country should not be subject to moral judgment — is one that Jesus Christ would support.
Falwell’s position, of course, is a striking departure from the ideas of the Moral Majority, the political organization — who sought to promote candidates who put forth firm moral standards — founded by his late father, Jerry Falwell, in 1979.
To Falwell, the 2018 midterm elections were a major victory for Donald Trump and his agenda, and thus were proof that Trump’s own immorality and behavior were permissible. (Never mind the fact that the voters sent the exact opposite message.) He revealed how he sees recent events as affirmation of his own conscious choice to shy away from demanding moral behavior of our leaders: It's excusable because the barometer of good leadership is the strength of the economy, as well as the low unemployment rate for minorities and the poor.
Most egregious was his view of the less fortunate and the poor. “A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume.”
Not only does Falwell completely ignore the positive contributions to society of those with fewer means — if anything, studies have found the poor are more charitable than the rich, and Jesus himself infamously said as much — but he presents a viewpoint that they are somehow not as valuable to society in general. This conviction syncs perfectly with and reinforces the attacks made by the left that conservatives are only interested in the wealthy and do not care about the poor or minorities.
And Falwell’s response to his critics? "It may be immoral for them not to support him" because their criticism of Trump’s behavior mean that they are preventing the less fortunate from being aided. It is the logic of a toddler.
While these are the words of one man — albeit one influential in both conservative religious and political circles — they are reflective of an attitude being adopted by an increasing number of prominent figures within conservative circles.
It's not simply rabid Trump supporters: Influential conservative leaders regularly excuse or ignore immoral actions from others in our movement and foment a pernicious distrust and fear of others among yet further conservatives, while telling their followers that they should not show compassion for their fellow man if he isn't a part of the America he likes. We see this every single day on social media and on talk radio, where these conservative “icons” push their callous indifference to the plight of others.
That is not conservatism; it is sadism.
And this brings me back to the discomfort of my friend, who feels frustrated by the noxious tone rising within conservatism. They and others recognize that not only is this moral rot a major deviation from the soul of our beliefs, but that it also has political consequences.
Our political opponents have long painted Republican and conservative candidates as being willing to excuse the sins of our allies. Until recently, this was a false notion: Republicans forced Newt Gingrich out as Speaker of the House in the 90s partially due to moral issues; his replacement, Bob Livingston resigned in disgrace due to sexual impropriety. More recently, the establishment pushed for the resignations of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, Arizona Representative Trent Franks and Texas Representative Blake Farenthold due to sexual misconduct and other sins.
But when it comes to Trump, the self-interested moral pygmies of the party are proving our detractors correct and doing so at the worst possible time.
The midterms in November made it abundantly clear that the Republican Party needs to broaden its attractiveness within the American electorate in order to avoid future electoral calamity — and it must do so by appealing to some of the very groups that many of the loudest voices within our party routinely insult or belittle.
We used to elevate conservatives who stood by their ideological principles, especially when inconvenient, because that was a sign of a positive character. Opponents might not have agreed, but they were respected within the community. Now, sects of conservatism see these very virtues — kindness, compassion, sympathy for one’s fellow man, tolerance of our differences — as something that should be cast out, while they ignore the self-evident abandonment of conviction and compassion in their own ranks.
The conservatism being embraced and espoused today by figures like Falwell is not conservatism at all. They claim the mantle of righteousness while justifying their failure to stand up for what is moral. This very attitude is more than a perversion of conservatism; it is a stain on its soul. Conservatism and America are worse off because of it.