Conservative writers Andrew Sullivan and William Kristol '73 debated the nature of conservatism and its relation to virtue in a debate last night at the ARCO Forum.
The panel, which drew an audience of over 1.30 to the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), had been co-sponsored by the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Supporters' Alliance, but the organization withdrew its support due to the participation of moderator Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53.
Sullivan, a columnist for the New Republic, took the position that the modern American right has strayed from basic conservative principals, while Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard, debated the opposite side.
"Conservatism has traditionally been about setting limits on government power," Sullivan said in his opening remarks. "Recently the conservative movement has become rotten in terms of its own principles."
Sullivan said the shift in the values of self-styled conservatives has been particularly noticeable in three areas: the recent impeachment crisis and the conflicts over abortion and homosexuality.
"I believe in a conservatism that can embrace all Americans against the problem of overweening government," said.
But in recent years, Sullivan said, conservatives have strayed from their first principles. Instead of protecting the liberties of American citizens, the movement has become "a religious movement for changing people's beliefs about some of the most fundamental things imaginable."
In his reply, Kristol disputed the idea that traditional conservatism steers clear of moral judgments.
"Conservatism was never just about limiting government," he said. "I believe that amoralism is more of a threat to this country than moralism."
Kristol also said he believes change will have to occur incrementally.
"Some things will have to be changed through persuasion, others through a combination of persuasion and law," he said.
For example, he said, he would support a constitutional amendment banning abortion as a "matter of principle," although he prefers returning the decision to the states.
[Sullivan] is disingenuous in saying the tradition of American conservatism is limited to the narrow field he says it is," Kristol said.
He said that Sullivan's support of same-sex marriage rights proceeds from moral principles.
"It's hard to tell the other side that they can't make arguments based on first principles and on morals," he said.
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