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That Old-Time Religion

I’ll take Heston and Buckley over Huckabee and Bush

By Daniel C. Barbero, None

Charlton Heston, the great screen actor who graced sets from the Egypt of the Old Testament to the Planet of the Apes, passed away a few days ago. A notable conservative who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., he would later serve as the president of the National Rifle Association. Before the onset of the Alzheimer’s that claimed his life, Heston was often just a punch line for jokes about Soylent Green and gun nuts, but in truth he was a lot more than that.

His passing, like that of William Buckley, godfather of modern conservatism, is part of a broader tragedy of the American political landscape. There may have been a lot to dislike about the old right—Buckley initially supported segregation, for example, and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was marred by the Iran-Contra unpleasantness—but there was a lot to like about it, too. And when faced with the Republican Party of today, I don’t care who you are—you’ll find yourself missing that old-time religion.

Following the “liberal consensus” of the postwar era that invaded Vietnam and ushered in the economic crisis of the 1970s, the movement that trumpeted economic freedom, individualism, and rational foreign policy made understandable electoral sense. Under Reagan, the Carter malaise was reversed, and economic policies were put in place that Clinton and the Bushes left untouched with great success. Communism fell without a missile fired, and foreign policy was managed without disastrous invasions; when Bush Sr. invaded Kuwait, he resisted the temptation to follow Saddam’s forces back to Baghdad, with his Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney, predicting a “quagmire.” Gingrich pared down the unwieldy federal government and reformed the broken welfare system, and William Buckley called for an end to the senseless war on drugs .

What killed off this old-time religion of freedom-loving pragmatism? First of all, it was religion. For all of the ideals of the movement, it was an alliance with God-and-guns evangelicals that brought Reagan to power. However, neither Reagan nor Bush Sr. were born-again zealots: under their leadership, abortion, school prayer, and other banner issues of the megachurches remained untouched.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The sitting Bush administration has dedicated more and more lip service to hot topics like gay marriage. And in 2008, Huckabee—a man who really puts the Bible into Bible Belt—surged in the primaries, even after McCain was the obvious winner. He may have lost, but this was as close to an open revolt as you can get amongst Republicans; dissatisfied with past administrations, evangelicals decided to collect on their bargain with the American right.

The other force that demolished the stately edifice of old conservatism was Bush himself. During his tenure, federal spending has risen at an average rate unmatched by any president since Lyndon B. Johnson—those ‘small government principles’ were unceremoniously trashed. And in the name of the War on Terror, the Republicans have become the party of the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act, which effectively put paid to habeas corpus and a slew of other civil liberties.

Where is the party that opposed Clinton’s interventions in Kosovo and ran explicitly against nation-building in 2000? The neoconservative jihad in Iraq has managed to conflate conservatism itself with perpetual warfare: A solid 65% of Republicans still support the management of the war.

McCain, the candidate to preserve the Republican regime, is notably not of the evangelical persuasion, but he has prostrated himself before them, trumpeting his opposition to abortion and promising to nominate socially conservative judges—and he’ll be held to those promises. He is also unabashed about his strong belief in the wonders of military solutions to our problems, is no tax-cutter himself, and has pushed for federal control of everything from baseball to cigarettes , elements perhaps overlooked during the collective swooning of newspaper editorial boards.

We’re far from the days when Ronald Reagan, in his 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater, promised America the “ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order.” Until it finds its way back out of this mess, the Republican elite promises us a platform of war abroad, and a massive, intrusive government at home. To paraphrase Heston, they can have this country when they can pry it from our cold, dead hands.

Daniel C. Barbero ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.

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