Contact Conservatism

Bearing has an interesting post up which I suspect reflects the political experience of many serious Catholics over the last twenty five years. The whole thing is worth reading, but I’m quoting it extensively because I think the point she’s making is interesting and widely applicable:

I entered full communion with the Catholic church at the Easter Vigil in 1993, when I was a freshman in college…. A couple of years after that, I had a second conversion in which I was forced to realize that I could not be simultaneously a believing Catholic and a supporter of legal abortion. (Why it took me so long is another story again. Hint: There were some serious problems in that particular RCIA program.)

My first vote was cast for Clinton, and my sympathies lay with Democrats in general, and I was in particular strongly anti-capital-punishment (still am). So I went through a certain period of gritted-teeth mourning about that….

I argued with myself about it for a long time, and I read the arguments of Catholics who honestly argued that there were proportionate reasons to vote for candidates despite their support for legal abortion, and I read the arguments of Catholics who honestly argued that the standards for what’s “proportionate” have to be very high indeed, and I struggled with it, and ultimately I became convinced that practically nothing else in the current political climate is proportionately serious. I remain sympathetic to people who have not become so convinced, and I acknowledge that greater or more urgent evils could arise, but I’m certain of my own position now. Not really happy about it, but certain.

I find myself voting for a lot of Republicans, and I have been for a while. When I first started, it was hard to do and I didn’t much like it. But it has gotten easier. For one thing, as time has gone on (and especially after I had children — I know not everyone has that reaction, but many do, and I’m one) I’ve felt less conflicted and more confident about my decision to give so much weight to abortion policy when making up my mind about candidates.

But another reason it’s gotten easier? Over the years I’ve started paying more attention to the content of the arguments of the people I’ve been voting for, and really trying to hear them out. And a lot of it has made more sense to me than I expected it to, way back when….

Anyway, my point? If the Democrats had been a little bit more ideologically diverse, they might have kept me. As it is, the longer I spend voting Republican because I feel I ought to, the more I seem to be drawn towards conservative and/or libertarian policies that are unrelated or only marginally related to life issues, and the more I seem to be repelled by many progressive policies.

From the inside, I can report that it certainly seems that the shift in my thinking is the result of being rationally convinced by many of these arguments. And I still hold a number of positions that are generally associated with liberals rather than conservatives (for instance, I still don’t like capital punishment), and I still wind up being pissed off at people I vote for from time to time because they violate other principles I hold dear (hello, expanded domestic surveillance? excuses for torture?) so it’s not like it’s been a universal move to the right. Plus, sometimes the left-right continuum has seemed to spin around beneath me: I’m practically a free-speech absolutist, and efforts to control speech all seem to be coming from the left these days, what’s up with that?

But I do think it is fair to acknowledge the possibility that my political positions are at least partly due to a subconscious desire for less cognitive dissonance.

Of course, if it’s true for me it’s probably true for a lot of people.

I like this post because it was something which summarized what I had myself thought for quite some time. In my case, I was heavily conservative on many issues (my own main exception being immigration) from a very early age — but I’ve noticed more and more over the years that serious Catholics I know who I would not think of as being political seem to gradually get drawn into strongly conservative stands on a number of essentially secular issues. I think this is very much a result of the long standing association of the pro-life, pro-family movements with the wider conservative one.

At the same time, I think there’s a reverse effect: The influx of serious “life issues” voters into the conservative movement has also helped to change conservatism. Who, for instance, would have imagined Senator Brownback’s work on AIDS relief for Africa to be seen as a conservative project back in the Goldwater days. And yet few would question Brownback’s conservative credentials.

21 Responses to Contact Conservatism

  1. Gerard E. says:

    The phenomenon is among the good fruits of the pro-life movement. Like Catholic younguns standing with fundamentalist elders and Orthodox Jewish rabbis at the D.C. Mall every February 22. Or a major hardcore teevee fundy minister, John Hagee, disavowing any real or imagined anti-Catholic sentiments to express his admiration for our own Benedictus Magnus. Or a bright, conscientious young man like see above getting older, more orthodox Catholic, and horrors more conservative. Attention Iafrate or the other folk who occasionally get snotty on this blog- these are the people for whom you claim to speak. Doesn’t work that way.

  2. John Henry says:

    “I’ve noticed more and more over the years that serious Catholics I know who I would not think of as being political seem to gradually get drawn into strongly conservative stands on a number of essentially secular issues.”

    I’ve noticed the same phenomenon. I think one of the main reasons for this is that we tend to read people who agree or are sympathetic with us. I don’t visit Daily Kos very often, for instance (although I’ll read people like Yglesias). Nobody likes to regularly read people who mock their deepest beliefs.

    And so, over time, we gradually hear much more about the good arguments for all sorts of conservative positions, and less of the counter-arguments. As abortion is one of the most significant (perhaps the most significant) divides between the parties, conservatives are more likely to at least be sympathetic to pro-lifers, and so pro-lifers are more in contact with people in the conservative movement.

    Personally, I think it is important for people to resist this tendency to a certain extent. I try, at least, to formulate my opinion on various issues without regard to which political party supports them. But, honestly, it seems to me that many people do not make the effort to do this. Granted, everyone has a limited amount of time to spend arguing about politics; it’s reasonable once you’ve determined that there are not other proportionate reasons not to keep up-to-date on every issue. But political tribalism can get tiresome.

  3. Matt McDonald says:

    I think this is a reasonable point, but I would hasten to suggest that these moves to conservatism are necessarily wrong. Especially when you consider that the paradigm has shifted such that many things that today’s Republicans do is not necessarily all that conservative in a historic context. Reagan would have been mortified at some of the actions of the Bush administration, Obama is certainly no JFK.

    It certainly would be better if there was a balance between the parties on the most fundamental of Catholic issues, as there had been prior to Roe vs. Wade, perhaps, this balance could be restored though, if all Catholics voted against the evil of abortion. If all Catholics refused to vote for democrats as long as abortion was one of their platforms, they would either wither and die or drop it like a hot rock. If all Catholics took an active role in the Republican party, they could certainly create a very balanced left-right position, and one weighted in justice as well.

  4. jh says:

    What a excellent post. Also let me say something as to political “tribalism” In some ways its is easier being a conservative and being what could be argued the broad tent of the Republican party than perhaps the Dems

    We see this in the fact that conservatives seems to be eating their own lately calling everyone else in the party RINOs. We have Movement Conservatives, Liberatarian COnservatives, COmapssionate Conservtive Republicans, Cruncy Cons, Paleo Cons, Neo Cons etc etc.

    I think the diversity of all this for good and for bad is not really contemplated a good bit but it is a reality. I can put lets say 5 or 6 of some of the leading Republican leaning conservatiove Catholic bloggers in a room and while uniting on abortion will be at each others throats on the torture debate, Policy toward Israel, No Child Left behind, immigration policy, the Medicare Drug Benefit , global warming etc etc.

    So while I do think that Pro-lifers because of interaction might take on a overall more conservative ethos I am not sure in reality they are all in the same tribe.

    The Democrat party does not seem to me to exactly allow this as well as they once did. If though there is long time effective Blue Dog Democrats movement with real numbers and a real pro-life movement wellwe might see that over there

  5. Matt McDonald says:

    should be “not necessarily”

  6. blackadderiv says:

    I agree with John Henry’s analysis, but I would also had that to a large extent party loyalty has more to do with the party than with the actual policies the party favors. Here in the Midwest, for example, it’s not uncommon to meet people who hold conservative views on a whole range of issues (not just social issues but also on matters relating to economic policy and national defense) who are nonetheless Democrats. The same phenomenon used to be true in the South though it has since died out. If you probe them on why this is, the answers typically have to do with policies and politicians from the past, rather than anything going on right now. In many cases being a Democrat is like being a sports fan – it’s more a matter of loyalty to the “home team” rather than support based on any recent accomplishments.

  7. Matt McDonald says:


    will be at each others throats on the torture debate, Policy toward Israel, No Child Left behind, immigration policy, the Medicare Drug Benefit , global warming etc etc.

    and rightly so, the Church is clear there is morally acceptable diversity of opinions in these areas.

  8. Matt McDonald says:


    do you think that is exclusive to the Dems? If so, why is that? I don’t know many Republicans who that would apply to.

  9. Zak says:

    I think that would describe a lot of northeastern Republicans who are becoming democrats. Party affiliation throughout New England, NY, and PA seems to be switching toward Dems, partly because of new voters, but also because the kind of Republicans who correspond to BA’s analysis are becoming independents or Republicans – the reverse of the Southern shift.

  10. blackadderiv says:

    do you think that is exclusive to the Dems? If so, why is that? I don’t know many Republicans who that would apply to.

    I think there are cases where something like this would be true of Republicans, but my impression is that (at least recently) this has been less true of them than for Democrats. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that the Democratic party tended to be associated with other groups, such as unions, particular ethnic communities, etc., which helped to forge loyalty and identity among members. I don’t think there was anything comparable for Republicans, aside from perhaps the country club.

  11. I fit with the original post. The Democratic party drove me away over abortion. I vote for a lot of Republicans I can barely stomach. Still, I have drifted more conservative, partly because I argue with the conservatives and rarely debate liberals. I find arguments for smaller government, and free markets persuasive – but I don’t just roll over. If it weren’t for abortion, I’d probably still lean Democratic, but that’s changing.

    What does surprise me is how many people ‘drink the GOP cool aide” as some put it. I supported Bush (although I voted Constitutional Party – I’m in a solid blue state) generally, but found it odd how many intelligent otherwise thinking Catholics would get so upset and antagonized at any questioning of Bush – which lessened by the end, but seems to be coming back.

    I need to reread Eric Hoffer’s “True Believers”


  12. Tito Edwards says:

    Somewhat similar situation with me.

    What has turned me off most with Democrat(ic)s is that when challenged they get emotionally unstable and begin ad hominem attacks instead of focusing on the issues. Granted these aren’t all Democrat(ic)s, but it was enough that it partly contributed towards me drifting towards more pro-life and conservative issues (though my faith was the predominant denominator).

    What I’ve noticed in this past election is the obtuseness of many (alleged?) Catholics that know their faith yet go on voting for pro-abortion candidates. I’m still grasping whether it’s due to party loyalty or a just poor catechesis.

  13. Gerard E. says:

    Tito- the latter. Oh, and folks get together on January 22. I knew that. Bad typing fingers, bad typing fingers….

  14. bearing says:

    I think it’s poor catechesis combined with a crisis of identity. Speaking as the OP, I know part of what took me so long was “I can’t bear to see myself as someone who votes Republican.”

    Before that, it was hard to see myself as someone who opposed abortion, too.

    And I think a lot of that is successful propaganda from legal abortion supporters who try to paint the anti-abortion side as backward, anti-woman, anti-science, “single-issue” voters, etc. There’s so much marginalization of any opinion that might move people even a step towards protecting the unborn.

    An impulse to fairness has me wondering if it goes both ways, if there is an element of propaganda within the pro-life movement aimed at vilifying or marginalizing pro-choice people [as opposed to vilifying abortion] in order to create an emotional barrier to “conversions” of identity from pro-life to pro-choice.

    I mean, I know I’ve seen pro-choice people claim that pro-life people call them babykillers, but I’ve never seen anyone actually aim that word at another person, in writing or in speech.

    Unless our insistence that preborn humans are people is supposedly the “emotional” barrier, since it prevents us from seeing the truth that’s obvious to them, e.g., that preborn humans are only potential people and therefore have only potential rights. I guess from that perspective it could look like a sort of emotional blackmail, aimed at getting us to identify with the preborn human, to see ourselves as former fetuses. Just like I felt a strong emotional pressure to avoid seeing myself as one of “those” people who opposed abortion, a pressure that lasted years into my conversion and kept it incomplete.

  15. Tito Edwards says:


    It goes both ways. I don’t know how the pro-choice crowd talks about us, but us pro-lifers have our own language and it can get out of hand (at times). Though I have noticed a considerable drop in this type of derogatory language these past three years.

  16. Flambeaux says:

    Interesting…I’ve never understood the Catholic comfort with voting Democrat. I can’t think of a single issue advocated by the Democrats in the last 50-odd years that I would have agreed with them on.

    I certainly grew up in the post-Roe world, born well after the intellectual shift in the two parties had taken place in the early 1970s.

    As a teenager I never saw myself voting for or supporting Democrats, even when I was indifferent to abortion as a political issue.

    I’ve never grasped what’s so appealing, especially to Catholics, about the statist economic policies and dovish weakness the braying ass has stood for.

    [ed. – please no profane language]

  17. bearing says:

    Well, Flambeaux, I guess the last few years have been a process of me wondering that myself. I was Democrat-leaning before I became Catholic, and have leaned less that way since.

    But perhaps it will make more sense to look at it negatively. How about, instead of trying to understand a Catholic comfort with voting Democrat, try to understand a discomfort with voting Republican. Maybe for some, Republicans are more revolting than Democrats are appealing.

    Or maybe it’s just easier to claim you dislike one politician than to claim you like another. Disdain is cooler than enthusiastic support.

  18. Matt McDonald says:


    Maybe for some, Republicans are more revolting than Democrats are appealing.

    Or maybe it’s just easier to claim you dislike one politician than to claim you like another. Disdain is cooler than enthusiastic support.

    What do you find less more revolting than abortion? More importantly, what does Church?

  19. Elaine says:

    I’m working my way backwards through a bunch of your past posts and adding my two (or three or four) cents to them 🙂

    Politically I tend to vote Republican, mainly due to the pro-life issue and a general tendency to prefer smaller government. But, that being said, I have voted for pro-life Democrats and if one were running for a major office today I would go out of my way to vote for them, because I believe that if the pro-life movement is to survive, it needs to become bipartisan and not be anchored so tightly to the conservative wing of the GOP. In this fashion it will be better able to ride out the inevitable swings back and forth in public opinion.

    I also believe that the GOP at the national level is making a huge mistake by being overly harsh on immigration. Yes, I sympathize with all the arguments about how immigrants should “play by the rules” and respect the law. I believe uncontrolled illegal immigration is unfair to the immigrants themselves (since it allows them to be exploited by their employers) as well as to legal immigrants and U.S. citizens. Some kind of reasonable solution, neither too harsh nor too lax, is needed.

    That being said: like it or not, the children of illegal immigrants who are born in this country are citizens and will be old enough to vote before you know it. Some of them already are. Hispanic voters could be a gold mine for the GOP with their pro-life, pro-family ethic and strong affiliation to either Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism. If the GOP keeps hammering on the “send them all back where they came from” message, they will lose the next generation of Hispanic voters. Hispanics will soon pass blacks as the biggest minority in the nation so to lose them is to lose, period.

    I think the pro-life and conservative movements have shot themselves in the foot too many times by voting for candidates who proved to be corrupt or incompetent, and thereby discredited everything they stood for, making it that much harder to elect conservatives in the future. Some will argue that President Bush 43 fell into this category; I would not classify him as incompetent, so much as disappointing.

    In closing let me cite an example from the wonderful world of Illinois politics. In 1998 we had a real live pro-life Democrat, Glenn Poshard, running for governor against then-Secretary of State George Ryan. Ryan was Republican and also claimed to be pro-life. I was tempted to vote Democrat that time, but ended up voting for Ryan, thinking that the Republicans were the more reliable pro-life and pro-family party. Well, we all know where that got us. Ryan pretty much destroyed the Illinois GOP and paved the way for the walking, hairbrushing disaster we know as Blago. If there is any vote I have ever cast in my life that I wish I could take back, that is it.

    I do not know what I would do if I were confronted with a choice between a pro-choice candidate who seemed to be reasonably competent on other issues, and a candidate who claimed to be pro-life but was obviously corrupt, incompetent, or insane. In other words, envision a replay of the 2006 gubernatorial election, but with Blago’s and Topinka’s party affiliations reversed and Blago being pro-life. Would I, as a Catholic, have been obligated to vote for Blago in that situation? Would I have been obliged not to vote at all?

  20. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I voted for Poshard. I had my doubts about Ryan on the pro-life issue, amply justified as it turned out, and I knew from my contacts in Kankakee, Ryan’s home turf, that Ryan was a crook. In regard to Blago and Topinka what a miserable election that was: both pro-aborts, with one a crook, and another a member in good standing of the corrupt Combine. I held my nose and voted for Topinka, while despairing of the low state of Illinois politics.

  21. Elaine says:

    I voted for Topinka as well, on the grounds that she was the lesser of two evils both with regard to abortion (Planned Parenthood didn’t consider her pro-abortion enough for their taste, since she did actually endorse things like parental notification) and with regard to corruption and mismanagement, though she was far from ideal on either count.

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