Conservatism: a Call to the Clarification of Terms

By Rachel Blum Spencer for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

“The Christian right,” says Jacqueline Salmon of the Washington Post, “has found new life with Barack Obama in office, particularly around health care.”

Salmon points to the bevy of “Christian conservative” organizations that rallied to oppose Obama’s September 9th speech to a joint session of Congress. Apparently, these groups have received a deluge of membership requests since Congress began considering health care reform.

Salmon speculates that “conservatives” (she never defines this term) are regrouping as a “movement” to oppose health care legislation. Her article and commentary raise questions for anyone who self-identifies as a “conservative.” She, and the experts she quotes, conflate the terms “conservative,” “Christian right,” and “religious right,” operating on the implicit assumption that Gary Bauer is the prototype for all “conservatives.” One might ask: are devotees of Edmund Burke necessarily attendees of Saddleback and subscribers to Focus on the Family?

Although she never clearly defines the components of this “movement,” she explicitly evaluates it as oppositional. Analyzed in a quotation by a professor from Rice University, opposition to healthcare demonstrates that “movements do better when they have something to oppose.”

Part of her analysis is sound. A “movement” will be short lived if it is primarily oppositional, defining itself as “us-versus-them.” Such a movement will only be capable of gathering momentum by defining itself as the absence of an undesirable end. As soon as the occasion or legislation in question moves from center stage, the movement will disperse. The coalition to which she points may be such a reaction.

But is a healthy conservatism properly conceived as a political movement at all? Perhaps the nature of conservatism changes when it is understood as a transient movement rather than as a mode of seeing and being in the world.

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