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Can the Republican Party be both a Moral and Secular Party

June 1, 2003

In 1994, writing for the Wall Street Journal, Irving Kristol authored a provoking essay entitled "The New Face of American Politics." Kristol was writing about the internal battles within the Republican Party, and its external battles against the cultural left and its party, the Democratic Party.

He asked a basic question. Could the Republican party remain secular, while so many of its members and leaders were social conservatives, and in fact, religious. Moreover, could it remain secular in face of the Democratic Party that had become secularist.

"A secular political Party, in a traditional sense, has been neutral as between religions - at least insofar as they represent different versions of traditional morality. A secularist political party is neutral as between religion and irreligion; it believes that moral issues 'have no place in politics,' and replaces such issues with the idea of 'fair and equal' treatment of all 'lifestyles," all beliefs about what is permissible and what is not." (My italics)

He noted that within days of becoming president, Bill Clinton rattled the nation with his proposal to allow gays to openly serve in the military. The 1992 campaign had been about the national economy caught in a significant post-Cold War recession. The issue, the economy, was then and is now a primary concern of one wing of the Republican party. Clinton had won that battle. But his first official move as president was a disruptive social and cultural proposal. Clinton was pandering to the cultural left which then and now dominates the Democratic party. Kristol noted that the ongoing cultural war was a class war.

"The reason is that the real class war in this country is between the cultural conservatives, otherwise known as social conservatives, mainly in the working and lower-middle classes, and the cultural left in the higher-paid and more economically secure professions."

A year later, I met with William Rusher, of the National Review, who had moved to San Francisco. On a warm summer afternoon, at the University Club, we discussed Kristol's article. I told him that a year after reading Kristol's article, I was still perplexed by it. If indeed the Republican party was to become a moral party, and not a secular party, would it mean it must become a religious party. And if so, which religion -- necessarily Christian? The question was important for me at the time -- I was chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party.

Now almost ten years later, religious leaders have taken less public positions within the party. Most republican operatives would admit that the power of an organized religious movement within the party has simmered. But the cultural wars have intensified. The Democratic Party is more strongly dominated by the cultural left. As Kristol noted in 1994, the party's union activists "come from the so-called helping professions - teachers, social works, nutritionists, psychologists, etc - most of whom work for the various levels of government."

So the question I raised with Bill Rusher remains; can the Republican Party become a moral party, while remaining neutral as between religions. This of course can be framed more personally, can one be both moral and non-religious. It comes down to operable moral principles, that transcend borders, cultures, gender, race. Universal moral principles. But since we're not talking about personal morality, universal moral principles applied to public and foreign policy.

The events of the last two years has caused such a moralization of the Republican party.

There has been a successful blend of morality and pragmatism which has elevated the party. The two wings of the Republican party have shared values and principles to form a party that can stand on high moral ground while enacting successful domestic and foreign policy that resonates with the majority of Americans.

The party has become moral though not religious. It stands on Christian values, but is not a Christian party. The attack by radical Muslims help to solidify the marriage between the pragmatists and religious leaders of the party. While not representing worldwide Moslem sects, the fanatics attack on this country help to contrast and compare the nation's beliefs - essentially Christian - with the Moslem faith. The contrast encompasses all the basic moral issues that in fact characterizes the battle with this country's cultural left. Thus it is no coincidence that the left in this country blamed the U.S. for the attack.

This country rediscovered what it believes is morally good not by appealing to revelation, but by synthesizing and abstracting from our traditions what is good and evil, fair and unfair. We were forced into it by the attack on our country, an attack not just on economic and military symbols, an attack on what we believe. It was natural that the country in the aftermath asked what it are its fundamental beliefs and moral principles. It was appropriate that the Republican Party would absorb these principles and act on them.

Irving Kristol could never imagine that morality could be so infused into this country's political debates nor how it was instigated. He could never have predicted that the Republican party would shift seamlessly from a disjointed, fragmented alliance into a party that can stand for moral principles and act on them decisively, in part, as the result of a vicious attack on American soil by religious zealots, from another religion.

Questions remain, however. Will a moral Republican Party return to infighting and a battle between the social conservatives and economic conservatives as we diminish the terrorist threat. Has morality served as a convenient rhetorical tool for those in the party pursuing more traditionally pragmatic economic and military goals. It's unclear. Contingencies dictated the current healthy blend of morality and pragmatism. There remain many potential contingencies that could strengthen or weaken it. So, Irving Kristol's article will stay with me, as it has for so many years.

Write to Arthur at bruzzone@rightturns.com


Arthur Bruzzone has written over 250 political articles for national and regional media, and has commented on political and urban issues for American and European television and radio networks.  He is an award-winning public affairs television producer/host.His articles and columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Campaign & Elections Magazine, among other publications. Mr. Bruzzone holds a Masters Degree in Philosophy from C.U.A in Washington , D.C., and a M.B.A. in real estate. He is a returned Peace Corps volunteer serving two years in the Kingdom of Tonga, and the former chair of the San Francisco Republican Party. He is president of a leading real estate investment company in San Francisco.

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