A big part of the battle for this year's Republican nomination has been couched in terms of which of the four remaining candidates is the most conservative. I cannot help but be suspicious of this. My reasons have nothing to do with conservatism itself, but rather with what seems to be the triumph of ideology over conservatism. It has been noted in various editorial pages that all four remaining candidates have declared in one way or another that they are unalterably opposed to raising existing taxes or proposing new ones for any reason whatsoever. This isn't a conservative position, it is an ideological commitment rooted in the notion that all taxes are inherently bad. That this ideology has nothing whatsoever to do with true conservatism is demonstrated by the simple fact that Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and the first George Bush all proposed raising taxes at one point or another in their tenures as president, and none of them were any less conservative for it. Indeed, Reagan sponsored the largest tax hike by percentage in American history when he proposed the self-employment tax be raised from about 9 percent to the full 15.3 percent, thus requiring the self-employed to carry the full FICA tax burden employers share with their employees.
On the other hand, the second president Bush, by sponsoring both the Medicare prescription supplement and the first TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) legislation without paying for a single penny of either, ruled in what The Economist characterized at the time as the style of a European socialist. Yet, because he proposed no new taxes he is a “conservative.” Whether you are liberal or conservative — whatever those terms now mean — I think we should all be concerned about this trend. We should be concerned because ideological purity is spiritually unhealthy for us all for a couple of reasons. First, it presumes that people are not a mixture; they really are all one thing or another. It presumes that saints can be separated from sinners with an easily understood and equally easily applied formula. Though parts of scripture support this idea, other parts do not; as early as the story of Cain and Abel the Bible begins to wrestle with the implications that people are capable of both good and evil.
The flood story is another dramatic tale which concludes the search for purity is a losing effort, as God first turns to violence in an attempt to cleanse the earth of human sin, and then abandons violence altogether when he discovers that it doesn't work, people haven't changed. The story of Noah is right: we are a mixture, and a purely ideological approach to us and our situations never works. The second problem with pure ideology is that if we do not allow ourselves to learn from our experience, if in fact we do not allow experience to temper our convictions, sooner or later our ideology will do us in.
The extreme left-wing learned this the hard way when communism refuted itself as the Soviet Union collapsed altogether. The People's Republic of China quietly, and without admitting it in public, got the point as it became more or less as capitalist as the Nationalist Chinese, still camped out off shore on Taiwan. I would love to see a serious challenge to President Obama's handling of his first term in office, but we are not going to get one unless the commitment to ideological purity is abandoned in favor of a more pragmatic assessment of the situation we face. That is most unfortunate, for a healthy spirituality will lead us to a healthy body politic. Who knew?
Rev. Bill Ellis is dean of St. John’s Cathedral. He has a bachelor’s degree in history, a Master of Divinity and holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.