Monday, May 23, 2005


Conservative values as public policy

The issues of "values" have become of great concern to many people in the US over the past twenty years or so. In most cases what is meant by this are those lifestyle choices that affect family and personal relations.

It is instructive to see how similar concerns in the past turned out and what this may mean for the US and the world.

Here are two.

Slavery in the US

During much of the period of slavery there was considerable support for the practice in many mainstream Christian churches. Various passages from the Bible were used to support this. Eventually, after the rise of the Abolitionist movement in the North, there were theological battles being waged on both sides of the issue. The theological basis given to slavery was probably part of the mind set that informed the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.

Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution

In 1979 a religious Islamic group overthrew the secular, Western oriented, government headed by the Shah. Most secular institutions were shut down or severely limited in scope. Religious practices which had been ignored in the secular society were reinstated. This regime has now been in place for twenty five years and, since half the population is between fourteen and twenty-five, this is the only type of society that they have known.

So how did things turn out when a religious basis was used for civil society?

In the US we, of course, had the civil war with its horrific damage. But, this was not all. For about fifty years before the start of the war much of civil society was involved with the slavery issue. The increasingly hardened positions on both sides poisoned the relationships between North and South and resulted in the failure of the South to industrialize. After the war there was the Reconstruction period where the attempt to remove lingering effects of slavery by government action was tried. Once again this led to poor results. One can plausibly make the case that the different world views that exist between the South and other areas of the country are still a residue of this history.

In Iran, after 1979, the development of industrialization effectively ceased, the middle class almost disappeared and international trade declined. In addition the standard of living declined, unemployment reached 50% in some sectors. Recent polls show only 19% now support an active clergy while 68% say their family's situation has gotten worse since 1979. There have been a succession of attempted counter revolutions in the past seven or eight years and there is a good chance that one will succeed sometime in the next few years. So the legacy of a theocratic take over of government has been a loss of social progress for an entire generation.

In both examples the excessive mingling of particularized religious beliefs with the function of government had disastrous economic and personal consequences. What has this to do with the US today?

We are on the verge of having a particular religious faction determining large aspects of public policy. By most accounts this group amounts to about 20% of the population. So what might the consequences of this be?

Let's see what has happened so far. Firstly, important issues of public policy have been pushed aside while the government shifts its focus to "values" based issues. Just to give a single example, the development of a new comprehensive energy policy has been delayed for three years already. What affect this is having on foreign policy and the environment is of immense importance.

Secondly, "values" inspired beliefs have started to have effects on the physical and economic health of the country. The current debates about stem cell research, for example, may risk the US losing its dominant position in life science research and innovation. Rather than being a world leader in medical advances we may find ourselves at the mercy of some foreign company or government when new treatments are developed. With the developer setting the price and conditions for distribution what sort of position might we find ourselves in?
Similarly, policies about reproductive information are having affects on the spread of AIDS and other STDs in the US as well as in third-world countries. Mingling this with beliefs about abstinence, abortion and birth control is having unforseen consequences on the birth rate as well.

I think it is important to discuss this, especially on conservative forums. The people who predominate these are politically active, better read, and perhaps more passionate that the average person. As such, they have the prospect for thinking through the long-range consequences of the US becoming theocratically managed.

As the examples above illustrate the results may not be what is desired, even by those pulling the strings.

Be careful what you wish for
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