I was very interested to see the reaction of many Republicans to the over-the-top behavior of the extreme right in the wake of the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller earlier this week. On The Next Right they quickly removed an offensive article and comments had loudly condemned the author. On Little Green Footballs they posted a substantial article condemning commenters and posters on several other right-leaning blogs for their comments about Tiller. These reactions give a clear impression that more and more mainstream Republicans are fed up with the fanaticism of the religious right, sickened over their behavior over the Tiller issue and just about ready to give them the boot.
Is it possible that this incident is the straw which finally broke the camel’s back and has created an unhealable rift between rational conservatives and the extremists of the religious right? Even Republicans who are socially conservative seem to have had enough of the extremist rhetoric and support for violence coming from people like Fred Phelps and Randall Terry. They seem to have woken up to the fact that the fanaticism and terrorism they oppose in the Islamic world is not much different from the beliefs held by some they considered allies.
As Barry Goldwater pointed out many years ago, the one thing which Republicans ought to be extreme about is liberty and on all other issues they ought to be rational and pragmatic. Maybe that lesson which he spent decades trying to teach with his own actions, is finally sinking in.
The obsession with legislating morality and with opposition to abortion and gay rights is really not part of the core Republican agenda. These ideas and the fanaticism they inspire were brought into the party through its alliance in the post-Reagan era with religious conservatives. Historically, Republicans have had a laissez faire attitude, not just to the economy, but also on moral issues. Republicans used to be dispassionate, leaving moral decisions in the hands of individuals and keeping government out of the picture. It seems like the pendulum might be swinging back in that direction.
As Abraham Lincoln said many years ago, our nation and by extension the Republican Party, was “conceived in liberty” and that idea of individual liberty ought to be the basis of every policy and every decision which Republicans make. There is very little question that abortion is a sin, but shouldn’t that sin be a matter of personal responsibility to be resolved between the individual and his or her soul and church and god? Once you get government involved, a change in policy or administration could as easily mean forced abortion and sterilization as you have in China as it could mean protecting unborn fetuses. Putting such personal decisions in the hands of government can only work out badly when there is the potential to go to either extreme.
This change in attitude in the GOP seems real and very significant. It has been building for years, starting with uneasiness with many Bush administration policies and perhaps culminating with the Tiller incident. That doesn’t mean that I expect a wholesale casting out of the religious right, but it does seem as if the more reasonable elements of the religious wing of the party are finally realizing that they have to distance themselves from the exrtremists, and perhaps put broader priorities first if they want to continue to play a role in the party and if they want that party to be successful. Extremism has been like an anchor dragging the GOP down and if the party cannot cast itself free of that extremism and chart a better course for itself it will never be successful.
Fanaticism and extremism breed violence and terror and are the enemies of liberty. If we are determined to fight them in the War on Terror how can we be less vigilant in opposing them at home? If we are to have a Republican party which makes liberty its first priority, then it must reject extremism and intolerance in every form. We can still embrace conservative and moral values, but we must accept that these are personal values and that only evil and oppression can come from giving government the power to dictate morality and institutionalize the prejudices of religious fanatics.