Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
When John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, he was thinking only of short-term advantage. In reality, his pick not only increases the chances that he will lose the 2008 presidential election, it also threatens to split American conservatism in half for the foreseeable future.
The conservative triumph in this country is frequently attributed to "fusionism," the ability of a politicians such as Ronald Reagan to bring together traditionalists, libertarians, and cold warriors into one movement. The cold warriors went the way of the cold war, and even if they had not, the neoconservative impetus to which it gave birth has lost all intellectual credibility. Now Sarah Palin's life has already begun to render asunder the remaining two elements of the coalition.
It may seem like ages ago but during the Clinton administration, conservative traditionalists were everywhere. The nuclear family is sacrosanct. Women should shun the workforce and become full-time moms. Kids should obey their parents and, if they choose not to, discipline, including harsh measures, ought to be applied. Sex outside of marriage is strictly forbidden. Our culture is spinning wildly out of control, and sexual liberation, the worst byproduct of the God-awful 1960s, is the cause. And, by the way, abortion is murder and should be forbidden.
All that is left, if the Palin controversy is any indication, is abortion. Palin's defenders, far from being traditionalists, are moral relativists. We should not rush to judgment. It is important to understand the pressures that families face. Love is all you need. Forgive in order to forget. People are entitled to their privacy, even, if not especially, in the bedroom. The state should not be in the business of telling people what to do. It sounds like the language of the left, but it has also had long resonance on the libertarian right. When the McCain campaign said that Bristol Palin had a choice, it was correct. These days we all have choices. The fact that we do has always bothered conservative traditionalists.
Sarah Palin's nomination is a public service. No longer will we hear lectures from the likes of Newt Gingrich telling poor women on welfare how to conduct their sex lives. Focus on the Family will have to focus on a different kind of family. William Bennett has no virtues left to write about. At long last our national nightmare over sexual hypocrisy has come to an end, and we can all thank John McCain for that.
And that is not all. In rushing to Sarah Palin's defense, the leaders of the Christian right have made it abundantly clear how they define a Christian. We don't care if you sin. We are not bothered if you put your ambition ahead of the needs of your children. If you have lied or broken the law, we will look the other way. It all comes down to your stand on guns and fetuses. Vote the right way, and you have our blessing. If any proof were needed that James Dobson is a political operative rather than a spiritual leader, his jumping on the Palin bandwagon offers it.
I blogged in this space last week that Palin represented the libertarian wing of the evangelical movement rather than the punitive wing. (In doing so, I pointed out that she had named her children after witches; I was wrong to do so, as was the source upon which I relied, and I apologize for my mistake). Now we are learning that the split between libertarians and moral regulators involves far more than a religious movement. It goes to the heart of what once passed for conservatism in the United States. John McCain has shown that he has a wrecking crew approach to politics. Among the things he is wrecking is the movement and ideology that brought him to his station in life.