You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Crisis of Faith

How fundamentalism is splitting the GOP.

"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."--Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981

"We have a responsibility that, when somebody hurts, government has got to move."--George W. Bush, September 1, 2003

Conservatism isn't over. But it has rarely been as confused. Today's conservatives support limited government. But they believe the federal government can intervene in a state court's decisions in a single family's struggle over life and death. They believe in restraining government spending. But they have increased such spending by a mind-boggling 33 percent in a mere four years. They believe in self-reliance. But they have just passed the most expensive new entitlement since the heyday of Great Society liberalism: the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. They believe that foreign policy is about the pursuit of national interest and that the military should be used only to fight and win wars. Yet they have embarked on an extraordinarily ambitious program of military-led nation-building in the Middle East. They believe in states' rights, but they want to amend the Constitution to forbid any state from allowing civil marriage or equivalent civil unions for gay couples. They believe in free trade. But they have imposed tariffs on a number of industries, most famously steel. They believe in balanced budgets. But they have abandoned fiscal discipline and added a cool trillion dollars to the national debt in one presidential term.

One reason for conservatism's endurance in the face of such contradiction, of course, is the extreme weakness-- intellectual and organizational--of the opposition. Liberalism ceased being a vibrant force in the American public weal two decades ago. The left never recovered from the collapse of communism, the dismal failure of social democracy across Western Europe, and the demise of Japan's command economy in the 1980s. Domestically, a liberal claim on the presidency never recovered from Jimmy Carter and the first two years of Bill Clinton. Conservatism, broadly understood, has occupied the White House for 23 of the past 25 years. No unreconstructed liberal stands a chance of winning it in the near future--hence Hillary Clinton's moderate makeover.

Conservatism has endured also because it slowly absorbed much of the old liberal spirit. Who, after all, are the most vocal moral crusaders of today? Christian conservatives, who deploy government power against all sorts of perceived wrongs--sexual trafficking, AIDS in Africa, gay unions, poor parenting, teen sex, indecent television, and euthanasia, among many. Almost no Democrat speaks with the moral conviction of religious Republicans. And, when liberalism has been outrun on moral fervor, precious little oxygen remains to revive it--especially with austere, patrician leaders like John Kerry and Al Gore or angry pop culture ranters like Michael Moore.

But conservatism's very incoherence may be one reason for its endurance. In its long road to victory, the Republican Party has regularly preferred the promise of power to the satisfaction of schism. It has long been pro-government and anti-government. It has contained Rockefeller and Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. As a governing philosophy, it has been able to tack for decades from statism to laissez-faire, from big government to individual freedom, with only occasional discomfort. Conservatism's resilience has been a function of its internal ideological diversity and balance. The more closely you look, however, the deeper the division has become in the last few years, intensifying dramatically since last fall's election. Which is why, this time, the balancing act may finally be coming undone.

Let me be rash and describe the fundamental divide within conservatism as a battle between two rival forms. The two forms I'm referring to are ideal types. I know very few conservatives who fit completely into one camp or the other; and these camps do not easily comport with the categories we have become used to deploying--categories like "libertarian," "social conservative," "paleoconservative," "fiscal conservative and social liberal," and so on. There is, I think, a deeper rift, and a more fundamental one.

Call one the conservatism of faith and the other the conservatism of doubt. They have co-existed in the past but are becoming less and less compatible as the conservative ascendancy matures. Start with the type now dominant in Republican discourse: the conservatism of faith. This conservatism states conservative principles--and, indeed, eternal insights into the human condition--as a matter of truth. Because these conservatives believe that the individual is inseparable from her political community and civilization, there can be no government neutrality in promoting such truths. Either a government's laws affirm virtue or they affirm vice. And the meaning of virtue and vice can be understood either by reflecting on the Judeo-Christian moral tradition or by inferring from philosophical understandings what human nature in its finest form should be. These truths are not culturally relative; they are universally valid.

The state, therefore, has a duty to protect, at a minimum, all human life, meaning it must regulate abortion and end-of-life decisions. The conservatism of faith sees nothing wrong with channeling $2 billion of public money to religious charities, as the Bush administration boasts; or with spending government money to promote sexual abstinence as a moral good; or with telling parents in government literature that a gay child may need therapy. Science must be hedged by faith, as the teaching of evolution is questioned and pharmacists are allowed to refuse prescriptions for contraception on religious grounds. And public education must have a moral component. As President Bush said in his first State of the Union, "Values are important, so we have tripled funding for character education to teach our children not only reading and writing, but right from wrong." The "we" referred to here is the federal government. The alternative, in the eyes of faith-conservatives, would be to allow those with a different morality to promote a rival agenda. Since neutrality is impossible, conservative truths trump secular values.

What matters to conservatives of faith is therefore less the size of government than its meaning and structure. If it is harnessed to uphold their definition of the good life--protecting a stable family structure, upholding Biblical morality, protecting the vulnerable--then its size is irrelevant, as long as it doesn't overwhelm civil society. Indeed, using government to promote certain activities (the proper care of children, support for the poor, legal privileges for heterosexual relationships) and to deter others (recreational drug use, divorce, gay unions, abortion, indecent television) is integral to the conservative project. Bush has added another twist to this philosophy, seeking not only to expand government programs from the top down, but from the bottom up, by incorporating new mechanisms that give citizens more choice. Hence Health Savings Accounts in Medicare and personal accounts within Social Security. If that actually means more government borrowing and spending, so be it. If government must be expanded to give more people a sense of "ownership" within government programs, fine. This is what remains of conservatism's old belief in individual freedom. The new conservatism of faith has substituted real choice in a free market for regulated choice within an ever-expanding welfare state.

There is nothing especially new about this kind of conservatism. Bismarck and Disraeli pioneered it in Europe in the nineteenth century, using imperial foreign policy, domestic paternalism, and religious piety to cement new majorities. In the United States, it has less of a pedigree, because the power of the federal government was historically far more restrained than in Europe. But the use of government to impose morality is obviously an old American theme--whether in the abolitionist or temperance campaigns, or even, to some extent, in Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement. A country that has amended its Constitution to forbid drinking alcohol is no stranger to big-government conservatism.

Of course, it is equally true that, since Franklin Roosevelt vastly expanded the federal government, conservatism has been associated with resistance to its power rather than encouragement of its deployment. The conservative wing of the GOP backed states' rights against civil rights. Conservatives opposed the New Deal. Ronald Reagan equated Medicare with the end of American freedom. The difference today is that acceptance of big government has not meant mere acquiescence in the liberal orthodoxy, but a conscious attempt to use government for moral ends. As Republicans found that it was hard to reduce the size of government, they decided to stop worrying and deploy it for their own goals.

As a result, Republicans now support institutions they previously vilified: Whereas they once wanted to abolish the federal Department of Education, now they want to wield it to advance their own agenda on educational standards and morals (no wonder that, in four years, Bush has doubled--yes, doubled--its budget). They are willing to concern themselves with aspects of human life that conservatives once believed should be free of all government interference. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush said, "I propose a $450 million initiative to bring mentors to more than a million disadvantaged junior high students and children of prisoners. … I propose a new $600 million program to help an additional 300,000 Americans receive [drug] treatment over the next three years." And the conservative movement, begun partially in resistance to federal intervention in what was regarded as the states' spheres of influence, today has endorsed dramatic federal supremacy over state prerogatives. The No Child Left Behind Act entailed a massive transfer of power from states to the federal government--not just a difference from Reagan-era conservatism, but its opposite.

No wonder the size of government has exploded. The federal government now spends around $22,000 per household per year--up from a little under $19,000 in 2000. Total government spending has increased by an astonishing 33 percent since 2000. This isn't all about post-September 11 defense and homeland security. According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, since 2001, federal spending on housing and commerce has jumped 86 percent, community and regional development 71 percent, and Medicaid some 46 percent. One of Bush's closest confidants and longtime chief of staff, Andy Card, described the president's own vision of his role as president: "It struck me as I was speaking to people in Bangor, Maine, that this president sees America as we think about a ten-year-old child. … I know, as a parent, I would sacrifice all for my children." In Bush's case, paternalism isn't a metaphor. It's a commitment worth trillions of dollars of other people's money.

The single most influential architect of this conservatism, Karl Rove, sees this as a virtue, not a problem. In a recent speech to conservative activists, according to John Heilemann of New York magazine, "Rove rejected the party's 'reactionary' and 'pessimistic' past, in which it stood idly by while 'liberals were setting the pace of change and had the visionary goals.' Now, he went on, the GOP has seized the 'mantle of idealism,' dedicating itself to 'putting government on the side of progress and reform, modernization and greater freedom.'" The model for Rove's conservatism, in other words, is liberalism. The difference is merely how government directs its vast power, and for whom. In some cases, where the conservatism of faith seeks to use government power to protect the weak, it is indistinguishable from liberalism. It is no accident, I think, that left-liberals like Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader embraced the cause of Bush's federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case. And it is equally no accident that sincere internationalist liberals see much to admire in Bush's hyper-liberal foreign policy, or that long-standing campaigners for action against HIV/AIDS in the developing world have been pleasantly surprised by his activism and generosity. The fact that the president almost never publicly worries about levels of public spending and debt is also music to traditionally liberal ears. Only bitterness has prevented many on the left from seeing that this administration is on their side on many issues. Or, perhaps, that this president has brilliantly co-opted liberal rhetoric for big-government conservatism.

What other kind of conservatism is there? The alternative philosophical tradition begins in precise opposition to the new conservatives' confidence in faith and reason as direct, accessible routes to universal truth. The conservatism of doubt asks how anyone can be sure that his view of what is moral or good is actually true. Conservatives of doubt note that even the most dogmatic of institutions, such as the Catholic or Mormon churches, have changed their views over many centuries, and that, even within such institutions, there is considerable debate about difficult moral issues. They understand that significant critiques of human reason--Nietzsche, anyone?--have rendered the philosophical quest for self-evident truth even more precarious in the modern world. Such conservatives are not nihilists or devotees of what Pope Benedict XVI has called "the dictatorship of relativism." They merely believe that the purported choice between moral absolutism and complete relativism, between God and moral anarchy, is a phony one. Their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudential approach to all moral questions--and suspicion of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth. Since such an approach rarely provides a simple answer persuasive to everyone within a democratic society, we live with moral and cultural pluralism.

For conservatives of faith, such pluralism can allow error to flourish--and immorality to become government policy--and therefore must be limited. A conservative of doubt, however, does not regard the existence of such pluralism as a problem. He sees it as an unavoidable fact of modernity, an invitation to lives that are more challenging and autonomous than in more traditional societies. Even when conservatives of doubt disagree with others' moral convictions, they recognize that, in a free, pluralist society, those other views deserve a hearing. So a conservative who believes abortion is always immoral can reconcile herself to a polity in which abortion is still legal, if regulated. Putting government power unequivocally on the side of one view of morality--especially in extremely controversial areas--must always be balanced against the rights and views of citizens who dissent. And, precisely because complete government neutrality may be impossible on these issues, government should tread as lightly as possible. The key in areas of doubt is to do as little harm as possible. Which often means, with respect to government power, doing as little as possible.

Doubt, in other words, means restraint. And restraint of government is the indispensable foundation of human freedom. The modern liberal European state was founded on such doubt. In the seventeenth century, men like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke looked at the consequences of various faiths battling for control of the moralizing state--and they balked. They saw civil war, religious extremism, torture, burnings at the stake, police states, and the Inquisition. They saw polities like Great Britain's ravaged by sectarian squabbles over what the truth is, how it is discovered, and how to impose it on a society as a whole. And they made a fundamental break with ancient and medieval political thought by insisting that government retreat from such areas--that it leave the definition of the good life to private citizens, to churches uncontaminated by government, or to universities that would seek and discuss competing views of the truth.

In the modern world, where disagreement among citizens is even deeper and more diverse than three centuries ago, conservatives of doubt see their tradition as more necessary than ever. As the fusion of religious fundamentalism with politics has destroyed Muslim society and politics, so, these conservatives fear, it threatens Western freedom as well--in subtler, milder, Christian forms. Conservatives of doubt are not necessarily atheists or amoralists. Many are devout Christians who embrace a strong separation of church and state--for the sake of religion as much as politics. Others may be Oakeshottian skeptics, or Randian individualists, or Burkean pragmatists, or libertarian idealists. But they all agree that the only solution to deep social disagreement is not a forced supremacy of a majority or minority, but an attempt to keep government as neutral as possible, power as close to people as possible, and as much economic power in the hands of the private sector as possible.

For such conservatives, divided government is therefore critical. Judicial checks on democratic majorities are as vital as legislative checks on executive abuse. (They are just as queasy removing such parliamentary checks as the filibuster.) The same goes for keeping policy-making as close as possible to states and localities. Why? Because human knowledge is fallible, and those closest to the issues are more likely to get solutions right than people a long way away. The notion that the federal government should actively endorse one religion's perspective on social policy would appall such conservatives. So would the idea that individual states cannot legitimately experiment with policies on which there is no national consensus--such as stem-cell research or marriage rights.

Such conservatives are delighted at Bush's tax cuts in principle. But they also doubt whether financing them entirely by borrowing is a real tax cut. If you do not cut spending by the same amount (or almost the same amount) as you have cut taxes, you are merely postponing a fiscal reckoning. Conservatives of doubt question the faith of supply-side economics, where all economic tradeoffs are banished. They suspect that either the government will have to raise taxes at some point to pay off its debts or it will have to devalue its currency, or allow inflation. The chances of an administration tackling government spending after endorsing it enthusiastically for four years strikes these conservatives as unlikely. Hence their disillusion with Bush. They worry that this president has effectively granted legitimacy to vast areas of government power that the left will soon seize on to consolidate the welfare state and raise taxes under the banner of debt-reduction.

This ever-expanding entitlement state offends conservatives of doubt as deeply as the theo-conservative religious state. Their reasoning? At any given moment, wealth that is absorbed by the government is not available to individuals. The more of a country's wealth the government controls, the less freedom for that country's citizens. For a conservative of doubt, the market is a much more reliable indicator of how individuals actually want to live their lives than a government directive or program. Why? Again, the argument rests on an understanding of human wisdom. Since error is inevitable in human choice, better to lessen the chances for those errors to be magnified and compounded by one predominant actor--the government. The more dispersed power is, the less chance for catastrophe.

Is this conservatism philosophically strong enough to endure? Rich Lowry of National Review recently argued that it is not: "The secularist view misses that freedom is grounded in truths, in the God-given dignity of man as a rational creature and in our fundamental equality. This is why the pope could say, 'God created us to be free.' If the idea of freedom is detached from these truths, it has no secure ground, because the strong will inevitably attempt to dominate the weak unless checked by moral truths (see slavery or segregation or communism)." Without Christianity, Lowry argues, the rights of the individual will be trampled. But what if Lowry's fellow citizen is an atheist? How can the atheist be persuaded to consent to truths that are only solidly grounded in a faith he doesn't share? And what happens when even those who share the same faith disagree profoundly on its moral and political consequences? Lowry seems to forget that men of Christian faith strongly opposed and backed slavery and segregation--and used Biblical texts to do so.

The defense of human freedom offered by conservatives of doubt, on the other hand, is founded on more accessible and less contentious arguments. Such conservatives can point to the Constitution itself as the basis of U.S. political life, and its Enlightenment concept of freedom as sturdy enough without extra-Constitutional theology. (The purpose of the Constitution was to preserve the Declaration of Independence's right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The word "virtue" is not included in that phrase. Its omission is the single greatest innovation of the U.S. founding.) They can point to the astonishing success and durability of the U.S. experiment to buttress the notion that the Constitution is a much more stable defense of human equality than that inherent in any religion. The Constitution itself has far wider support among citizens than any theological argument. To put it another way: You don't need an actual religion when you already have a workable civil version in place.

What, though, happens to moral appeals in politics? They do not disappear, especially in a place as deeply religious as the United States. But they express themselves in crusades for personal salvation, evangelism, or social work, rather than in legislative change. Compare President George H.W. Bush's praise for "a thousand points of light" as a critical voluntary complement to the welfare state with George W. Bush's channeling of public money into religious social programs. The one is premised on a conservatism of doubt; the second on a conservatism of faith. In that sense, the new conservatism seems to believe that faith communities cannot do their work adequately without government help. It has less faith in faith than conservatives of doubt do.

For the last few decades, enough has united conservatives of doubt and conservatives of faith to keep the coalition in one rickety piece. Both groups were passionately anti-communist, even if there were some disagreements on strategy and tactics. Today, both groups are just as hostile to Islamist terrorism and fundamentalism. Both groups have historically backed lower taxes. Both oppose affirmative action and gun control. And there have been conservative personalities who have managed to appeal to both sides--Ronald Reagan is the exemplar.

Conservatism is stronger for containing both traditions. The contribution of Christianity to Western notions of human freedom is indisputable, and conservatives of doubt have no desire to minimize that fact. Similarly, conservative Christians have historically been aware of the need for limited government in order to protect the very freedoms that allow their faith to flourish. Besides, the West has long alternated between periods that emphasized the need for collective moral action and those that demanded smaller government and greater individual freedom. Conservatism's diverse philosophical pedigree has allowed it to adapt and endure as a political philosophy.

In the last part of the twentieth century, conservatism in Great Britain and the United States threaded both needles, dramatically increasing individual economic freedom through lower taxes, while retaining respect for moral tradition and stability for family structure and individual responsibility. You might describe Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as people who, in a collectivist age, had faith in the conservatism of doubt. But, as this wave of conservatism ratcheted back government power, and, as left-of-center parties--Bill Clinton's Democrats and Tony Blair's New Labour--all but acquiesced to the new order, the right's intellectual energy sought new projects. Conservatism had won much in the 1990s, even as liberal parties ruled: Taxes were not raised to anything like the levels of the past; fiscal discipline became entrenched; issues like tackling welfare and crime found their way to the liberal wing of the Anglo-American political spectrum.

What, then, was the right to do? In Great Britain, it has hewed to the center-right and failed to unseat an essentially center-right government under Blair. It has endorsed marginally lower taxes, but essentially reconciled itself to Blair's incremental increase in government and the social liberalization of the past 30 years. (Compared with Bush's spending habits, Blair is a Thatcherite.) In the United States, however, conservatives of faith saw their opportunity and reversed many years of limited government philosophy in order to install a bigger, more morally attuned, more powerful government.

At the same time, the nature and content of the faith of these post-millennial conservatives changed. It was no longer that of mainstream Protestantism or even of most American Catholics. It was a version of faith that was resurgent around the world as the new millennium passed: a fundamentalist and authoritarian revival that took hold in all the major religions. And it was this fundamentalism that made the new faith-conservatism more radical and far-reaching than in the past. It kept the radical edge of conservatism razor-sharp.

Fundamentalism, by its very nature, eschews compromise. It is not an inferential philosophy, drawing on experience or history to come to a conclusion about the appropriate way to act or legislate on any given issue. It derives its purpose from fixed texts: the Bible or the Koran. In its Catholic form, it vests unalterable authority in the Pope rather than in the more heterodox laity or even broader clergy, and it brooks no internal dissent or debate. Because the tenets of fundamentalism are inviolable and its standards are mandatory, fundamentalists are inevitably uneasy in the modern West. The culture affronts them in every way--and the affront demands a response. Women in combat? Against God's will. Same-sex marriage? An oxymoron. Abortion? Always and everywhere to be forbidden by law. Stem-cell research on embryos? Doctor Mengele reborn.

The idea that there can be prudential compromises on issues like the right to die, or same-sex marriage, or stem-cell research is a difficult one for fundamentalists. Since there is no higher authority than God, and, since there can be no higher priority than obeying him, the entire notion of separating politics and religion is inherently troublesome to the fundamentalist mind. Whereas for older types of faith-conservatives, religion informed their view of the world and shaped the way they entered civil discourse, the new conservatives of faith bring their religious tenets, unmediated, into the public square.

Two recent controversies highlight this new stridency. The Schiavo case revealed something profound about the new conservatism. Old conservatives would have been reluctant to intervene politically in a horrifying family dispute. They would have been comfortable letting local courts or state law govern the case. And they would have acquiesced to due process, whatever qualms they might have had about the details. Today's fundamentalists, by contrast, could see little nuance in the Schiavo case: scant concern for family prerogatives, state law, judicial review, and all other painstaking proceduralism. The fundamental truth for them was that Schiavo was being murdered. A woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years was, for some, indistinguishable from a healthy adult. Some thought her husband's legal rights were rendered less germane by his allegedly sinful private life. The state legislature, governor, and then the federal Congress were cajoled to intervene. The president flew back to Washington to sign legislation designed for one specific case. If there was once a balance between conservatives of doubt and conservatives of faith, that balance was abandoned. It was abandoned as conservatives of faith morphed into conservatives of fundamentalism.

The fundamentalist conservatives were able to corral the most powerful people in the Republican Party to do their will. The major organs of conservative opinion--The Weekly Standard, National Review--both backed the fundamentalist position. The Standard published a long essay arguing that, even if Schiavo had signed a living will citing her desire to be allowed to die if she succumbed to a permanent vegetative state, she should have been kept alive indefinitely. Morality trumped autonomy. Indeed, the whole notion of individual autonomy was deemed a threat to what conservatism was seeking to defend. The judge in the Schiavo case was vilified, along with the rest of the judiciary. House majority leader Tom DeLay promised retribution against the judges who ruled in the case. Senator John Cornyn made a speech, which he subsequently retracted in part, saying that decisions like the Schiavo ruling made violence against judges more understandable. Conservatives at a conference in Washington, D.C., called Justice Anthony Kennedy's jurisprudence "satanic." James Dobson, arguably the most powerful evangelical leader in the United States, compared the Supreme Court to the Ku Klux Klan. A religious right conference baldly declared that the Democratic Party was fighting a war against all "people of faith." It was blessed by the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist.

On same-sex marriage, conservatives of faith have been equally uncompromising. In response to several court cases across the country that edged closer and closer to giving legal equality to gays and lesbians, conservatives in Washington responded by proposing--as a first resort--a constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage and any of its benefits from being granted to same-sex couples. Again, what's interesting is just how far-reaching the initial position was. Several other conservative positions were ruled out in advance: that marriage is a conservative institution that should include gays; that states should be allowed to figure out their own marriage policies as they have done for decades; that no action need be taken as long as the Defense of Marriage Act remained on the books, preventing one state's marriages from being foisted on another; or that conservatives could support civil unions or halfway measures that could grant gays some, but not all, of the rights of heterosexual marriage.

In various state constitutional amendments, again actively promoted by the Republican Party, gay couples were also denied benefits or protections. Judges--some liberal, many conservative--were described as "activists" or "extremists" if they applied their state constitution's guarantees of equal protection to gay couples. The rhetoric was extraordinary. Letting gays marry was equated with the "abolition" of marriage, even though no one was proposing to change heterosexual marriage rights one iota. "Homosexuals … want to destroy the institution of marriage," James Dobson said. "It will destroy the Earth."

How were conservatives of doubt supposed to respond to these fundamentalist incursions into the conservative discourse? A few dissented. The Schiavo case seemed finally to embolden traditional conservatives into defending due process and limited government. (Some are even defending the filibuster as an essential tool for limited and divided government.) But they failed to blunt the fundamentalist position within the Republican Party or to dilute the venomous attacks on the judiciary that followed. On the marriage issue, even those with openly gay offspring, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, were forced to toe the party line. The religious right's insistence that homosexuality is a psychological disease requiring treatment forced the president to avoid ever using the words "gay" or "lesbian" or "homosexual" in his speeches; even recognizing the existence of gay citizens was too much for the social right. No surprise, then, that the 2004 Republican Party platform called for constitutional amendments banning all legal benefits and protections for gay couples everywhere in the United States. In a society with a big openly gay population, this was not a politics of moderation. It was and is a crusade.

Crusades, however, are not means of persuasion. They are means of coercion. And so it is no accident that the crusading Republicans are impatient with institutional obstacles in their way. The judiciary, which is designed to check executive and legislative decisions, is now the first object of attack. Bare-knuckled character assassination of opponents is part of the repertoire: Just look at the swift-boat smears of John Kerry. The filibuster is attacked. The mass media is targeted, not simply to correct bad or biased reporting, but to promote points of view that are openly sectarian, even if, as in the case of Armstrong Williams, you have to pay for people to endorse your views. Religious right dominance of the party machinery, in an electoral landscape remade by gerrymandering, means that few opponents of fundamentalist politics have a future in the Republican Party. It's telling that none of the biggest talents in the Republican Party will ever be its nominee for president. John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki, and Rudy Giuliani could never survive the fundamentalist-dominated primaries.

Indeed, by their very nature, conservatives of doubt are not particularly aggressive politicians. Fiscal conservatives have been coy in expressing their outrage at Bush's massive spending and borrowing, easily silenced by the thought that Democrats would be even worse. Defenders of an independent judiciary are drowned out by the talk radio/Fox News/ blog-driven megaphone of loathing for unaccountable judges. Many moderate conservatives voted for the law to protect Schiavo. Republican defenders of gay marriage are few and far between. Those few voices of dissent are increasingly portrayed as mavericks or has-beens. You will find precious little time for people like Christie Todd Whitman on talk radio or in the conservative blogosphere.

But that doesn't mean that the arguments of doubt-conservatism are flimsy or unnecessary. In fact, they may be increasingly critical to conservatism's survival. An ideologically polarized country, in which one party uses big government for its own moral purposes and the other wields it for its own, is not one that can long maintain a civil discourse. Politics becomes war, letting a key Republican leader like DeLay can genially boast that his supporters are armed. What conservatism has long offered is a messy defense of procedure and moderation, doubt and limits, attributes that make civilized politics possible and are often appreciated only when they are lost. But, by then, it is sometimes too late.

I'm not saying that Republicanism is headed for an institutional crack-up. What I am saying is that, unless the religious presence within Republicanism becomes less dogmatic and fundamentalist, the conservative coalition as we have known it cannot long endure. Advocates for government restraint cannot, in good conscience, keep supporting a party that believes in its own God-given mission to change people's souls. Believers in fiscal discipline cannot keep backing an administration that boasts of its huge spending increases and has no intention of changing. Those inclined to prudence cannot join forces with fanatics (at least not in times when national security doesn't hang in the balance). Retreating to the Democrats is not an option. Small government conservatives are even less powerful within the opposition's base than in the GOP's. Bill Clinton's small-c conservatism was made possible only by what now looks like a blessed interaction with a Republican Congress. The only pragmatic option is to persuade those who run the Republican Party that religious zeal is a highly unstable base for conservative politics: It is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of the very mechanisms that keep freedom alive.

This doesn't mean purging Christians from the GOP. It means filtering religious faith through the skeptical and moderate strands of conservative thought. It means replacing zeal with religious humility; it means accepting that trading compromise of religious principles for political compromise is an ineluctable and vital democratic task. It means a lower temperature within conservative circles on issues like abortion, stem-cell research, and gay rights. And it means a renewed commitment to restraining government from its democratic instinct to act too often, too quickly, and too expensively.

But that is not the prime reason for standing up for the conservatism of doubt in a time of religious certainty. Imagine if the Rove formula is actually a successful one. Imagine a dominant political party devoted to expanding government as a means of moral revival, using national security to achieve a tiny democratic majority. The long connection between Republicanism and the expansion of individual freedom could be severely compromised. The attractiveness of a conservatism of doubt rests ultimately not on its ability to corral majorities. It rests on its central insight: that politics is not religion; that the U.S. guarantee of freedom is for all, not merely the majority; that political freedom must mean economic freedom, and that freedom is imperiled by fiscal recklessness; that there are worse things than doing nothing, especially if that "something" is the imposition of a divisive moral agenda.

There may come a reckoning for this political moment--and it may soon peak or deflate or be undone by its own hubris. Or it may not. What has to endure is not merely a reformed liberalism that can one day take government away from its current masters, but rather a conservatism that does not assent to its own corruption at the hands of zealots. This doesn't mean hostility to religion. It means keeping religion in its safest place--away from the trappings of power. And it means keeping politics in its safest place--as the proper arrangement of our common obligations, and not as a means to save or transform our lives and souls. If we are fighting such a conservatism of faith abroad--and that is the core of the war on Islamist terrorism--then why should it be so hard to confront it in much milder forms at home? This was, once upon a time, the central conservative calling. Why not again?

Andrew Sullivan is a contributing editor at The New Republic.