A Giuliani Conservative Tilts at Religion

091106 article wiseguys A Giuliani Conservative  Tilts at ReligionRudolph Giuliani has repeatedly extended the hand of friendship to Christian conservatives in recent months. But a leading member of a think tank closely associated with the former Mayor has just delivered a powerful jab to the face of the same constituency.

Mr. Giuliani, long viewed with suspicion by the religious right because of his pro-choice, pro-civil-union positions, went so far as to campaign for former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed back in May. The move was widely seen as an attempt to curry favor with a voting bloc that will play a crucial role in electing the Republican Presidential candidate in 2008.

But last month, Heather Mac Donald—a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the organization that served as a semi-official brain trust to Mr. Giuliani during his time in Gracie Mansion—mounted a brazen frontal assault on the politics of piety. Moreover, she chose Pat Buchanan’s magazine, The American Conservative, as the unlikely platform from which to do so.

Ms. Mac Donald is a heroine to many in the conservative movement, in part because of her robust attacks on everything from feminist ideology (“lunacy”) to The New York Times (“a national security threat”).

She is also, not incidentally, a self-described nonbeliever.

“Skeptical conservatives—one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures—are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it,” she wrote in the Aug. 28 issue of The American Conservative. “They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.”

The article ignited a firestorm that continues to sweep across conservative opinion journals and Web sites. Pundits including John Podhoretz, Ramesh Ponnuru and Jonah Goldberg have, to varying extents, made their disagreement plain. Philosophy professor (and Opus Dei member) Michael Pakaluk has complained that Ms. Mac Donald’s “mockery of common religious sensibilities … is so unfeeling as to border on the inhuman.”

Asked about the timing of her article, Ms. Mac Donald suggested that her exasperation with the religiosity of present-day conservatism had simply reached a boiling point.

“I’ve just been impatient over the last six years,” she told The Observer. “I don’t remember anything like this current assumption that candidates should talk about their relationship with God. What is that supposed to tell citizens?”

There is no suggestion that the Manhattan Institute fellow is doing Mr. Giuliani’s bidding in making the controversial case for secular conservatism. On the contrary, Ms. Mac Donald’s argument is more likely to be met with consternation by allies of the former Mayor, for fear that it could dynamite the bridges to the religious right that they have been so assiduously trying to build.

Baruch College political-science professor Gerald De Maio, who teaches a course on religion and politics, believes that the debates about a Giuliani candidacy—and about the issues raised by Ms. Mac Donald’s article—are manifestations of the longstanding divide in the G.O.P. between social conservatives and libertarians.

The libertarian wing, he said, “is muted. They count for much less than they used to. In many ways, Gerald Ford was the last President to represent that tendency. Now, one of the questions is: Could Rudy Giuliani get the nomination as a social liberal? I can’t see how social conservatives in the heartland can back him.”

Ms. Mac Donald admiringly told The Observer that the former Mayor “never invoked God, but transformed this city in ways that couldn’t have been imagined.” But she insisted that her main concern wasn’t electoral politics. She was, she said, more interested in the need for “a sound philosophical basis for conservative argument.”

That may sound like a nebulous aim. But it is also an honorable one.

When the President names Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, uses a sly phrase like “wonder-working power” during a manifestly political occasion like a State of the Union address or invokes God in support of his decisions in Iraq, he seeks, at the minimum, to give his agenda a religious veneer.

The invocation of religion in support of political beliefs is, above all else, a dangerously effective tool for foreclosing debate, discouraging scrutiny and suggesting that one’s opponents lack moral fiber.

The battle of ideas should be fought with the weapons of reason and logic alone.

That is not an intrinsically liberal idea. There is much to support in Ms. Mac Donald’s contention that conservatism is strong enough to prosper without being propped up by the language of religious piety.

But as Mr. Giuliani already seems to have demonstrated by his actions, many conservatives will never see things that way.