By Sean Finn
There is so much hypocrisy emanating from the rhetoric of prominent conservative voices it is difficult to know where to begin a piece like this. We are not being generous by welcoming a tiny sliver of the terrorized Syrian population dying and fleeing from pure evil. We are attempting and still likely failing to fulfill a moral imperative. Choosing to help these refugees does entail some risk and it does entail some costs, and I certainly don’t think that every lay person who has initial reservations about the refugee vetting process is an Islamaphobic bigot, or “bad” at their religion – and many of those saying otherwise in broad sweeping statements should likely reexamine their own tangible efforts to help the refugees in question. But there is a clear and evident overlap between the conservatives who speak the loudest about the incompatibility of Islam with Western values and the conservatives who despite knowing very little about the refugee crisis feel comfortable arguing that we should close our borders to the men, women, children, orphans struggling to escape this evil. Conservative pundits have objected to analogies being made to the U.S. and other Western countries turning back ships of Jews trying to escape the Nazis. The analogy might not apply in every respect, but observing the ease with which so many of my fellow conservatives have concluded that we can’t or shouldn’t help these people, I don’t see how any conservative with any type of platform or influence could be making this objection right now. Any prominent conservative who likes to wax poetic about Western values, but who frames this issue in a way that doesn’t acknowledge and address our moral obligations – and doesn’t acknowledge the way so many prominent conservatives are trying to obfuscate the existence of these moral obligations – is a hypocrite. I really think it’s that simple.
I didn’t always self-identify as a conservative. My political and philosophical influences in my personal life are predominantly a hodge-podge of progressive queer feminists and conservative, cis straight Catholics. To the extent that there was a unifying theme in the evolution of my beliefs, however, it has been an evolution defined by my evolving understanding of the idea that objective truths do exist, despite the limitations on our human abilities to arrive at those truths, and that while we should be conservative in our willingness to project our subjective understanding of reality onto others, the fact that objective truths do exist implies a variety of interrelated positive and negative obligations, both to each other and perhaps to some type of creative, unified source that somehow encapsulates and transcends Truth, Love, Beauty, Being, in ways that I don’t really understand. As someone who once proudly self-identified on Facebook as an “Atheist Fundamentalist,” it has not been a linear path to get to the beliefs I hold today, but one of the defining moments for me was a series of conversations I had in Morocco after my Freshman year of college, with a Muslim who first introduced me to concepts like Sadaqah, which I learned was a synonym for the Hebrew term Tzedakah, and which he then related to a political argument I was making about the role of government and maintaining a social safety net. He was a Sufi, and while I had little interest in mysticism at this point in my life, I would later read a series of books about the Kabbalah and recall with surprising detail some of what this Muslim scholar discussed with me. I share that, in perhaps more detail than seems necessary, because it is important to me that I am clear in my belief that not only is it consistent with a conservative understanding of Western values that we welcome these refugees, but that to the extent that I self-identify as a conservative on these types of issues, I view myself much more on the side of the Muslim who differentiates between charity and justice but understands how the concepts relate, who engages in deep ecumenical discourse with Jews, Christians, or people of a variety of other faiths, or even not-so-deep discourse with a glib 18-year-old atheist who probably wasn’t as funny or clever as he thought he was, than I do with any Republican Jew or Christian who thinks he’s defending Western civilization by ignoring the plight of refugees, or making Islamaphobic arguments about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy – not for the caricatured PC reasons that I see conservatives addressing with transparently dishonest strawman arguments, but for reasons that I think relate to important Western values and really get to the very heart of why I will either vote Republican or not vote at all this election – a conservative understanding of morality, a belief that heresy is worse than a sin, and a belief that we are interdependent individuals with inalienable rights, and positive and negative obligations.
If we don’t keep defending the idea that objective moral truths exist, as do positive and negative moral obligations, then what values or civilization are we fighting for? Materialism? A relativistic culture that quantifies the value of people’s lives, weighing them in utilitarian equations? I don’t trust Establishment Democrats to fight for Syrian refugees if it becomes politically inexpedient, but I do trust that Bernie Sanders would. I trust that many of my progressive feminist LGBTQ friends would. Why is that? Many of them would never use terms like “moral obligations,” or “objective truths” and would frame this entire discussion in an entirely different way. If anti-Establishment conservatives can’t even come close to matching the anti-Establishment progressives in their defense of these refugees, what moral standing do we have to ask the country to trust us rather than progressives to reform the corrupt oligarchic ruling class that consists of an elite coalition of government officials, corporate leaders and lobbyists?
When Fox News talking heads periodically expose their ignorance by blasting a caricatured version of a cherry-picked Pope Francis quote, at least some of their ignorance can be explained as reactionary responses to the similarly caricatured version cherry-picked by MSNBC, or another more liberal media outlet. The media in general, it must be acknowledged, is either incapable or unwilling to contextualize and accurately summarize religious arguments – at least as a general rule. As a conservative who finds it frustrating the way liberals so often characterize us as reactionary, I find it frustrating when so many of my fellow conservatives seem to be doing their best to prove these allegations true. I bring up Pope Francis, not just because his call for every European parish to welcome a Syrian refugee family was a welcome call to action from a Western religious and moral leader, but because I think there is a similar overlap between the conservatives who want to protect Western values by closing our borders, and the conservatives who memorably attacked Pope Francis for being a Marxist after he critiqued the false idol of capitalism in an apostolic exhortation several years ago. Their confusion, I think, stemmed at least in part from a conflation of social justice with charity, as well as a conflation of moral and prudential questions, in a way that I think relates to their reactionary responses to progressive and Democratic arguments for refugee resettlement.
I don’t think that recognizing the existence of a positive obligation automatically implies a single policy proscription. The Pope, my Catholic friends tell me, speaks to the moral dimension of the refugee crisis. His area of expertise is not the policy dimension. That makes sense to me, and reasonable people might agree that we have an obligation to help, but differ in how that help should manifest. Unlike negative obligations – which can’t really be weighed against other considerations, we do need to weigh what sometimes seems like competing positive obligations against each other. In this case, we also clearly have an obligation to consider the security of our loved ones already living here, in addition to our consideration of the refugees who need help. Everything I’ve read, every person I’ve spoke to knowledgeable about this issue, has suggested that it would be far easier for ISIS to infiltrate the U.S. through student visas, through our effectively open Southern border, and by radicalizing existing nationals. Perhaps people more knowledgeable than me know something I don’t, and have good reasons for arguing that we should help Syrian refugees in other ways that don’t extend to refugee resettlement. If that’s the case though, why aren’t these the arguments being made? Why are the most prominent conservative voices knocking down strawman arguments without actually addressing the issue?
It is the height of hypocrisy to frame an argument for protecting our own security in a way that either denies or obscures our obligations to these people in need, or somehow divides the refugees into groups deserving of our consideration and protection, and those undeserving. If Senator Cruz wants to accept Christian refugees and not Muslim refugees then he has disqualified himself as a candidate. Even from a consequentialist standpoint, it seems hard to imagine a more potent recruiting tool for ISIS then feeding their anti-crusader rhetoric, but on a more important level, this abdication of our responsibility to the Muslim refugees is disgusting. I don’t think that is the same thing as denying the obvious, that a Christian Syrian is unlikely to be an ISIS sympathizer, but even Governor Bush has somehow been unable to make this point without still tackling head on just why it is so important that we not reduce this vetting process to a religious litmus test, even if unlike Senator Cruz he has not proposed the same denial of refugee status to Muslims. I’m open to being persuaded that Governor Bush is just incredibly uncharismatic and inarticulate, and does not represent the same abdication of moral responsibility demonstrated by some of his opponents, but I’m not sure.
But in an election season in which the Republican Party has produced a wider range of decently articulate voices representing different factions of an impressively heterodox party – particularly in comparison to the two-horse show on the Democratic side – it is striking how little the Republican candidates have differentiated themselves. Governor Huckabee recently made an analogy to peanuts, arguing that you wouldn’t give your child a bag of peanuts if you knew there were some poisoned peanuts in the bag. But we don’t have a positive moral obligation to the other peanuts in the bag, so what value to the discussion does this analogy offer? Does it clarify the threat posed by ISIS terrorists, because like poisoned peanuts they could kill us? Of course not, no one is confused by the fact that the terrorists pose a deadly threat. It’s a stupid analogy on multiple levels, but the one thing it does do is obscure the fact that he wants us to abdicate our moral responsibility to help these refugees escape from evil. Variations of this argument have metastasized, facilitated by injurious Facebook memes purposefully designed to capitalize on the emotional responses of security-minded conservatives yet to fully engage conservative arguments concerning the moral dimension of the refugee resettlement question. Granted we live in a sound bite culture in which politicians of all stripes reduce complex issues to prettily packaged platitudes on a regular basis, but the whole basis of Governor Huckabee’s campaign is predicated upon the moral clarity he thinks he brings to moral issues where consequentialist arguments are mistakenly or purposefully used to justify our collective abdication of what he considers to be moral obligations. In an era in which the existence of moral obligations is very much up for public debate, reducing people to peanuts to avoid talking about our obligations to refugees is pathetic.
Governor Christie, of course, is the master of bluster and posturing. When he was simply running a blue state he managed to address the controversy surrounding the building of a mosque in downtown Manhattan in a way that didn’t make good and decent conservatives embarrassed to vote Republican. But seeing the need to throw red meat to the conservative base, Christie has decided that a blustery statement about not allowing in orphan refugees will revive his campaign. He may be right, but in every way that matters he is most definitely wrong.
Senator Rubio once seemed like a potential beacon of hope for conservatives weary of reluctantly voting for politicians entirely incapable of understanding or articulating conservative values. The Democratic reactions to Rubio’s comment recently about welders and philosophers encapsulates for many conservative observers why the Republicans are likely to win this election, and for the first time in a while, we may not need to worry every time the most prominent conservative leader (if he becomes the nominee or President) speaks in front of an audience that he is going to misspeak about issues we care about in such a way that we will have to spend the next several months contextualizing the better argument that he was actually trying to get at. Senator Rubio has actually engaged questions relating to Syrian refugees in a way that other candidates on both sides of aisle have not, and has at times spoken with admirable nuance and moral clarity. The arguments he’s been making recently, about not letting in refugees because we can’t vet them perfectly, and even 1 in 1000 bad ones is too many, contradict all the nuance he once brought to this issue, noting the many different and easier ways terrorists can currently infiltrate our country. Had he not been so engaged with this issue before the current spike in public engagement we might conclude that he has reevaluated his previous stance in light of the attack in Paris. But anyone paying attention to Rubio’s career understands that it is ridiculous to suggest that this attack changed his understanding of the vetting process. He is posturing, and it’s gross.
I refuse to talk about Donald Trump in a piece about conservative hypocrisy because I literally don’t know a single conservative whose politics I respect who considers Trump conservative. To the extent that some of the Republican candidates seem to be choosing their words as carefully as possible so as not to alienate his base of support, even in accepting the way in which they are then forced to twist their arguments to provide less rather than more moral clarity, I think that this too should be a disqualifying strategy. It isn’t enough for Rubio to respond to a Trump quotation about closing mosques by saying we need to close any place where people are being radicalized. It’s not his job to respond to every moronic Trump comment, but when asked a direct question, in a context in which so much of the Republican base is parroting these similarly bigoted comments, Rubio needs to say loudly and clearly why he rejects that type of ignorant suggestion.
I’m not really sure whom that leaves. The Democratic Party hasn’t offered a viable conservative option in many years. But the fact of the matter is, neither have the Republicans. As a conservative I’m going to continue to read new information as it surfaces and question my own capacity to evaluate complex issues which I don’t actively and regularly engage. Some of the conservatives questioning the vetting process have a long history of engaging this crisis from the very beginning, and I am not confident enough in my position to say that anyone who disagrees with the policy proscription that makes the most sense to me is a bad person or an unfaithful practitioner of religious beliefs I don’t fully understand. I do feel very confident stating that not only is the most hateful and bigoted rhetoric coming from conservative and Republican circles right now, but that the vast majority of the rhetoric even from people I don’t consider hateful bigots has been inconsistent with my understanding of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim values undergirding the Western values which are so important to me that we conserve.