I'm not exactly George Will's biggest fan, though I give him credit for seeing sense on Iraq sooner rather than never, but his new column is refreshisingly pugnacious, and bracing, even if I have to disagree with a lot of it:
An aggressively annoying new phrase in America's political lexicon is "values voters." It is used proudly by social conservatives, and carelessly by the media to denote such conservatives.
This phrase diminishes our understanding of politics. It also is arrogant on the part of social conservatives and insulting to everyone else because it implies that only social conservatives vote to advance their values and everyone else votes to . . . well, it is unclear what they supposedly think they are doing with their ballots.
That's a lot tougher on the values voters than we're used to seeing from conservative columnists, and Will's just getting warmed up. For my part, though, I think he's wrong to say that every voter is a values voter — ok, it's true in the absolutely banal sense that even voting for what you think will simply be a government that deviates least from the letter and spirit of the Constitution amounts to affirming certain values, but there's a real distinction between libertarians and strict constitutionalists on the one hand and the let's-use-the-federal-government-to-make-Americans-moral/tolerant voters on the other.
Conservatives should be wary of the idea that when they talk about, say, tax cuts and limited government — about things other than abortion, gay marriage, religion in the public square and similar issues — they are engaging in values-free discourse. And by ratifying the social conservatives' monopoly of the label "values voters," the media are furthering the fiction that these voters are somehow more morally awake than others.
Has someone mislabeled a Steve Chapman column with Will's byline? This doesn't sound like "statecraft as soulcraft." Again, though, I have to disagree with him: one can have very strong Christian conservative values — or for that matter hippie values, or any other kind — and still believe that politics at the federal level, at least, should stay out of the business of soulcraft. Bush, Cheney, Frist, Reid, Hastert, and Pelosi shouldn't be crafting souls. Leave that to families, the Church, and local institutions.
Will's still not finished. He says the Federal Marriage Amendment, "would clutter the Constitution with the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman," and then he goes further still:
Arguably, governmental actions that did much to increase freedom and happiness in the past half-century were state laws liberalizing divorce. These made important contributions to the emancipation of men and especially women from mistaken marriages. Perhaps the most important of these laws — it was among the most liberal and was in the most populous state — was signed by a divorced governor, Ronald Reagan. What do socially conservative values voters make of that ?
This has to be somebody else. This is not George Will. Wow! He's gone farther than me; I'm not a defender of no-fault divorce. (Catholics should not get divorced at all, but that's a matter for the church, not any branch of the state. Non-Catholics I'd prefer not see get divorced either, but it's not a scandal to me if they do — and again, it's no matter for the state. But that said, a marriage under the state's laws ought to be a legally binding contract, not something easily abrogated by one party or even both parties. Though ideally I wouldn't have the state involved in marriage at all — the institution is in crisis because of the way government has defined and redefined it.)
Even the more neoconservative side of the old guard — don't forget Will's involvement in the mau-mauing of Mel Bradford — seems to have had it with Bush-era "conservatism." Jeane Kirkpatrick was making noises not so long ago along similar lines:
Like other conservative intellectuals torn between their sense of moral propriety and their rejection of meddling government, Mr. Kirkpatrick is conflicted about a constitutional ban on homosexual "marriage."
"Look, I am a serious Christian. I attend a conservative Presbyterian Church," she says. "I was raised as a Baptist. No, I don't favor the constitutional amendment. On the other hand, I don't want to promote same-sex 'marriage.' "
Obviously neither Kirkpatrick nor Will is at all a libertarian, but this outspoken distaste for federal meddling in morality is something new. Not altogether on the right track, but at least it's better than the deadly belief that George W. Bush is going to save America from hell.