Sunday, August 30, 2009

Going Backward to Get Ahead
There's an interesting story in the Washington Post this morning, providing a pleasant reminder that the paper can add something of value when it's not serving as a megaphone for the vilest and most immoral elements in our public life. This piece details the grad school thesis of Bob McDonnell, Republican candidate for the Virginia governorship, written in 1989 while studying at Pat Robertson's Regent University. (My favorite note of the story: at the time, the school was known as CBN University, for Roberton's Christian Broadcasting Network. Says it all, don't it?)

It's the content of McDonnell's thesis that potentially put his gubernatorial prospects, henceforth very strong if polling is any measure, in some jeopardy:

At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master's thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

The 93-page document, which is publicly available at the Regent University library, culminates with a 15-point action plan that McDonnell said the Republican Party should follow to protect American families -- a vision that he started to put into action soon after he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.

During his 14 years in the General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper, including abortion restrictions, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to favor his view of the traditional family. In 2001, he voted against a resolution in support of ending wage discrimination between men and women.

I guess the encouraging part of this story is that McDonnell himself now repudiates some of the more extreme views he held back then, including the banning of contraception and the right of government to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Perhaps he no longer believes that feminism is a "real enem[y] of the traditional family." One would hope.

But what I find really interesting in this particular political moment, when Republicans are claiming to have rediscovered their limited-government roots, is how unapologetically interventionist McDonnell's thesis was. In a sense, it's the usual story: liberal Democrats want to use state power to intervene on behalf of economically disadvantaged individuals and families, while right-wing (I won't call them conservative) Republicans seek the same means to the very different end of regulating sexual and religious behavior. For example:

The combination of faith and public service was on McDonnell's mind, too. His 1989 thesis -- "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of The Decade" -- was on the subject he wanted to explore at Regent: the link between Christianity and U.S. law. The document was written to fulfill the requirements of the two degrees he was seeking at Regent, a master of arts in public policy and a juris doctor in law.

The thesis wasn't so much a case against government as a blueprint to change what he saw as a liberal model into one that actively promoted conservative, faith-based principles through tax policy, the public schools, welfare reform and other avenues.

"Leaders must correct the conventional folklore about the separation of church and state," he wrote. "Historically, the religious liberty guarantees of the First Amendment were intended to prevent government encroachment upon the free church, not eliminate the impact of religion on society."

He argued for covenant marriage, a legally distinct type of marriage intended to make it more difficult to obtain a divorce. He advocated character education programs in public schools to teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values" and other principles that he thought many youths were not learning in their homes. He called for less government encroachment on parental authority, for example, redefining child abuse to "exclude parental spanking." He lamented the "purging of religious influence" from public schools. And he criticized federal tax credits for child care expenditures because they encouraged women to enter the workforce.

I actually think he's half-right about the First Amendment. It does protect religion from government--but it also protects observers of minority religions from having to live according to the dictates of a majority creed. McDonnell (the 1989 version, at least), like Pat Robertson, favors the most egregious violation of the First Amendment by effectively establishing a specific variant of Christianity as the national faith. And the lack of consistency in his approach to the public sphere (the part I bolded) would be hilarious if it weren't so disturbing: on the one hand, he wants to use the public schools to make up for perceived parenting deficiencies ("character education programs"), but to liberate parents to beat their kids on the other. Left unsaid is whether Jewish, Muslim or atheist parents have the same right to smack the unholy shit out of Junior for mouthing off as do evangelicals.

The article later details McDonnell's repeated efforts--not as a grad student, but as an elected official in Virginia--to legislate "covenant marriage" in Virginia. My favorite detail here is that under his bills, "the time of separation for couples with children to obtain a no-fault divorce would have been extended from one to two years." Because, I can tell you from experience, there's nothing better for children of divorced parents than for the wrenching process to take as long and be as painful as possible. He also evidently remains opposed to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, a position so extreme that even former Senator George Allen, R-Imbecile, was quick to denounce it.

That McDonnell is downplaying these positions suggests that extremism is a political loser in Virginia today. But I would bet that he was entirely mindful of the potential political implications when he wrote that paper 20 years ago; he moved back to the state for grad school and ran for office two years after finishing CBN U (hee hee). He was just wrong in thinking that the Old Dominion would continue to drift toward Dominionism. For that, again, we can be grateful, as well as watchful to ensure that the trend doesn't reverse again.

This probably will be it for awhile on AIS... though given how little I've posted this year, it might not even be noticeable depending on just how long I take to return to coherence and/or feeling like writing something.

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