This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Election years always expose fissures within our political culture as candidates jockey to position themselves within the pack. Establishment candidates and so-called outsiders from both sides of the continuum must all walk an ironic tightrope: The crazier they sound, the better their primary poll numbers and, ostensibly, the less electable they become. While the election cycle has its predictable phases, several events in this current season, independent of any candidate's campaign, shed light on a growing gulf within the conservative movement.
The publication of Jon Meacham's new biography of George H.W. Bush, George Will's review of Bill O'Reilly latest book, "Killing Reagan," and the LDS Church's recent decision to exclude the children of gay couples from church membership all suggest that the cleft is not between the base and the mainstream; rather, the fault lines are running right through the center of the conservative core.
In writing "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush," Jon Meacham conducted several interviews with Bush 41. Those interviews reveal, among other things, Bush's deep disappointment in Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who, from the elder Bush's perspective, did not serve Bush 43 as well as they might have. But Bush is not content to settle old scores, some of which date back to the Ford Administration. He goes out of his way to assign some of the blame to the vice president's wife, Lynne Cheney, whom he describes as a driven, "iron-ass," meddler. (Apparently, "iron-ass" is one of H.W.'s favorite descriptors one he does not reserve exclusively for Mrs. Cheney.) No one would suggest that a 91-year-old former head of state should not speak his mind, but whether we chuckle or recoil at his choice of adjectives, we miss the point. Bush's blunt force candor points to a deep, sustained and personal division among long-time political allies.
A similar rift on the right was revealed when George Will, one of the most respected conservative apologists of our time, was summoned to the O'Reilly Factor's tantrum zone to answer for his negative review of "Killing Reagan," the fifth book in O'Reilly's "killing" series. At stake is nothing less than how Ronald Reagan is remembered a subject as touchy as evolution and abortion in certain circles. Will accused O'Reilly of "doing the work of the left" by offering a sloppy, reckless and misleading portrait of a president whose advisers were concerned he would have to be removed from office for lack of mental capacity, as the effects of the onset of Alzheimer's were, arguably, beginning to show. O'Reilly, ever sensitive to the charge that he is not telling the truth, called Will a "hack" and abruptly ended the interrogation while Will was mid-sentence.
The memory of Ronald Reagan's memory notwithstanding, the exchange between O'Reilly and Will illustrates that conservatives are not killing Reagan or Patton or Kennedy or Lincoln or Jesus. They are killing each other, as the drive for ideological purity and acceptable interpretation are narrowing the gate at the right fork in the road.
The narrowness of the gate has been further emphasized by the LDS Church's recent announcement that the children of married gay couples would not be allowed to participate in any church ordinances (blessings, baptism, confirmation, ordination) until they reach the age of 18 and effectively renounce their parents' relationship and lifestyle. No one in or out of the LDS Church expected its leadership to endorse gay marriage, but the idea that the sins of the fathers would be immediately visited upon the heads of the children took even many of the faithful by surprise.
The leaders of conservative institutions face a tough choice: to cast the net of inclusion or to hound out the heretics. Each is fraught with risk and reward. However, these recent events seem to indicate that the inner circle is contracting, while the sphere of apostates is, by definition, expanding. Friends, family and former leaders who once enjoyed a protective shield of respect are now routinely counted as collateral casualties of cultural warfare. It is little wonder, then, that the consequences of these battles are felt at a deeply personal level.
Imagine the lifelong Republican mother from Bountiful, who has always identified as a Cheney conservative, who has read and listened to George Will for decades, and who just found out that her grandchildren will not be able to join her church because of choices their parents (her children) have made. Hers is a world turned upside down. Moreover, the disruption she is experiencing was not brought on by an assault from the left or even from the mealy-mouthed mainstream. It is coming from people she has voted for, supported, and sustained, whose books she has read and believed.
The leaders of the LDS Church and the principal pundits of the conservative movement share a common characteristic, namely, a kind of practical infallibility. In the eyes of their followers, they simply do not make mistakes; they cannot be wrong. Thus, the discrepancies between what leaders espouse and what followers feel must be explained in some other way.
This is why the strange events of this strange season suggest that the right is confronting something more than an election-year tussle. The crisis on the right is not about Lynne Cheney or Ronald Reagan or gay marriage. It is not a political crisis at all: It is a crisis of faith. It is a crisis that lies at the intersection of apostasy and orthodoxy, of blasphemy and belief. It is a litmus test for litmus testers, and is therefore less a separation of the sheep and the goats and more a division among the sheep themselves.
D. Kurt Graham is the director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Mo.