A Place for Atheists?

CPAC struggles to deal with non-believing conservatives.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaks on a screen at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference March 16, 2013, in National Harbor, Md.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus speaks at CPAC 2013.

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On Thursday, conservatives from around the country will descend on Washington D.C. for CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Organized by the American Conservative Union (which turns 50 this year), CPAC has played a lead role in defining the boundaries of conservatism. Last year, organizers excluded GOProud, a conservative gay rights group; Pamela Geller, an outspoken critic of Islam; and Chris Christie, an infamous hugger of Barack Obama. The exclusions were a snapshot of a conservative movement in flux: rigorously and vigorously opposed to Obama, but uncertain how to meet the challenges of a shrinking base.

This year, CPAC has invited back Christie and GOProud. (Geller remains firmly anti-CPAC.) But a new exclusion is opening up old fault lines that go to the very heart of modern conservatism.

When CPAC uninvited American Atheists from this year’s conference, most people were surprised to learn the group had been invited to begin with. What, after all, could be more contradictory than atheists and conservatives? This was the stance of Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center, who called the invitation “more than an attack on conservative principles. It is an attack on God Himself.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

This is not the first time the conservative movement has grappled with the question of atheism. The role of atheists in the movement has long symbolized the tension between its two philosophical tributaries: traditionalism and libertarianism. Where traditionalism celebrates religious values, calling upon the state to protect and promote them, libertarianism chafes at government intervention. Libertarians can be religious, though they would rather the state stay out of moral issues. But many leading libertarians are openly atheistic. Ayn Rand considered atheism a principle component of her objectivist philosophy. And she’s in good company. In National Review last week, Charles C. W. Cooke, making the case for atheism and conservatism, pointed to prominent conservative atheists like Charles Krauthammer, S.E. Cupp, George Will and James Taranto.


National Review itself is no stranger to this debate, as Carl T. Bogus detailed in his biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. In National Review’s first few years, the question of atheism cropped up again and again. Many of the magazine’s editors, including Buckley, were devout Catholics. A few, like Max Eastman, were atheists. While Buckley highly valued Eastman’s reputation and ardent anticommunism, he did not believe a person could be both an atheist and a conservative. “I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world,” he wrote in his first book, "God and Man at Yale." “I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on a different level.” To fight communism was to fight atheism, and vice versa.

This view was the warp and woof of National Review’s conservatism, something Buckley repeatedly made clear. Three years after joining the magazine, Eastman resigned. “It was an error in the first place to think that, because of political agreements, I could collaborate formally with a publication whose basic view of life and the universe I regard as primitive and superstitious,” he said.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

The current debate over the place of atheists in the conservative movement points to the growing divide between libertarianism and traditionalism. A resurgent libertarianism, fed by the War on Terror and federal expansion during the Bush and Obama administrations, has pointed one way forward for a struggling conservative movement. It has been met by an equally determined religious right, which has called for greater government intervention in the form of restrictive abortion and marriage laws, as well as what Paul Waldman has called “platinum-level citizenship” for highly religious people.

Conservatives have tried to bridge the fundamental incompatibility of these positions with a renewed focus on “religious freedom,” a civil libertarianism for the church-going set. But CPAC’s rescinded invitation to American Atheists shows how uneasy the alliance between traditionalists and libertarians remains, and how unlikely it is that atheists will ever be truly welcome in the conservative movement.