Conservatism thriving, say panelists at Citadel

Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Jr. (left) and former CIA Director James Woolsey tour The Citadel before participating in the final class of a new course called Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America.

The conservative movement struggled in the past to get a foothold in American politics, but its future likely will be bright, according to a panel of leaders who spoke Wednesday at The Citadel.

Ralph Reed Jr., former leader of the Christian Coalition; James Woolsey, former director of the CIA; and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., discussed the future of conservatism in the final presentation of the military college’s series, the “Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America.”

Reed launched the discussion with a presentation on the history of the conservative Christian movement. He said evangelical Christians “lived in self-imposed exile” after the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. In that case, a Tennessee teacher was found guilty of violating a state law by teaching about evolution in a state-funded school, but the verdict later was overturned. The movement got a boost with the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s. When that group closed in 1989, “they said the religious right was dead,” Reed said.

But the Christian conservative movement wasn’t dead, he said, it simply had to retool. The movement previously had focused on issues such as school prayer, abortion and nominating conservative judges to courts, especially the Supreme Court. It had to cast a wider net to include financial issues and all matters of public policy, he said.

Citadel senior Matthew Selmasska, one of the cadets enrolled in the class, said that he thinks young people are most concerned about government spending, debt and the high cost of government programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. “In my opinion, young people don’t really care about legislating morality, gay marriage, or things like that,” he said.

He asked Paul, a tea party darling, about what it would take to rein in the high cost of the programs.

Paul said it likely will take raising the age at which people are eligible to receive benefits and “means testing,” which would provide less government money to those with higher incomes.

Reed said many politicians, even those who consider themselves conservatives, are reluctant to rein in the popular programs.

He said he thinks things likely won’t change until there’s some kind of financial crisis.

Selmasska said he thinks cutting the cost of the programs should be the No. 1 issue for leaders. “If we don’t get the entitlements under control, they will swallow us all,” he said.

Woolsey said conservatives also must focus on national security. The country needs well-trained, substantial military forces and also must develop better protection mechanisms for electric and transportation systems.

The future is bright for conservatives with “a major qualification,” Woolsey said. “We have to convince Americans we are for a strong military.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.