Action Alert!

two cheers for litmus tests

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 27, 2010

Chemists, I'm told, still use litmus paper to test the acidity of a mixture. Shame on them! Don't they know that a "litmus test" is no longer politically correct? 

In today's common parlance, a "litmus test" is the process by which conservatives allegedly exclude from consideration any political candidate who favors legal abortion. (LIke Senator-elect Scott Brown, maybe?) When liberals exclude anyone who opposes abortion, that's not regarded as a litmus test. Only conservative Christians are charged with this transgression.

And a litmus test is definitely regarded as a transgression in today's political world. Pundits and party leaders insist that we must judge candidates on a whole range of questions, never basing our final decision on a single issue. "Single-issue voters," by the way, are also invariably conservatives and Christians. If a liberal secularist announces that he will never vote for someone who opposes same-sex marriage, he is regarded as a man of principle. Reverse positions, make the voter an Evangelical Christian who will never support a proponent of same-sex marriage, and the media see a contemptible "single-issue voter," imposing a "litmus test"-- a threat to the very essence of democracy.

The Wall Street Journal has taken the campaign against litmus tests to a new level with an editorial denouncing those Republican activists who are trying to restore a clear conservative identity to their party. "Litmus tests are for minority parties," pronounced the Journal, expressing the fear that in the quest for ideological purity the GOP might alienate some people who would otherwise join Republicans on the truly important issues, like cutting capital-gains taxes. 

The Journal explains that GOP activists want to deny funding from the national party to any candidate who fails to support established Republican policy on at least 8 of 10 key issues:

The litmus list includes: support for smaller government and lower taxes, troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense of Marriage Act, containing Iran and North Korea, and gun rights; as well as opposition to ObamaCare, cap-and-trade legislation, "amnesty" for immigrants, union card check and government-funded abortion. 

That's not a litmus test; that's a comprehensive exam! A litmus test is, by definition, a quick appraisal using a single indicator. The GOP activists' proposal, by contrast, would ask for a general-- 80%-- show of sympathy for the major planks of the Republican platform. So why does the Journal use the "litmus test" language in objecting to that proposal? Is it because the editors want to capitalize on the negative connotations of that phrase? Or is it because many of the activists in the GOP are the same conservatives and Christians who have been accused so often in the past of setting up litmus tests on abortion and homosexuality? Only two of the ten issues mentioned are important items on the conservative Christian agenda, and a candidate could gain the required 80% score on this test even if he opposed the conservatives on those points. Still, any step toward ideological consistency would strengthen the conservative wing of the party. Is that what the Journal fears? The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has never been comfortable with that wing of the Republican party. Now, methinks, the editors have set up a litmus test of their own. 



Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: DrJazz - Feb. 01, 2010 10:05 AM ET USA

    This is an American Catholic's political dilemma. "Fiscal conservatives" who are "social liberals" often control the Republican party. Meanwhile, most Democrats are even more "liberal" socially and favor fiscal policies that kill the work ethic and any accumulation of wealth (except their own, of course). Read Chesterton's "Hudge and Gudge." It's been this way for a century, only now there is more efficient technology for destroying life in the womb. Catholics, read the social encyclicals!

  • Posted by: - Jan. 31, 2010 2:40 PM ET USA

    The WSJ has long promoted corporate/statist capitalism, globalism, and interventionist foreign policy as "conservative" principles. They most certainly are not. They derive from a materialist world-view which underpins the two currently ascendant political ideologies, "progressivism" and "neoconservatism", and is anathema to the Church, Catholic Social Thought, tradition, localities, communities and families.

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Jan. 29, 2010 8:21 PM ET USA

    Great commentary, Thanks! The problem conservative Republicans face sort of reminds me of my difficulty answering the question: "Who is Catholic"? Maybe we Catholics should be considering a "comprehensive exam". Still, I do have a "litmus test" for candidate [$$$] support...uncompromising opposition to abortion. As to "single issue" politics, love 'em or hate 'em, the NRA has demonstrated it works [$150 million annual budget]. We need to learn this lesson about political activism.