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Tuesday, May 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Conservatives who conserve

Welcome. No need to take off your Birkenstocks. The Indonesian three-bean casserole is bubbling on the stove, and there's plenty for everyone. Don't worry, we're not all vegetarians here. Dylan is bringing home a free-range chicken from our neighbor's organic farm. By the way, were you at the rally to keep big-box stores out of town?

You might assume from this exchange that you have entered the land of the liberal. Think again, says Rod Dreher. He is a self-described Christian conservative who also believes in urban planning, organic farming and "small is beautiful." In his book "Crunchy Cons," Dreher interviews enough like-minded conservatives to fill several communes.

Despite its whimsical title, this book is important commentary. A writer for The Dallas Morning News, Dreher shares a good cry with traditional conservatives who wonder what on earth the Republican Party is doing to their communities and way of life. And it informs narrow-minded liberals that religious people want a lot of the things they do.

A Louisiana native, Dreher sadly recounts seeing the rural pastures of his youth turn into big-house suburbs of Baton Rouge. He had something of an epiphany while living in an intimate old New York neighborhood, where quarters were close. There he spent "magical Brooklyn nights" communing with friends. By day, he enjoyed shopping at small local stores and knowing his butcher. Alas, one Wal-Mart Supercenter and it could all be gone.

Not every conservative would have the guts to praise Hillary Clinton for saying that "it takes a village to raise a child," but Dreher does. And he comes close to committing Republican treason when he questions the values of McMansion-land. He does not admire the decision to commute long hours to giant houses the owners can barely afford. To him, it's more about feeding materialistic impulses than nurturing family life.

"We (conservatives) want God back in the public square," he writes, "but for too many of us, religion is a pious veneer over our own unconscious worship of materialism."

That's tough stuff, but on the mark. When it comes to the deadly sins, modern American conservatives are good at condemning lust and sloth. But they seem to have forgotten about greed and gluttony.

This is me talking, not necessarily Rod Dreher, but the problem with many of today's "conservatives" is that they don't conserve anything. The countryside is something to be strip-mined, paved and denuded of wildlife — if someone can make a quick buck off of it. They mock efforts to conserve energy. I've always thought that people who go on about "family values" ought to be leaving America's children something other than their unpaid bills and a degraded environment.

Conservatives from modest backgrounds seem so easily intimidated by business interests. Some developer wants to bulldoze their lovely landscape, and the local conservatives may initially join the resistance. But then the moneybags developer calls them elitist or some other code word for liberal, and they immediately cave. Liberals don't always win these battles, but at least they put up a fight.

That's probably why the most traditional neighborhoods in America are usually largely inhabited by liberals. Old-fashioned streetscapes cannot survive without a hundred zoning rules that tell people what they can't do with their property. Regulations are curbs on individual freedom — of course they are — but they're the price you pay to live in a nice place.

Liberals don't feel they must applaud everything that marches under the banner of free markets, growth and low prices. Dreher says conservatives don't have to, either. "When the market harms the good society," he writes, "it should be reined in."

Traditional conservatives tired of the Republican worship of Mammon may someday consider voting for the other side. Of course, the other side has to be ready to receive them. On that score, Democrats have a lot of work to do. One can't stop recalling Howard Dean's moronic remark dismissing the GOP as "a white Christian party."

Crunchy conservatives, Dreher writes, "stand alongside a number of lefties who don't buy into the consumerist and individualist mainstream of American life." If true, these two political groups could build one heck of a commune.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

2006, The Providence Journal Co.

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