For some conservatives, confidence in America’s superiority is flagging.

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FORMER PRO FOOTBALL wide receiver Steve Largent of Oklahoma is now one of the more prominent social conservatives in the House of Representatives. The Hall of Famer, father of four, and born-again Christian bears watching as a bell-wether of opinion and sentiment in the rightward reaches of the Republican party and conservative America. So when Largent took to the op-ed page of the New York Times April 5 to argue for the immediate return of Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba, it was hardly a typical case of a conservative politician finding a ready audience for a dissenting embrace of a position favored by liberals.

Largent’s piece crystallized a strain of opinion that has been quietly emerging for some time now — one that helps explain the unwillingness of a Republican Congress to put up much of a fight against the Clinton administration’s decision to cooperate with the Cuban government in reuniting Elian with his father. If it was once the habit of left-wing intellectuals to see themselves as fundamentally alienated from their country and their culture, a similar sense of alienation has now taken root in some provinces of the religious right.

“Politics is keeping Elian Gonzalez from his father, and it’s time he is returned,” Largent wrote. “This is a family issue first and foremost. To forget that and allow our hatred for the Cuban regime to keep us from what is best for the child is shameful. It’s already a tragedy that the child has lost his mother; it would be a shame for our government to come between him and his father. . . . I know how important daddies are to 6-year-old boys. The question then becomes: Is it better for Elian to live in our great country without his father or to live with his father in
Cuba. No contest: I say reunite Elian with his daddy — today.”

It’s a mistake to see this sensibility, pro or con, through the same Cold War prism with which most of the debate over Elian has been refracted. The right has quite correctly taken aim at the collective amnesia of many Americans, 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with regard to the special evils of Communist totalitarianism. There is something appalling about the indifference to the plight of ordinary people in the places where communism survives — cut off from its ideological ambition of global dominance, but no less cruelly effective as a means of repression. And as a matter of first impression, Largent’s view looks like such an exercise in indifference. On the left, Americans have been invited to view the Elian case solely as a matter of reuniting a father and son, political conditions in Cuba being wholly irrelevant. To judge by opinion polls, Americans have mostly accepted the invitation, and in this light, Largent’s view looks like a similarly apolitical expression of paternal concern.

But the sensibility in question — call it Largentism — is more radical than that. The congressman hasn’t averted his eye from the Cuban government, let alone engaged in apologetics for it: “Let me say unequivocally that I am second to none in my dislike for Mr. Castro’s totalitarian regime.” Largentism is neither heedless nor apolitical; on the contrary, it has a political critique at its heart: “I came to Washington with the deep-seated belief that the family is sovereign. You can’t be for family values and at the same time advocate that governments be allowed to come between a father and his child.”

“Governments” shouldn’t come between — which is to say, the United States government any more than the Cuban government. “The family is sovereign” — which is to say, the family has supreme temporal authority over its members, higher than the authority any government possesses, whether democratic or Communist.

An e-mail correspondent this week told me he was having special difficulty making the case to his conservative home-schooling friends that Elian should be allowed to live in freedom in the United States. That’s because for many of these conservatives, Largentism is now orthodoxy. The decision to home-school, for some, is a matter of the quality of education available to their children. For others, though, it is a declaration of separation from a culture they find abhorrent. The rise of home-schooling over the past decade, in this sense, is a visible sign of a growing disaffection from this country’s government.

This disaffection can run deep: As a result of some combination of former and ongoing perceived depredations, the United States itself has lost its political and moral legitimacy in the eyes of some significant number of right-leaning Americans. This government has no special claim on justice. Indeed, no government has such a claim. It is not such a leap from the view that the United States lacks legitimacy to the view that Cuba is no different in that regard. The right-wing moral equivalence here precisely mirrors the old left-wing view that the United States was no better than the Soviet Union.

Except that the right-wing version has a vision of redemption. It’s to be found in the “sovereign” family and God. Hence, perhaps, the special passion of Largentism for the reuniting of father and son in the Elian case. For if a government can contrive to keep Elian apart from Juan Miguel, how safe are the children in their sovereign family redoubts anywhere in the United States?

Steve Largent himself is probably not as radical as the doctrine described here. He has lately lowered his profile on the subject of Elian, and he is, after all, a part of the government. But he has his finger on the pulse of something whose beat is growing stronger.