May 4, 2007


Imagining Conservatism in a New Light (Daniel Larison, February 2006, New Pantagruel)

It has been one of the great, failed projects of conventional American conservatism to encourage the fiction that the Christian civilisation conservatives admire and the Enlightenment civilisation that destroyed it are part of a real continuity. For the purposes of this essay, I take it as a given that conservatism is, or at least ought to be, the persuasion and mentality that seeks good order and that in a Western society a conservative's understanding of good order is unavoidably defined significantly and primarily by the Christian intellectual tradition in general and by the received teachings of the early Fathers of the Church in particular. This latter point may not seem obvious or 'given' to some, but when we consider that these Fathers were responsible for the formulation of most of the formal doctrines that created the latticework of all subsequent Christian thought and they were likewise the architects of the Christian synthesis of reason and faith that survived unimpaired in all of Europe at least until the Reformation, this claim should seem far more compelling. I also take it as a given that a conservative acknowledges the overwhelming and irreducible cultural significance of the claims of the Christian religion, including its claim to the be the True Faith, and I assume that many philosophical conservatives are confessing Christians who see their conservatism as a logical, if not strictly necessary, accompaniment to their confession of the Faith and their conviction that Christianity is true and that Christ is the Truth who was incarnate for our sake. Such Christian conservatives are, I suspect, committed, to one degree or another, to the preservation of what remains of Christian civilisation in Europe and North America, and they believe that the Western experiment of modernity has been, at best, deeply flawed and generally hostile to the Christian tradition.
It would be just as wrong to say that governments are justly established by consent when Locke says it as it is when Rousseau says it, but half of the American conservative project depends on our pretending that the two are saying very different things.

That might be too much to assume, but I regard these points as the sine qua non of any effort to develop a philosophical conservatism of real significance. This essay is written in the conviction that it is in some real sense entirely vain to imagine that American conservatives may re-imagine a Christian civilisation and preserve its existing remnants, much less restore such a civilisation, so long as we persist in this fiction of the basic compatibility and agreement of the two traditions, the Christian and the Enlightenment. This is because we may either rely on the Faith's understanding of human nature and the proper relationship of man to God and to his fellow men, or we can accept the understanding of one of a host of modern derivatives of the liberal tradition in the knowledge that the assumptions we embrace will define and determine what sort of society and way of life our posterity will have. If the former is true, we will have to act as if it were true. A beginning would be to reject the false assumptions of liberalism broadly defined.

Understanding why such accommodation of stark opposites has been accepted at all reminds us what this specifically American conservatism has claimed to be: it was supposed to be a loyalty to and defense of the institutions and way of life of Western civilisation that had formed the peoples of the United States, as well as a peculiarly Anglo-American, pragmatic mentality that sought to harness and redirect the potentially corrupting effects of historical, social, and political change and turn them back towards the common good. That is the driving impulse for the expression of an explicit American conservatism, which, by the admission of Russell Kirk, was for much of American history largely latent or concealed in impulses towards inherited forms, towards virtue and order, and away from radical egalitarian leveling, centralized social planning and coercion. That this conservatism had to be uncovered by means of philosophical genealogies and scholarly inquiry underscores the intense role of imagination in defining this conservative vision. Such a conservatism could recognise the excesses of the philosophes in the eighteenth century because it was working from a long standing, and partly true, American contention that our "revolution" was sane because it was conservative of a prescriptive order that already existed, while the French Revolution was insane because it sought to conjure a new political order out of thin air. However, this American conservatism was never entirely committed to rejecting the French Revolutionary model of society and its conception of humanity, at least not when similar ideas had already established themselves in Anglo-American culture by means that were really no less excessive and revolutionary in the seventeenth century. American conservatism could readily abjure an offensive Continental radicalism to which it was not really connected while embracing the fruits of an equally philosophically offensive, but more politically moderate English radicalism drawn from the English Puritan Revolution that had created the Anglo-American political consensus of almost three centuries.

For an American, even one inclined to recognise the deep roots of American order in Israel and antiquity, these three centuries must seem nearly an eternity—indeed, they are virtually the whole of our historical experience on this continent. From an American perspective, circa 1775, the legacy of Whig usurpation, violence and abstraction was already in some sense "traditional" and relatively well-established in precedent—the rights of Englishmen our ancestors claimed were, in the sweep of history, fairly new and based on contractarian and rights theories just as speculative and ahistorical in their own way as any imagined in France, but they had acquired a certain respectability and stability through their institutionalisation and their ready application in colonial life. The accidental seventeenth-century alliance between Dissenting and Reformed Christianity, the parliamentary cause and a philosophy of natural rights grew steadily stronger in the course of the Stuart dynasty, which in turn lent an unusual plausibility to the accommodation of Enlightenment claims and Christianity in English and American societies.

The results were the virtually universal Anglo-American embrace of political liberalism of one stripe or another and the tendency towards the unhealthy and rather odd identification of the "causes" of liberalism and Christianity, which profited from and deepened the secularisation of Anglo-American cultures here and in Britain. It is not surprising, then, that it was not until American Catholics, for whom the mythical alliance of Protestantism and political progress was always as nonsensical as it was often offensive (for what it implied about the Catholic church and Catholic nations), began fully to come into their own culturally, politically and intellectually that this largely unexamined accommodation continued unabated. It is perhaps also not surprising that American conservatism found its early champions in intellectuals (e.g., Weaver, Kirk, Burnham) whose journeys typically began on the left or far left, as these men had already taken the assumptions of the liberal age to their logical and unavoidably absurd conclusions and then recoiled in contempt at what they had found waiting for them.

It is the impossibility of grounding liberal values in ought but the monotheisms that makes the Enlightenment the enemy and makes it futile to try and fuse conservatism with libertarianism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 4, 2007 12:00 AM
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