the imaginative conservative logo


“The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.”–Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?”

“But what is a practical joke in a world of nonsense, what is a rational attitude? Towards politics in a world of ciphers…?”–Louis MacNeice, “The Blasphemies”

We are not born civilized.

We acquire civility, if at all, only later. The truest and best way to acquire civility is under the guidance of a wise moral order, and under the nurture of a well-functioning traditional family. While other paths to civility are possible and sometimes work, the happy combination of family and wise moral authority is the most dependable way to gain access to the hard-won wisdom of our ancestors, wisdom gained slowly and painfully over the centuries in the crucible of real life and in the light of revelation.

In other words, because we human beings are not born civilized, we are always only one generation from barbarism. We must domesticate each new generation, just as we were domesticated in our turn. To convert natural brutes into civilized persons requires nothing less than the wisdom of God. Barbarism is not behind us; it is within us, and it is persistent. Our demons die hard, if at all. If they are to die, God must kill them. Government cannot. The deepest and most profound human ills have no political solution. To think and act as if they do is foolish. How much time, effort, and treasure we have wasted trying to do by means of government what can never be done is far, quite far, beyond calculation.

Faced with the perennial challenge of civilizing the next generation, and fully aware that in order to civilize it we must begin with God, we Christian conservatives turn first to revelation, to the works and words of God Himself, works and words graciously bestowed upon this fallen and twisted world, a world utterly lost and never to be found without them. Thus, while Christian conservatives might value the good, the true, and the beautiful, they know that without God we can never find them or preserve them. Indeed, without God we could not even convincingly define them. While Christian conservatives set about conserving things like justice, the traditional family, and even civilization itself–things always at risk and under siege–they know that the best defense of them is the revelation of God, by which, and only by which, can things be seen and done aright. I am not saying that we cannot begin without God. I am saying that we cannot begin well without God.

Sound political theology is the means by which we can identify the insights of revelation and apply them prudently to the political order. Sound political theology is the wisdom and moral imagination that springs from revelation properly understood and wisely applied. Sound political theology is the theologically and historically informed prudence necessary to preserve the best of the past for ourselves and for our posterity in light of what God has done and said. Sadly, even tragically, political theology of this high order is as rare as it is necessary.

The arena of God’s revelation is history, and the explanation of that history is Scripture. God has acted and spoken in space and time. Christianity is historically and textually rooted, which means that a Christian understanding of politics must be built upon God’s historical and verbal revelation, on the one hand, and then applied to concrete historical situations and conditions, on the other. In other words, revelation comes from the same historical context to which it applies. It fits; it is suitable to its task. We reason on the basis of revelation and of careful observation of current historical conditions–conditions that are the context, or object, or arena, of our policy proposals. Political prudence is rooted both in revelation and in the history to which revelation applies. Specifically, we see first what God says and requires of us and of government; we consult policies and their consequences from the past in order to see what proposals have worked and what proposals have not; and we assess carefully the multitudinous details of the challenge that faces us at the moment.

Facts matter. Until we know all the relevant facts, both revelatory and historical, we cannot propose a prudent prescription for what ails us. Revelation and observation must precede solution. We begin with the real world outside our heads, and we adjust our thoughts to it. We do not start with abstractions and speculations inside our heads and then try to adjust the world to them. The world is not pliable in that way. In short, good policy does not arise from abstract principle or from metaphysical speculation. Reality is resilient, and because it is, the world simply cannot be remade at will to fit the abstract paradigms inside our heads, typically “freedom” for libertarians and “equality” for liberals. In other words, if “objective” means that the object in view controls our thoughts about it, and if “subjective” means that we thinking subjects ourselves control our thoughts about it, then political prudence is objective. We start from the revelatory and historical reality outside our heads and adjust the ideas inside our heads carefully to it. We study both the content of revelation and the world as it really is. We begin there. We do not begin with abstract principles and seek to impose them upon the world, even abstractions as honorable or desirable as “liberty”, “equality,” and “fraternity.”

For example, however much we might be drawn to them, we do not begin with abstractions like equality or freedom and then try to impose them upon the world. The reason is simple: As Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick observed, equality is easy to conceive but impossible to realize. Human beings are, with regard to their objective characteristics, utterly unique. No two of us are alike. We differ physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. We have different desires, resources, and intentions. Some persons are beautiful; others are not. Some are brilliant; others are not. Some are resolute and purposeful; others are not. Some are born to wealth and privilege; others are not. Some are slaves to destructive habits; others are not. Some are athletic, successful and popular; others are not. We come from different countries, cultures and generations. We have different experiences; we speak different languages; we pursuit different ends. Indeed, it is remarkably difficult to identify even one way in which we all are alike, or all are equal. Even if we say we all are sinners, we cannot say we all are equally evil or equally good. While Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler both were sinners, they were not morally or spiritually equal. Though neither was pure, it is patently obvious that to devote oneself to lifting the poorest and most abjectly destitute persons out of despair by the love of Christ is a world away from gassing millions of Jews. Even if we say that we all are equally God’s creatures, equal is not how He made us. God made a hierarchical, not egalitarian, universe.

Authentic equality in any measure that is not trivial, tautological or irrelevant remains resolutely evasive. Any political plan, therefore, that begins with equality as a fundamental premise, or that seeks to make all persons equal, must be tyrannical. What God has made so impressively different and unequal, government cannot succeed in making equal. If it seriously attempts to do so, it must ruthlessly suppress human nature and radically curtail liberty. If you leave human brings alone, their natural differences inescapably emerge. Equality requires tyranny.

Even if we say that we all ought to be equal before the law, our purpose is still not quite right. I don’t want equality from the law; I want justice. “Justice” means getting what you deserve. “Equality” means getting what your neighbor gets, regardless of what you or your neighbor deserve. I want equality from the law only in situations where justice equals equality. Those situations are exceedingly rare.

Alternatively, if one selects the principle of freedom as the point of political departure rather than equality, then a different set of obstacles and difficulties arise, the first of which is conceptual: Freedom is an incomplete concept. When someone insists upon freedom, the only prudent response is to ask, “Freedom–to do what?” Only the answer to that intentionally specific question can tell you whether or not the freedom sought is good or evil and deserves to be endorsed. Like the persons who pursue them, not all freedoms are created equal. Some freedoms are wonderfully appropriate to the human situation, like the freedom to pursue education, prosperity, or happiness. Other alleged freedoms are colossally evil, like the supposed freedom to abort one’s children. In other words, freedom in the abstract cannot be endorsed. Endorsable freedom requires precise definition and careful application. Unspecified, or abstract, freedom cannot be our generalized answer to the challenges of fallen human nature because inside unspecified freedom lurks the awful human capacity to do colossal evil. Despite that natural human capacity, there is no right to do wrong, and we are not free to do it. We are able to do evil; we are not free to do evil. Ability is not the proper measure of freedom. Our abilities and our capacities are not the same as our rights. Simply to be for freedom is to be a careless political thinker.

As hinted at above, the simultaneous pursuit of freedom and equality proves antithetical. You cannot maximize both at once. They are a tradeoff. The more free we are, the less equal we are. The more equal we are, the less free we are. Prudent government, which is based upon a sound knowledge of human nature–knowledge rooted in revelation–teaches us best just how that tradeoff needs to be constructed and pursued.

By way of comparison, unlike equality and freedom, justice is not an impracticable metaphysical abstraction. Justice is getting what you deserve. The pursuit and preservation of justice maintains the order of soul and of society necessary for human flourishing. To the requirements of justice, we all are born subject. No contrivance, political or otherwise, can or should extricate us from its obligations, which come from God Himself. To reject these obligations is to tear apart the fabric both of soul and of society. No person, no polity, can long endure, much less prosper, outside the obligations of justice.

In short, we must not begin with metaphysical abstractions, no matter how desirable we might think they are. We begin with revelation  and with the world as it is in all its incalculable complexity, a complexity that mocks the facile imposition of abstractions and easy recourse to metaphysical sloganeering. Sloganeers are fools, as are those who vote for them. Justice, for those requiring a reminder, is not an abstraction but a moral, social, and judicial obligation placed upon us by God. As much as we can do so, we are obligated to give folks what they deserve.

Another way of saying this is to insist that (1) human beings have rights against their governments, and (2) these rights are something that governments must never abrogate, although they can. Our rights, our dignity, are never to be transgressed by government. Governments exist to protect, not to plunder; they exist to defend, not to defile. The choice before us is always the same: tyranny or justice. Love the latter; hate the former. Revelation makes possible knowing which policies and which beliefs fall into which category.

Nations are defined by their righteousness, or they are destroyed by its absence. That fact is bad news for a nation that sets aside the immutable principles of God and that replaces them with a new (but not improved) brand of culturally relative ethics. Ethics does not depend upon culture; culture depends upon ethics. Indeed, “ethics” is perhaps not the word we want: “righteousness” is far better because it resonates more richly with the overtones of its Divine origin. “Ethics” sounds too much like what it really is: a humanly devised system of moral or political casuistry, and it implies that we can construct such systems satisfactorily all on our own. Righteousness is not a system; it is a means of acquiring and assessing character, wisdom, prudence and goodness. Righteousness is conformity to the character of God. Without righteousness and the character and wisdom it entails, a nation cannot flourish or even long sustain its very existence. When you undermine either the religious principle or moral conduct of a nation, when you trample moral and religious authority underfoot, you trample the nation underfoot as well. Never forget that religious faith–religious faith–is the bedrock of political liberty and the death of tyranny, a fact known very well by the ideologies and regimes that seek to topple us. Those who worship the state, whether they are Americans or not, tolerate no alternative faith, especially The Faith, because they know that one who fears God does not fear men. A God-inspired fearlessness that gives rise to resolutely righteous conduct is the death of tyranny. The fear of God generates wisdom and courage. Together they spell the death of despotism.

This whole discussion would finally go astray if I did not insist that, like the content of revelation, the content of human nature is a fundamental datum of which all wise governance must take account. When we take account of it, we learn that human beings are nothing if not depraved and different. Given the self-destructive foolishness of human nature, the real question we need to ask and to answer is “How are we to spare ourselves the ravages of anarchy and evil?” The answer is revelation, solid families, prudent government, and the wisdom of the ages. Nothing else can domesticate the savage lurking just beneath our skin. The less fully we recognize that savage’s existence and identity, the more control he has over us–indeed the more fully he is us.

Books related to this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. This is thought-provoking and thank you. Yet I wonder if indeed “Ethics does not depend upon culture; culture depends upon ethics”; they may be interdependent, no more able to be separated than Yeats’ “dancer from the dance.” This seems clear in closely-knit societies with integrated communities and old traditions, where an individual’s very freedoms are only perceived within the broader context of responsibility to faith, family, community and maybe clan. A disruption in that Old Order, such as in modern Afghanistan with its civil war at home and an enormous diaspora internal and external, interjects new and foreign (and often quite undesirable) values, rewards and incentives, while diminishing community, hierarchy, responsibility and the means of conveying them. In a single generation (as you say so well) the results can be horrifying and I have seen them close up.

  2. Excellent and enjoyable as usual Dr. Bauman. A few comments:

    I do take note of how exoterically insistant you are that revelation lies at the foundation of good political order. This insistence initially made me rather weary, until I realized that your entire essay is an esoteric attempt at the rational interpretation of revelation. That is to say, hearing the Word, you subsequently attempt to use the rational faculty to make sense of it.

    I admit that to this day, despite having come so far in my Christian faith, this primacy of revelation (and the primacy of the miracle of the resurrection) remain the most problematic components of my faith. I would not follow Jefferson or Hegel in rewriting the New Testament without the miracles, because this is to close the path towards mystery and wonder, but I fear I am a very bad recieving station for revelation.

    I comfort myself, or rather the Jesuit who schooled me comforted me that it was the women who bore first witness to the ressurection, the men doubted them and yet came to believe them. This suggests that women may well have a greater sensitivity to hear God, unlike men who, at best can read about, discuss or contemplate Him. It is good then, that we have women near us, whose faith is strong, so that when our rational faculties fail us, their spiritual sensitivity uplifts us.

    That said, I went so far as to acknowledge this short coming of mime by selecting the name Anselm for my confirmation, given that Anselm’s attempt at a purely rational justification for revelation is an important thing for me.

    I think that too often, Christians cede rationalism to modern relativists or, more broadly, agree to let the historians pretend that it is an Enlightenment era phenomenon, when it certainly was not.

    Finally, I get the feeling that Christians too often take for granted that Everyman knows what they mean by “God”. The layman is everyday bombarded not only with secularism, but with bad theology, thanks to which he hears that God is a magical thing in the sky, a fairy tale akin to Santa Claus, a mean old man who kills and hates people, a hippie, a regular guy, a mystification made to maintain political power etc etc etc. One of the most shocking experiences for me, when I began to attend Church with serious regularity, was the vast gulf between what really goes on there and what the popular culture tells us goes on there. Yet often we hear people who do not go to Church make sweeping claims about it. Would we tolerate critics writing about films they haven’t seen? Or people holding prejudices about countries they have not visited? Yet it is perfectly fine in intelligent company to have a million opinions about the Church without actually attending regularly.

    Sadly, we do not live in Pagan Rome, where Augustine could carry on the marvelous theological debates
    presented in the City of God with those who worship Pagan gods. Out times are so crass, that many people are nurtured to surpress their nature as spiritual beings and thus feel no longing whatsoever for religion. To open such people to God, absent the family and tradition (which the West has studiously liquidated) is nearly impossible.

  3. Dr. Bauman: Thank you for the enjoyable post. Please allow me the following remarks and observations:

    (1) With respect, I believe that your discourse regarding liberals’ supposed insistence on equality is directed against a straw man. I’ve probably made this point before (here, or elsewhere), but outside of a Kurt Vonnegut short story, I have never met anyone who denies or rejects the variability of human gifts and endowments or who wants to equalize all achievements.

    (2) You say, quite bluntly and without equivocation, “Justice is getting what you deserve”. I could congratulate you on having cut a Gordian knot of long-standing; or perhaps I could just quote Hamlet, “Give every man his just desert and who should ‘scape whipping?” But I’d just as soon agree with you, and then pose two questions: (a) “How do we frail and fallible humans know what anyone truly deserves?” and (b) “Is it possible you have confused human justice with divine justice (or with cosmic karma)?”

    (3) I really don’t know what “Nations are defined by their righteousness” means–“defined” by whom? How can a nation be righteous, when even individuals fall short–“There is not one among you who is righteous”? Perhaps you mean that (in contrast to “destroyed by its absence”) nations are sustained by righteousness? But history tells us that no nation is thus sustained forever, and to expect otherwise seems hubristic.

    (4) Is a polity that will not accept revelation as a common ground for discussion, much less for policy decisions, doomed to fail? If so, we may as well get started building that ark.

  4. I don’t presume to know how Dr. Bauman would answer those 4 questions, but I hope you don’t mind if I take four brief shots:

    1. Those liberals who talk about a “wealth gap” between the wealthy and the poor suggest thereby that this manifestation of inequality requires government to remedy it, usually through progressive income taxation and various forms of wealth distribution. The underlying assumption is that income inequality is moraly wrong.

    2. When Dr. Bauman says bluntly that justice is getting what you deserve, he is (I would wager) consolidating the first six books of Plato’s Republic into one sentence. A variation of this sentence was the final definition of justice reached by Socrates during the preceeding six tome dialogue. The translation I read put it as “to each his own”.

    3. A nation, in contradistinction to individuals, can be righteous because a nation is the organic community of the living, the dead and the unborn, founded upon the deeds and words of men and gods who we can reasonably discern as good or bad using our rational faculty.

    4. A polity that rejects the gods, God, or political religion in general is doomed to fail, because political religion is the poetic condensation of philosophical wisdom into common sense ethics that keep a people good. Indeed, we might as well be building an Ark. I fear time is short for the West, and the present crisis in economy and war demonstrates it.

    • Mr. Rieth: Thanks for your thoughts. As to (1), I continue to insist that progressive taxation and other “wealth distribution” policies are designed, not to effect an impossible equality, but to set some limits to the inequality (the “wealth gap”) that a competitive economic system inevitably produces. This may or may not be good public policy, or even morally justified, but it does not seek absolute equality and it is not based on the notion that all “income inequality” either should be or could be avoided. (2) Whether Dr. Bauman is relying on Plato or not, my comments stand. (3) I see no way a nation, however conceived, can be more righteous than the individuals of whom it is and has been comprised; and individuals, as Christians know, are notoriously without any righteousness of their own. (4) I think my point is just that no nation or temporal order, “righteous” or not, lasts forever. I think it’s always wise to have an Ark on hand; you never know when you might need it. At least we agree on that.

Leave a Reply