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modern political conservatismFrom a fascinating interview with Roger Scruton in Prospect:

Related to this is the emphasis you place on what you call the “first-person plural,” a phrase that occurs several times in the book.

Yes. Ultimately, political order does not generate itself. For that reason, social contract theories are suspended in mid-air, so to speak. All political order presupposes a pre-political order, a sense that people belong together. And then, of course, they might seek a contract that embodies their togetherness. But the togetherness has to be there.

With Oakeshott’s remarks about conservatism as a “disposition” in mind, I was very struck by something you say about the tone of voice in which this book is written. You say: “The case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents.” What do you mean by that?

So much of modern political conservatism—and you see this in America, which has a quite articulate conservative movement compared with us—is phrased in elegiac terms. [It’s about] what we’ve lost—we’ve lost the traditional working-class family, the black family or whatever it might be. Now, all that is perfectly reasonable. But the most important question is what have we got, rather than what we’ve lost, and how do we keep it?

That’s well said. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think Scruton’s insights here point the way forward for religious conservatives in this rapidly changing social order. We must give up on the hope of restoring the past in this culture. It’s not that some aspects of the past shouldn’t be reclaimed, but rather that doing so, at least at a society-wide level, is not feasible at this point in time. The more we act as if it were so, the greater our losses will be once we definitively lose an unwinnable battle. This “take back America” stuff is self-deluding nostalgia, and the more conservatives believe it, the worse off they will be.

There are times when you have to fade into the forest and retrench. I’ve called this call for retrenchment the Benedict Option, because it strikes me as the most sensible strategy by which religious conservatives can engage the world as it is now and is to come. The Benedictines were ordinarily not completely cloistered; they engaged with the people in the areas where their monasteries were. But they established walls and habits that set them apart from the secular world, and gave them the means to preserve their identity over generations. This is what I’m talking about: how to preserve the core of our identity in a post-Christian culture?

I don’t think anybody has the answer yet, and it may be that the answer will only emerge after we try a number of different things and see what stands the test of time. The thing is, we have to try. A Protestant friend wrote me yesterday about struggles within his church community, and how he’s run into a buzzsaw of opposition in trying to bring real content to the Sunday school curriculum. He reports that the adults think everything is going to be okay for the younger generation if they just keep doing what they’ve been doing and hope for the best. Meanwhile, he says, they are just processing kids who emerge fluent in moralistic therapeutic deism, but theologically and culturally ignorant of Christianity.

Absent an adult conversion, these kids aren’t likely to make it as Christians in the world as it is and the world as it shall be in the next few years and decades. It grieves my friend, but he says it has been a real lesson for him in the power of fear of change within a community. This, I told him, is the kind of conservatism that kills. To paraphrase Burke, a church community without the means of change is one without the means of its own preservation. The art of it is figuring out what needs to change in our way of living and doing for the sake of preserving our core values.

So, to pivot towards the future, let me put the Scruton question to the conservatives in the room: What have we got, and how do we keep it?

I’ll take a non-comprehensive stab at answering this from a religiously conservative point of view.

What we’ve got is enough people with a cultural memory, and cultural awareness, of what we have lost, and a desire to both reclaim it from the past and pass it on to our future, to make a community. For some it will be actual local communities; for others, it will be virtual communities. I suspect for all of us it will be a combination of both. We have to preserve those communities and the virtues they embody. We’ve got to build institutions dedicated to this end — which, for religious believers, has to mean dedicated to the service of God within our particular tradition, not dedicated to the service of the tradition itself, if you appreciate the distinctions. Schools, churches, institutions of civil society — all kinds of institutions that incarnate our values and pass them on in a living way: this is what we’ve got to have if we are going to keep what we’ve got.

We live in a time of cultural revolution, in which everything that is solid, from a Christian point of view, melts into air. If we want to hold on to what we’ve got in terms of our faith and our values, we’ve got to make our beliefs concrete in new ways, ways designed and built to endure the radicalism of the situation we’re now in.

We’ve got a First Amendment, the penumbra of which grants us lots of latitude for running our own religious lives as we see fit. The ground of liberty in this way is going to be shrinking, that’s clear, in the coming laïcité. But we still have a lot more freedom than do religious folks in other countries, and that’s worth preserving. I am a conservative, not a libertarian, but we live in a fundamentally libertarian social order. It might make sense, then, to vote for principled libertarians over conventional conservatives, if the principled libertarians truly respect the liberty of unpopular religious minorities to live within their sphere and flourish. I believe that over the course of my children’s lifetime, defending the First Amendment is going to become the most important cause for religious conservatives, because on it everything else for us will depend.

These are my two ideas this morning. I welcome yours. As I said, my conservatism is primarily religious and social, not economic, so my answers reflect that.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of The American Conservative.

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5 replies to this post
  1. We keep what we’ve got by getting back what we’ve lost. I just thought I’d clarify that for you.

    Everybody wants to stop that long agonizing slide downward into pagan muck at some favorite point on the way, but the whole slide that began in 1517 with the denial of the authority of the Church, a doctrinal dispute that accompanied a savage economic one, the seizure of Church wealth to create the first free capital necessary to set the ponzi scheme of capitalism in motion, changed everything and set up exactly the scenario we have today, sex socialism and a rigged economy. We’d like to go back when divorce was allowed but hardly anybody wanted one, or when greed in the form of capitalist lending practices was unleashed but few practiced it openly if they wanted to get invited to the best families for dinner. But none of those resets are possible. You have to go back to the root, the Catholic state in sync with the Catholic Church. That combination alone achieves a Christian civilization. I wish to God this wasn’t true, and I wish God would awaken better spokesmen than myself.

  2. Albert Jay Nock borrowed from Isaiah’s Remnant to say that even in darkest times there will always be a modern day remnant, some group or number of people out “there” who carry on in the face of decay, who keep alive the image, memory, and practice of what is good. The problem is that the existence of intolerance, the triumph of ignorance, the exercise of what is becoming, and what is, the march of ever more central power in a society losing it coherence and historic values, creates an ever increasing pressure on faith and individuality. The State grows, the local and the particular withers.
    I see a remnant carrying on tradition, sometimes in the smallest ways, kept from the front pages, suffering from neglect in a sensuous and unmoored society. But one never without it’s Remnant.
    For that, thank God.

      • Your greatest obstacle, Janet Baker, is in the Preamble to the Constitution. Social Conservatives have sought to portray the United States as having been founded on “Judeo-Christian principles”, but that would require that our government be ordained by God as outlined in Romans 13:1-7. Our Founders made it clear that this nation was ordained by “we the people”, thus we have government by the consent of the governed. It was done that way intentionally to thwart that which you are attempting. It is more than a little deceptive for social conservatives to claim to represent traditional American values when they are, in fact, intent on overthrowing those traditional values and installing a theocracy.

        • Dear David, I don’t know why you presume anyone means to try to overthrow the consent of the governed. This thread is old and I don’t remember it all but I assure you I mean (because it is what the Church says) that democratic means would be used–imperfect as they are. Hungary managed to win an enormous democratic majority for more or less the same platform that would be acceptable to any conservative and indeed to any men of good will: recognition of God, recognition of marriage as between a man and a woman whose primary mission is procreation, and protection of the unborn. I believe there are economic steps we could take as well that would, over time, re-distribute not income but ownership and thus responsibility. That would begin to reverse the conditions of slavery under which we presently live but would respect private property more than our own constitution presently does.People would vote for those issues; they already did–an activist judiciary plus monied interests’ fueling of media pushes overturned their votes. All we need is the right communicator. That would not be Obama. This is not a choice between Tea Party liberalism and Sex Socialist liberalism, but a third and actually conservative way based on ownership (and virtue).

          Our constitution is not unamendable. Right? Given the censorship we presently face, and our relative comfort compared to other areas of the world, like China, which support us and our elites too, it would not be easy, but I have been engaged in political campaigns all my life, small and big, and I know very well an electorate’s mindset can be completely turned around, given the right conditions. Our nation wants to see biblical principles reflected in our laws, Gallop found it so in 2008–more than fifty percent of us, without any media prepping whatsoever. I believe that could be encouraged up to two thirds.

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