the imaginative conservative logo

Leo Strauss and the American Right has little to do with Leo Strauss and everything to do with liberal fear of attempts to reintroduce standards of religious morality to public conduct…

Leo Strauss and the American Right by Shadia B. Drury (St. Martin ’s Press, 1997)

leo strauss and the american rightShadia Drury’s first book, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), was the object of stinging criticism from a number of sources—primarily but not limited to Strauss’ self-conscious, “Straussian,” followers. The book undeniably contained many minor errors. However, it constituted an important step forward in debates concerning Straussianism. Where before Straussianism’s critics had simply leveled charges of book worship and claims of secret knowledge, now debate centers on a substantive question of some moral and methodological importance: whether Straussians are dedicated to truth for its own sake or merely to the philosophic life-style.

In Dr. Drury’s latest book she repeats, in abbreviated form, her argument that Strauss and his followers pursue philosophy as the most pleasurable of activities and engage in political deception as a means of maintaining political peace and their own privileged position. Despite the many criticisms leveled at this argument, it continues to be very powerful. But in this book, Dr. Drury merely repeats that argument as a prelude to a full-scale attack on American conservatism as a vulgar attempt to apply Strauss’ program to American politics.

Dr. Drury uses her critique of Strauss as a weapon, not merely against his relatively few real followers on the American right, but against anyone with even the most attenuated connection with the American conservative movement. Her real target? Anyone who would defend a role for religion and religious morality in public life. She condemns such people as intolerant and dangerous to liberty. And this condemnation is based, not on a full and nuanced understanding of American and Western political, religious, and philosophical history, but on a caricatured reading of rationalism’s supposed rise in opposition to religious superstition. As a result, her book fails to inform readers significantly regarding either Leo Strauss or the American right.

Dr. Drury’s critique of political Straussianism is fairly simple. In her view, Straussians attempt to harness the language and the prejudices of religious activists to protect American religious and political traditions from the destructive force of liberalism. Dr. Drury puts Strauss’ argument this way: “Every society needs a simple public orthodoxy or a set of ideas that defines what is true and false, right and wrong, noble and base. Religion is the traditional and most powerful instrument for the inculcation of such values. If a political society is to hold together and function as a unit, it must have a set of shared truths that are inculcated by one religion or another.”

Strauss does not believe that Christianity, the dominant religion in the United States, is true. But, then, for Strauss, the philosopher has too much reason to be anything but a religious skeptic. As Dr. Drury puts it, “Strauss repeats again and again that reason recognizes its own limits and yields to revelation. But he makes it clear that reason does not yield to revelation as something truly grand, or as something that supplements the truths of reason, or as something that contains a higher morality, but simply as something absolutely necessary for the lives of the vulgar many.”

Dr. Drury argues that Strauss’ rationalism is based on a particular reading of medieval Jewish thought, based on interpretations of Jewish law. Strauss’ interpretation produces three fundamental precepts:

First, the law itself commands those ‘suited to philosophize’ to do so, because the purpose of philosophy and the purpose of the law are the same-namely the ‘bliss’ of man. Second, when a conflict between reason and the law is encountered in the process of philosophizing, then philosophers…are free to reject the literal interpretation as being ‘merely valid for the many,’ and to give the law their own ‘figurative’ account. Third, philosophers are ‘commanded’ to keep their interpretations ‘secret’ from the unchosen multitude…. Philosophers are totally free from the law that binds the rest of humanity, on the condition that they do not publicly undermine the faith.

According to Dr. Drury, Straussian philosophers believe they know better than to put faith in the public orthodoxy but support it so that they can continue to enjoy their privileged positions and lifestyle. In the realm of American politics, this self-serving belief system leads to cynical attempts to manipulate public policy and debate. In particular, Straussians attempt to make public discourse hinge on the need to protect American religious and political traditions from disloyal secular liberals who would inform the masses of the fact that they are based, not on truth, but on the needs of intellectual elites.

Dr. Drury does not emphasize the term civil religion. But she clearly is criticizing Straussians for attempting to turn politics into a holy crusade. Describing herself as a chastened liberal aware of the dangers of political ideology, she points out that “it is not the business of politics to intensify life, to give it meaning, mystery, and magic.” She argues, in a manner ironically appealing to traditional conservatives, that life is made vital and worthwhile by non-political, cultural and religious forces. To the extent that political ideologues and/or Machiavellian cynics use these forces for their own ends they make politics dangerous and life both precarious and empty.

Thus Dr. Drury makes a strong case against Straussian politics on the grounds that it is dishonest and dangerous. Unfortunately, instead of developing this argument through discussions of the practical and the philosophical problems of political cynicism, she merely assumes the reader will agree with her chastened liberal assertions, then wields them against seemingly everyone on the American right.

Dr. Drury constructs a picture of a vast right-wing conspiracy determined to undo the secularizing work of several centuries of liberal political thought and activism. Most American conservatives have not even heard of the rather obscure teacher of political philosophy Leo Strauss. But Dr. Drury sees Strauss’ influence everywhere. She counts among his co-conspirators everyone from his true followers among neoconservative intellectuals, to former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, to the libertarian Barry Goldwater, who used some rhetoric supplied by the Straussian Harry Jaffa but clearly was no philosopher.

It should be pointed out, however, that part of Dr. Drury’s argument is that Straussians have duped large numbers of politicians into supporting their cause out of sincere faith in the religious and political ideals Straussians believe to be merely useful fictions. She attempts, early on, to make Strauss’ followers appear politically powerful. Dr. Drury can point to only Clarence Thomas and William J. Bennett as truly influential public figures imbued with Straussian ideas. But she includes everyone from Newt Gingrich to the Michigan militia as part of the Straussian conspiracy. Apparently, Straussians are so persuasive as to have captured the Republican party, the religious right, and even the fringe groups that find themselves almost wholly alienated from contemporary American institutions and practices.

One significant reason for Dr. Drury’s asserting Straussians’ power is her disdain for traditional, religious conservatives. Dr. Drury is aware of the central difference between traditional and Straussian conservatism. Whereas traditionalists believe that the wisdom of the ages is a great inheritance, reflecting historical prudence and religious truth, Straussian neoconservatives believe tradition, like religion, is without substantive foundation. Straussians believe great philosopher-statesmen create religions and traditions in order to keep the masses in line.

After noting this clear distinction, Dr. Drury proceeds to side with Straussian neoconservatives, congratulating Harry Jaffa for proving “the truth of John Stuart Mill’s claim that [traditional] conservatism is the stupid party. When conservatives speak of a ‘better guide than reason,’ they are referring to the superstitions and prejudices of the past, no matter how unjust and decrepit.” M.E. Bradford, Russell Kirk, and other traditional conservatives are beneath serious discussion for Dr. Drury. They are mere reactionaries, defending slavery and all other bad products of historical circumstance in their vain effort to turn back the clock to a time before the dawn of reason and freedom. Unlike Straussian neoconservatives, they are neither intelligent nor powerful enough to pose a real threat to liberalism.

To say that Dr. Drury’s conspiracy theory is somewhat overdrawn would be to greatly understate the case. Neither Kirk nor Bradford saw themselves as supporting any Straussian project. Through their radically different interpretation of the deep, cultural roots of ordered liberty each sought to undermine both liberal and Straussian civil religion. Dr. Drury herself has trouble keeping her categories straight, for example first putting the late Willmoore Kendall in the Straussian camp, then attacking him for his traditional conservative views.

Problems with Dr. Drury’s delineations run deep. She fails to acknowledge the deep and sometimes hostile divisions within the conservative movement or those within Straussianism itself. From this book, one would not learn that many Straussians (for example, Thomas Pangle, Morton Frisch, and Marvin Zetterbaum) share Dr. Drury’s liberal/social democratic politics, albeit on the grounds that such politics are necessary to keep the masses quiescent as intellectuals continue their higher pursuits.

Dr. Drury does not appear to care whether she has captured the details of intra-conservative debates. Her goal is not to illuminate these debates, their roots, and their consequences. Rather, she seeks to convince her readers that there is a conspiracy afoot to reinfuse religion into American public life. And, for Dr. Drury, attempts to return religion to its traditional role as the shaper of cultural as well as individual character are dangerous because they would undo the progress we have made toward rational, secular liberalism; they would return us to the dark ages of religious absolutism.

Straussians, in Dr. Drury’s view, are cynically manipulating traditional conservatives and other religious folks best left out of our public and political life. Unfortunately, Straussian successes in this endeavor have created “a politics of extremism fueled by religious hatred.”

Religious believers, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the Reverend Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed, see themselves as defending the good against enemies who are promoting evil. They do not recognize that those with whom they disagree are merely attempting to build lifestyles different from their own. Because they recognize the link between political action and cultural stability, between public and private morality, they insist on seeing their opponents as promoters of evil and so “are inclined to justify any means as necessary to defeat” them.

Dr. Drury cites as an example of ethically unacceptable behavior a number of so-called stealth candidates encouraged by Ralph Reed to emphasize their desire to work for safe streets and family values in their campaigns for local office. Rather than praising these candidates for seeking common ground with their neighbors, Dr. Drury condemns them for what she feels is their dishonesty. Because stealth candidates also oppose abortion and homosexual rights, they are, in Dr. Drury’s view, dangerous extremists whose religiously based morality must be kept out of the public sphere.

Dr. Drury cannot accept the possibility that anyone who opposes abortion and homosexual rights could be anything but dangerous because she recognizes, to her credit that these positions rest on religious morality. Religious morality provides objective standards of right and wrong. And such standards, in Dr. Drury’s view, necessitate violence and oppression because anyone who is convinced he is morally right will mistreat those he finds morally wrong.

Liberalism, Dr. Drury believes, is based on the notion that only subjectivism can save us from tyranny. Following John Stuart Mill, Dr. Drury argues that government’s job is to provide the means and the room for individuals to choose and develop their own lifestyles. The only truly “bad” lifestyles are those which impose undue restrictions on others. And the prime example of such a lifestyle is that of a politically active religious believer. This choice is both bad and dangerous.

For proof of religion’s bad consequences, Dr. Drury claims to look to historical experience. She asserts that freedom and the liberal government that made it possible arose in opposition to oppressive religious hierarchy. Henry VIII struck a great blow for freedom by splitting off from the tyrannical Catholic Church. By breaking the church’s stranglehold on public life he provided individuals with the space they needed to develop free institutions and serve. Henry’s accomplishment is overshadowed only by that of John Locke, in Dr. Drury’s view. It was Locke who produced the modern liberal separation of church and state, providing the justification needed to ban religion from public life. We must preserve and strengthen the strict separation for which Locke called, lest religious tyranny again reign.

Dr. Drury does not argue for the accuracy of this view of history; she merely asserts it. But this view of the factors leading to the rise of ordered liberty is the source of her prejudice against religious morality. Thus it should be pointed out that it is wrong.

Limited government is the product of religion’s hard-fought status as a non-political authority capable of holding rulers to standards outside and above their own will. It was to destroy this check on his power that Henry VIII broke with Rome, anointed himself England’s absolute head in all matters political and spiritual, sacked the monasteries, killed thousands upon thousands of resisters and innocent peasants, and created a new, dependent and pliable nobility. Locke wrote his Second Treatise of Civil Government to justify Whig attempts to bar the Catholic James II from the throne for fear of an absolutism inspired by French Gallicanism but also to maintain the Protestant ascendancy. Even in his “Letter Concerning Toleration” Locke deemed Catholics (and atheists) unworthy of English liberty.

Henry realized that he could not become an absolute ruler so long as religious morality lay outside his control. Locke realized that societies by nature are shaped by religious morality, for good or ill, and that in the final analysis those who hold nothing sacred cannot be trusted even to keep their agreements. Until relatively recently most scholars understood that it was the existence of a higher law, based on religion, that provided the means to limit political power.

Dr. Drury rejects the evidence of history because she believes as a matter of faith that all societies must make a choice between freedom and virtue. “If we choose freedom, as liberal societies do, then we must be willing to put up with a certain degree of vice.” It certainly is true that any government that attempts to stamp out all vice will become tyrannous. But Dr. Drury’s point is different and more problematic. For her there is no social sphere within which neighbors, parishioners, family members, and so on may rightfully encourage virtue and discourage vice. She recognizes only the political and the private realms—with a wall separating the two.

Such a vision overlooks the obvious ways in which political actions can affect “private” institutions like the family (under siege for decades by a hostile tax code and welfare rules discouraging marriage). For Dr. Drury private choice alone must be left to support our moral institutions. If these institutions fall into decay because of government policies aimed at achieving the maximum amount of liberty and equality possible, they deserve to fail; they must already have been failing to meet the needs of their naturally autonomous subjects.

In discussing the bases of American politics, Dr. Drury recites another convenient history with no basis in fact; this time one rejecting the role of virtue in public life. She fundamentally misconstrues James Madison’s assertion that if men were angels no government would be needed. For her, Madison’s “implication” is that political institutions must be capable of ruling devils. A thorough knowledge of the Federalist Papers might be too much to ask from this polemic. But one might at least expect Dr. Drury to read to the end of the paragraph of Federalist No. 51 in which this quotation appears; here Madison writes: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” To say that men are not angels is not to say that they are devils. It is to say that they have the faults as well as the virtues of men and that it is, therefore, a good idea to take precautions against concentrations and abuses of power. Nowhere does Madison contradict the refrain of our founding era that our Constitution is fit only for a virtuous people and will not long survive virtue’s dissipation.

Dr. Drury’s purpose in her latest book has little to do with Strauss and everything to do with liberal fear of attempts to reintroduce standards of religious morality to public conduct. Unfortunately, she merely asserts her fundamental position, that one cannot strive for virtue and still retain freedom. But our nation was founded on precisely the opposite assumption. Since long before the Constitution’s drafting, Americans have believed that a free people can remain free only if, through local associations and religious morality, they are kept virtuous.

Dr. Drury’s book sheds a little light on the conservative movement in America. Indeed, her book actually sheds a little light on Strauss and his followers. For all of her criticism of Straussian ideas and goals, Dr. Drury barely mentions the central problem with Straussian scholarship, which is methodological. It is not enough merely to mention the seemingly odd coincidence that all great thinkers, on Strauss’ interpretation, agree with him on all important matters. One must show the weaknesses in Strauss’ meta-history if one is to discredit his interpretations and enlighten readers regarding the history of political thought.

There is much with which to take issue in Strauss’ meta-history. For example, to claim as Straussians do that Locke was merely a prudent popularizer of Hobbesian theory is to commit several methodological errors. It is to ignore that there is simply no historical evidence to support the claim that Locke saw himself in this role, that to interpret Locke in this way requires that violence be done to the clear meaning of his language and argument, and that such an interpretation, for all the difficulty and damage involved in producing it, bears no fruit because it is not necessary to explain the rise of what is genuinely new in early modern thought, namely, the rise of the troublesome concept of sovereignty. The rise of that concept is owed to thinkers outside the Straussian canon, such as Jean Bodin and the apologists for Henry VIII.

By pointing out methodological problems such as these, Dr. Drury might have begun a fruitful conversation with and about Straussians. But she eschews such inquiry in order to depict yet another right wing conspiracy to undermine freedom. In the end, Dr. Drury’s book, both in what it says and in what it overlooks, can perhaps best be taken as a sign of our need to recommence serious study of our history if we are to relearn how best to conduct rational scholarly and political arguments.

Books on this topic may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 1999). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: