Given my background, beliefs, and practices, I should be an enthusiastic supporter of the religious right—but I can’t do it. I’m religious. I’m conservative. I conclude with the religious right on a good many things, and yet. . . .

So, a series of posts on foundations for a New Religious Right; not in any particular order, for this isn’t a rationalist system, but still some foundational principles orbiting around human nature, community, and the purpose of life.

Let’s begin with the person.

I accept as a matter of faith that God is a triune community of love, that humans are made in God’s image, and, consequently, that we are made to relate. Now, for those who do not accept the content of my faith, I won’t attempt to persuade, but we can point to the sociality and political nature of the human as a minimal starting point, although I claim to understand the cause of that sociality more adequately.

We are persons, thus social, thus relational. Notions of the human as atomistic, monadic individuals are either inadequate or incoherent, for we are always already in relation to others, both as givers and receivers.

The fuller our personhood, the more we are dependent and the more we can give to others; but self-sufficiency is never a complete picture of the person. Consider the Christian God as a thought experiment: while fully in act, perfect, requiring nothing, this God exists in relations of perfect giving and receipt. The Father begets the Son, the Son is begotten, and yet the Son is in no way unequal to the Father with respect to divinity, even when it is the Father who gives and the Son who receives. Receipt is not inadequacy, and the receipt of love is perfectly given back to the Father.

Whatever you think of the truth of that doctrine, consider its implications. We’re accustomed to thinking that the greater a being, the less it requires from others, the more it is self-sufficient, but this is only partially true. Shellfish have no friends, while humans need friends to thrive, and this is a mark of our grandeur, not our inadequacy. Humans receive friendship, receive marriage, receive love, and in fact need to do so, and this is a mark of our greatness. Gods and beasts, Aristotle tells us, can live outside the polis, but we are neither gods nor beasts and thus require others (and Aristotle’s gods weren’t God, let us recall).

Not, then, for us the picture of the rugged individualist as an abstract bearer of rights and non-relational properties—we are persons, and thus always in sociality, and any theory of the human (any philosophical anthropology) beginning from the primacy of the individual is to be rejected.

We begin from the primacy of persons, and thus of households, neighborhoods, social bonds, civil society, institutions, and the polis, for there is no meaningful self without social bonds.

The primacy of persons does not imply statism or the sacrifice of the individual on the altar of the collective, however, since the person is primary and not an instrument to the good of the whole. Rather, the whole exists for the sake of persons, although it certainly is the case that persons cannot flourish (or really even exist) without the whole.

This we must remember—we avoid the antinomy between individualism and collectivism by beginning with the primary of the person.

I’m not convinced the old religious right grasped this, thus the tendency to overvalue individualism as it (rightfully) rejected statism, but still they found themselves trapped in the antinomy, and a better way was and is needed.

Part Two is next: Tories are Persons, and Persons are Tories.

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R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. Seems to be a good approach. I am interested to read more. I think you are right to reject both an extreme individualism, and statism at the same time. The Church after all must be a guide, and that means that the individual cannot be a Church unto himself.

  2. I’m with Anymouse, only more so. I’m looking forward to subsequent installments, aware that, as D.G. Hart pointed out in “From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin …,” conservatism is more a tendency than an ideology.

  3. The 90s communitarian movement (Etzioni, et. al.) attempted to find a middle ground, a locus of reciprocity between individuals and their communities, evaluating both morally by their impact on the other. It’s difficult to get those relational terms located without reifying them. Or sliding into conventional left-right programs. I look forward to the next step.

  4. The stark reality is not the that the religious right exists and participates in the process. Rather it is that we are in a struggle for the minds of the voters who will ultimately determine the ongoing future of our country. Intertwining belief systems into politics has made the obfuscation of the real message-capitalism versus socialism, liberty versus enslavement, and what this country will look like down the road-as easy as shooting ducks on a pond.
    Reading and listening to the rants of ideologues on both extremes of the spectrum, it is easy to see why many less than thoughtful people veer towards the left. All is well when the government promises everything to everyone, and removes individual responsibility for one’s direction and success. That argument cannot be won by continuing to focus on reproductive rights, gay rights, bogus drug wars, et al. The meaning of liberty, the significance of individual responsibility, and the necessity of continuing to be a viable, significant bastion of freedom in the world, on the other hand, can and will, if we let it.
    I am free, as of now, to believe what I wish. The victory of those who would oppose democracy will mean an ultimate end to that freedom.

  5. “I’m not convinced the old religious right grasped this, thus the tendency to overvalue individualism as it (rightfully) rejected statism”

    Which religious right rejected statism? I thought the religious right as constructed by Falwell, Reed, Dobson et al was statist through and through. And since these folks were Evangelicals without institutions to defend against statism (i.e. Holy Mother Church), they naturally argued for utilizing the state, including the national state, to defend certain “values.”

    Also, along the lines of thinking of a new religious right, would it involve viewing the Church as a public insitution rather than one of many competing private concerns within “civil society”? And could these be done without having a confessional state?

  6. The religious right is a creation of a religion that is itself an adaptation to Enlightenment individualism. Hence “personal interpretation” and the non-biblical “Jesus Christ is my personal savoir.” “Personal” here means “individual,” as in “personal property.” The wonder is that they have gotten so many sacramental Protestants and Catholics to drink this kool-aid.

  7. Statism and individualism are the opposite sides of the same coin. Rousseau articulated to a fine point the ideal (unreality) of the autonomous individual, although the genesis of that notion preceded Rousseau.

    Locke had already outlined the abstract rights: life, liberty and property, etc., with which this autonomous individual would be outfitted. Again, Locke had his antecedents but he put a fine point on the notion.

    Hobbes, being the secretary of Bacon, was already acutely aware of the tendencies which Rousseau and Locke would flesh out. He reasoned that a world of autonomous individuals, each enamored with his personal abstract rights, would need a force to forge them into a society, rejecting the impetus of creation that societies of bees, ants, wolves and men came to the relationship of society as an innate impulse of creation, an impulse engendered by God himself. Hobbes postulated an abstract corporation with a monopoly on coercion, with the ability to define the limits of its own power and with the drive of a will, be that the will of a dictator, an oligarchy or even a democracy. This abstract corporation, the Hobbesian state, would create a social order for the autonomous individuals to live in and would mitigate the competitiveness of each, bringing about a utilitarian harmony and peace.

    Thus, faith in and support of autonomous individualism on the one hand and of the Hobbesian state on the other are not in the least contradictory positions in modernity. That the “religious right” holds these two positions should not be a surprise at all. Among the other symptoms of this malaise is the fact that the religious right champions the abstract notion of religious freedom. We will compromise our faith and allow the enemies of Jesus Christ into the social fabric of the West in the name of religious freedom. I am afraid that said temptation is not found just on the religious right.

  8. The approach sounds good, but the very motion of a “Religious Right” (or a “Religious Left”) seems to me an oxymoron. James Madison wrote that one reason to separate church and state is to protect faith from the profane hand of the magistrate. I agree. Those who reach for the levers of state power to advance religion are risking a fatal infection.

  9. Mr. Snell

    “…the whole exists for the sake of persons, although it certainly is the case that persons cannot flourish (or really even exist) without the whole.”

    There’s an old motto you — and all of us — seem to be searching for: “All for one and one for all.” It’s the motto, after all, of true civilization.

    Which leads me to ask, if you’re seeking the kind of unity and solidarity taught by sound religion, if you’re striving, that is, for holiness, why formulate your thoughts in the divisive — and ultimately suicidal — terms of the left-right death march that is our national political orthodoxy?

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