Kearneysville, WV. As this election cycle grinds on, and as Washington prepares for CPAC’s 2012 event, each Republican candidate continues to claim that he best represents the conservative ideal. In this on-going contest over a word, the various contenders have even made so bold as to accuse the others of being frauds or at least lacking the deep conservative values and ideas that, we are told, are the necessary remedy for the excesses of liberalism, socialism, Obamaism or any other “ism” deemed dangerous to the republic.

In this war of words, “conservative” seems to mean fiscally responsible, pro-market, pro-marriage, militarily strong, if not aggressive, all wrapped up in a thick coating of civil religion where American Exceptionalism blends seamlessly into the theology that God favors America above all other nations (with the possible exception of Israel).

Now, far be it from me to gainsay God’s good gifts. We have certainly enjoyed more than our share of blessings, but these are not our due; God is not obligated to bless us because we are so wonderful, giving, grand, or, ahem, humble. It should, furthermore, go without saying that such a national story is simply bad theology.

Nevertheless, conservative is, apparently, what the candidates think the voters want, and this forces us to poke the concept a bit. It seems to me that attempts to define “conservative” and “liberal” too often focus on policies ostensibly supported by each. But an analysis of policy positions is merely taking the consequence for the cause. If we scratch beneath the tumultuous surface, we can begin to see that the differences may not be all that dramatic. Ultimately, what passes for liberalism and conservatism today are in many respects variations on a common theme. In other words, many so-called conservatives and liberals are often singing the same song.

Let’s begin with a short quiz.

Question 1. Do you speak, think, and act more naturally in terms of individual rights or in terms of duties and responsibilities?

Question 2. Do you have duties to the past? To those who are no longer alive? To those yet to be born? Yes or No.

Question 3. Humans are progressively getting better technically, socially, politically, morally. If this is not true, it is only due to the bad will of some. True or False.

Question 4. America is the last best hope of the world. True or False.

Now let’s consider the answers. First, have you noticed how the language of individual rights pervades our political discourse? Of course, the concept of individual rights has been central to the American political tradition since prior to the founding; however, to the extent that rights grew out of the larger context of natural law, duties were primary and rights claims were logically secondary. With the gradual erosion of the idea of natural law, natural rights lost any possible connection to nature, so that today we speak of human rights or simply rights without assuming any of the philosophical and even theological baggage that once undergirded (if often only tenuously) the concept of rights. The language of individual rights, of course, fits well with the image of the autonomous individual who believes that every obligation and responsibility is rooted in individual choice. The notion that there are responsibilities into which we are born does not sit well with the autonomous chooser who rejects such ideas as impositions on his freedom. On the other hand, the conservative acknowledges deep and abiding debts that manifest themselves as duties. He understands that a society of autonomous choosers enamored with individual rights will be a society that is rotten at its core. The liberal will gravitate toward politicians who promise expanded liberties even if the fiscal and moral books don’t balance. The conservative will be attracted to candidates who, when facing a situation such as ours, will not hesitate to speak hard words. Imagine a politician uttering the following lines:

“We have for some time been living beyond our means. We have squandered our inheritance on riotous living, and now we must brace ourselves for the consequences. However, if we work together, we can overcome even this. We can, with our mutual sacrifices, hard work, and dedication, rebuild the capital we have spent down. The way will not be easy. It may take years. But what we build together will be something we can pass on to our children not with the shame that is the inevitable fruit of selfishness and irresponsibility but with a deep sense of satisfaction born of the knowledge that we have done our duty.”

Would you vote for this person? If you would, then you are likely a conservative (even if you imagine yourself a liberal). If, on the other hand, you prefer to hear sunny platitudes about growth and your right to infinitely improving standards of living, you are something other than a conservative.

Is it possible to have duties to the past? To dead people? To people not yet born? Obviously this is related to the first question. A conservative is interested in conserving and one feature of that concern is a commitment to conserving the best that has been inherited. This opens the conservative up to the accusation that he is stuck in the past. Rather than mucking around with dead concepts and the memories of dead people, we should stride boldly into the future, for it is, after all, the future and not the past that waits for us. The conservative, on the other hand, is not unconcerned about the future, but he realizes that a proper knowledge of and respect for the past is necessary for a wise and informed view of the future. The future apart from the past is merely an abstraction born of the optimistic belief that things are necessarily getting better.

This brings us to the third question: Are humans getting better? This is a trick question, for it is undeniable that humans are progressing at a break-neck speed in the areas of science and technology. However, it is an error of significant consequence to take these particular examples of progress and derive a general principle. In moral terms, humans seem to be stuck with variations of the same old vices. Politically, the problem of power remains even though our optimism about progress dulls our fear of abuse. The liberal tends to be optimistic about progress, and this explains why the liberal is optimistic about the future. We are on an upward trajectory, and the future is our destiny. The conservative, on the other hand, may appear somewhat dour, but this is only when compared with his liberal counterpart. In fact, the conservative is sober, for he has resisted the heady wine offered by the prophets of progress. He realizes that the human condition is basically the same through the ages even if technological packaging is every year more dazzling.

Finally, is America the last best hope of the world? So-called liberals and conservatives both seem required to at least pay lip service to this notion, and to question this axiom would be the kiss of death for a politician, especially on the right. The religion of Americanism is the belief that the nation can do no wrong, for it possesses a divine mission to spread the ideals of free markets and political liberty to a waiting world. While not all conservatives are religious, many are, and conservatives, both religious and non, reject the idolization of this nation or any nation for that matter. For the Christian, the last best hope of the world is the church, through which Christ is made manifest. The conservative recognizes the theological danger of confusing the State for the Church, and he also sees the political danger, for baptizing the nation undercuts any ability to criticize its actions. “My county, right or wrong” is not the cry of the patriot but the chant of the idolater.

Now let’s reflect on some of this. It seems that those who call themselves conservatives and liberals today by and large emphasize their rights rather than duties; they show precious little concern for the past, both as a repository for knowledge or as a source of duties; and they tend to speak in the glowing terms of progress. Finally, they all too often lack the humility that the conservative feels deep in his bones. The conservative knows that all good things are at root a gift. This disposition of gratitude fosters humility, and humility is necessary if we are to live responsibly, for humility acknowledges limits and a denial of limits is a key feature of the liberal mind.

When we consider all of this in light of our current political climate, it becomes clear that the apparent differences between conservatives and liberals in America today are far less dramatic than we are often tempted to believe. What we have is a variety of liberals, some more radical than others, but a truly conservative position is illusive and, what is more important, probably not desired by most of the electorate; although, there is always a remnant, and this remnant, I believe, would grow if a truly conservative alternative was articulated in a clear and compelling way. Of course, Rush Limbaugh and the folks at Fox News—those standard bearers of “conservatism”—will find this analysis implausible, for their deepest commitments are to the very things that are antithetical to a legitimate and historically informed conservatism. Nevertheless, any attempt to continue using this fine word should include a conscious effort to resist abusing it for the purpose of political gain. It is, after all, a word worth conserving.



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  1. Personally, I am suspicious of those who try to portray the election in terms of “conservative enough.” I have been suspicious ever since I started seeing that theme coming up in The Weekly Standard. It seems to be a way to steer the conversation away from what type of government we should have, what governmental actions our country should undertake (or not undertake), and what it’s going to take to steer us in the right direction. Reprehensible candidates like Mitt Romney don’t fare well when we look at those questions, but if we instead concentration on the question of whether he has enough of the magic ism, maybe some people will take their eye off the ball and vote for him.

  2. Well, speaking from the left here, I would vote for that candidate. I am leery of those who tell us we can have it all. I am also weary of those on the left who mock religion, yet cannot see that their wholesale faith in technology is just that– faith.

  3. I would love to “share” some of the notable pieces, such as this particular essay, on Facebook & Twitter. Of course I can use the widgets from my toolbar for exporting to social media accounts, but I was curious if we can add share features to FPR content?

  4. Mark,

    I consistently find your articles helpful. You have a gift that all of us who attempt to communicate desire. You cut to the core of the issue and speak as an expert in ways that those who lack expertise are able to comprehend. Your article is an example of a “truly conservative alternative . . . articulated in a clear and compelling way.

    I would quibble with one point:
    I totally agree with the bulk of what you state in the following paragraph. As one who has a lifetime of association with those who make Americanism a point in their doctrinal statement I agree that it is a big problem–more so Theologically/Biblically than politically.
    “Finally, is America the last best hope of the world? . . . The religion of Americanism is the belief that the nation can do no wrong . . . For the Christian, the last best hope of the world is the church, through which Christ is made manifest. The conservative recognizes the theological danger of confusing the State for the Church, and he also sees the political danger, for baptizing the nation undercuts any ability to criticize its actions. “My county, right or wrong” is not the cry of the patriot but the chant of the idolater.”
    Where I quibble with this excellent statement is with the elimination of a middle ground. I call to witness my dad and his two brothers who helped beat Hitler and their compatriots who defeated the Rising Sun. Was the America of 60 years ago the world’s last best hope? No. (Granted it was a better hope than the America of today.) But it sure was a whole lot better than the available alternatives. I reject “my country right or wrong,” but is there room for saying “my country, not as bad as many others, and a whole lot better than some”?

    • @ Howard Merrell:
      You wrote: I reject “my country right or wrong,” but is there room for saying “my country, not as bad as many others, and a whole lot better than some”?

      Yes, that is a fine sentiment. In fact, I think it is appropriate to go further and express one’s affection for a place in terms of love. However, the kind of sentiment expressed by many “conservatives” and “liberals” today is triumphalistic and messianic. This is what I object to.

  5. The philosophy of championing individual rights while denigrating duty or obligation to the polity is one of the more prominent contributors to the prevailing confusion.

    It would appear that the consumer society wishes to champion autonomy only so much as it might “free” the consumer to acquire something, more often then not. in debt. Debt, in fact, is now some kind of weird commodity

    What an odd idol this thing called the consumer is. Industrial agriculture has successfully turned the human into a form of livestock, always ready to be milked between prodding. Liberty has been reduced to the sense of relief present after a thorough milking. Choice is reduced to a host of ephemera.

  6. Your first question — “Do you speak, think, and act more naturally in terms of individual rights or in terms of duties and responsibilities?” — goes right to the heart of one of the major conflicts between Libertarians and Conservatives.

    For the Libertarian, individual rights are the ultimate goal of political activity. That’s why what they believe in is referred to as “anarchical individualism.” Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in “social bond individualism.”

    Yes, we believe individual rights are basic to political, economic and religious freedom, but we also recognize each individual has both “rights and duties” as Russell Kirk put it and that God, family and community are essential parts of our lives.

  7. “My country, right or wrong” is the cry of virtually no one in this country. For us to harp on this non-issue (though, in earlier times, it may have been an issue) is to beat a dead horse and to ignore actual issues. The reason people care about politics and politicians is because we acknowledge that there are things our country is wrong about and that we want to fix them.

    America is, in a practical sense, the last best hope of the world. The church is not. In an ultimate sense, Jesus is the first, last, best, and only true hope for our world. However, we cannot expect God to solve our problems with no effort on our part. Anyone who thinks the church is the “last best” hope of the world, in either an ultimate or practical sense, needs to a) read some church history and b) attend a church and see how it non-functions. In a political sense Christians, as a whole, are no different from anyone else: fallen, ignorant, selfish, and stupid. While spiritually we are regenerated and have new life, that does not equate to the ability to run a country or fix the world. Many non-Christians (e.g., some of our Founding Fathers) were able to practice the tools of statecraft in a far more efficient and God-glorifying way than many Christians would be able to.
    A few considerations: The church did not stop Hitler. The Church did not stop Japan. The church did not bring down Communism. America did each of those things. America is one of the few countries where the church is not downtrodden; America is one of the few countries where you will not go to prison for writing this blog; America is one of the few countries where Christians are an influential political force. America is also the first and only nation to have been founded by Christians, for Christians, and based on Christian principles. Even if the church were the last best hope for the world, America is the last best hope for the church because only in America does the church have the freedom to function.

    There are plenty of people that enjoy criticizing, running down, subtly hating this great nation. Those are people who have never lived anywhere else. As someone who has lived abroad, I know what I am talking about when I say that America is the last best hope for the world. This is the only nation where people even care about helping the world. This is the only country where we question our own motives and actions. This is the only country that actually looks out for the good of others. This country give more money away in aid than every other country in the world combined. This country has saved the world from the tyrannies of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism while the church in those countries sat by and did nothing or were complicit in the evils that were done. This is the only country with the moral will and the military might to restrain evil and protect the innocent and defenseless.

    If you think another country provides better hope for the world, Dr. Mitchell, I suggest you live there for a while and then report back. If you think the church provides the best hope for the world, I’d suggest you examine more closely how the church functions. I submit to you that the church in America is the last best hope for the world. Fallen humanity needs Christians, but Christians need to be able to wield power if they wish to help others and the world. If America becomes a Christian nation again, we can wield our nation’s power to help the world. If America dies, the ability of the church to change the world dies. If the church in America dies, this country will become just as evil as our enemies are. If Christians take back America, we can make it a city on a hill once again. As the world’s first nation to be founded on freedom and Christian principles, America is already unique. Let’s make it great once again.

  8. Robert,
    In between your rostrum for the Christian Nation and the U.S. as the last Best Hope of the World, might I direct you to the text of Washington’s Farewell Address, once prudently read annually in Congress but no longer of course, it flies against the triumphal bunk chewed down by the mouthful by people who think patriotism is perhaps a junk food.

    Washington, in addition to delivering a remarkable Farewell Address, delivered the first homily to religious freedom in a Lovely Jewish Temple at Newport, R.I.. It underscored one of the principle virtues of this nation. Devout, we nonetheless were respectful and embraced the fruitful quality of a polyglot republic. Despite our troubles with Pirates in North Africa, I’m quite confident he would have delivered a similar talk in a mosque had there been numbers of early residents to warrant it. This is what America is. That a significant portion of Islam is lost down a rathole of revenge is no reason to virtually forget the foundation of the Republic.

    Surely, this is a great and hopefully abiding nation but in the last fifty years plus, the government of our nation…….and this should be a bigger distinction than now exists…we blithely accept our government as an extension of our citizenry which, in fact , it stopped being a few decades ago……. has been determinedly doing everything it can to repudiate the wisdom of the Framers. Funny enough, every time it does so, it suffers and is like a drunk at the curb now roaring “”you think you’re tough? You think you’re tough?. Watch as I kick my own ass”. In this effort, we join the despots and Marxists we deride, self-destructing to a soundtrack of trumpet blares and tank tracks.

  9. “homily to religious freedom in a Lovely Jewish Temple at Newport, R.I.”
    Some would argue that this is excessive attention to pluralism is a cause of problems rather than a benefit to us. In many respects the supposed benefit of religious “Freedom” has served only to make the Church subject to the state. Witness the same tendency to secularism and government control of religion in Germany, and Europe in general.

  10. The Nazis, the Communists, and the Japanese Imperialists all emerged out of the Novus ordo seclorum of secular states. Had the Church not been neutered, that is, been turned from a public and political ekklesia into a private koinon, then the secular monstrosities of named above would not have emerged.

    And, of course, as the state has become the center of political life, we have witnessed a migration of the holy to it. With the deist God of the founding so far away, the state now safeguards our “rights,” as a sacred mediator. We are even willing to die for this transcendence whenever the state has needs of our bodies when it decides to embark upon an imperialistic adventure.

    This replacement of the Church by the state smells of the worst idolatry and heresy.

  11. Robert,
    Very powerful, moving comment. America, at its best, has a powerful moral vision and has been a positive force in history, and we all need to be reminded of that from time to time. But a lot of “conservative” Americans have so identified America’s national interests with God’s will that they will tolerate all sorts of conduct that would be considered evil if done by any other country. I’m going to have to agree with Dr. Mitchell and call that “idolatry.” And as someone who lives in the very reddest of red states, I can tell you that “my country right or wrong” is alive and well, at least when there is a Republican president in office.

  12. Excellent article. I’m a little confused regarding your model of liberal/conservative views though. Pres. Carter of course famously gave a speech very similar to your example, and was derided by liberals and conservatives alike. Pres. Reagan on the other hand, was all about “sunny platitudes about growth” and became a modern conservative icon. I think at least part of the answer may lie in that Carter was actually not very liberal in the modern sense (although in social issues he still would be considered so), while Reagan’s conservative credentials may not quite live up to the legend. However, it may be worth noting that all modern Republican party candidates are now required to give nothing put platitudes about America’s role in the world (as very neatly confirmed above by the poster “Robert”.)

    JA is cherry-picking three “secular” (although he is incorrect in the case of Imperial Japan; non-Christian does not equal secular) examples of imperialism, while ignoring the numerous examples of religion-fueled imperialism of the 10th-19th centuries). How does the American imperialism of the 19th century fit? Surely the church was not neutered at that point.

  13. “Surely the church was not neutered at that point.”
    Some would argue it was well on the way to that destination, and had already been heavily captured by modernist views. I am open to that argument.

  14. MarkC,

    I was not cherry-picking in the least; I was responding to Robert who used those exact examples.

    Regarding your larger claim, I would challenge the way that you characterize the discussion. First, there is no such thing as religion. Anthropologists, scholars of comparative religion, philosophers, political scientists, historians, etc. have been unable to find a transcultural and tranhistorical definition. Both substantivist (content oriented) and functionalist (oriented around what they do) definitions attempted are inviable — the former because it cannot accommodate what is often taken as religion and the latter because it is WAY too expansive. This would be so expansive, in fact, that one would have to include nationalism, liberalism, free market capitalism, ethics, and sports as religions.

    Rather, the very construction of the religion/secular binary is a Western creation meant to disenfranchise the Church. For most of Christian history, the Church was the political and social center of communal life and Christian living was realized by practices in this community. With the emergence of the modern state, which flattened all of the complex overlapping societies of premodern life into a simple space of the nation-state, the Church needed to be marginalized. “Religion” was fashioned as a social construction to accommodate this. Christianity became a private, individualistic, interiorized, and belief oriented system and the Church was redefined as an association of individuals. Since then, what has counted and religion and what hasn’t is not determined by any strict definition, but by what is politically opportunistic.

    In other words, there is no such thing as “religion” that can be extracted away from other aspects of human life, such as politics or economics. Rather, there are practices, beliefs, and traditions that emerge within culture and that shape the way that a people live. The myth that you reiterate, i.e. that religious powers are inherently more violent than secular powers, is a myth that was constructed to privilege the state and its use of violence at the expense of other modes of living.

    So my argument isn’t that religious societies are more peaceful, as you seemed to suggest, but that once the state made itself the center of human life and activity, effectively deifying itself, the traditional restraints of Christian morality gave way to secular apocalypticism and utopianism, fostering strife and violence in the process. With Christ expunged from the center of human life, the state becomes a repository for the sacred and the vehicle for transcendence. There is no greater witness to this then the reality that people are willing to kill and die for the “freedom” that the state provides. This is no less than martyrdom for the sake of transcendence, even if that transcendence is largely only “secular.” American liberalism and “civil religion,” to use the popular phrase, while a much tamer form of state worship, still leads to incredible abuse and violence.

    Back to my larger point, I was critical of Robert for characterizing the state as the only way of combating evil and the Church as deficient and incapable. My argument is that both the evils of the twentieth century and the debilitation of the Church are actually the product of the emergence of the state and that his characterization only reinforces this power dynamic. Take away the possibility of the secular nation-state and the Nazis would not have been possible, nor would the Church be powerless.

    Now, this all may seem spurious and counterintuitive to you. Fair enough. If you would like, I could furnish you with a short bibliography that supports much of what I contend. The authors are major anthropologists, scholars of religious studies, and political theorists. They are not kooks.

  15. Tony A.,

    Sure, no problem. For the creation of the religion/secular binary as a discourse that marginalizes Christianity, I would recommend primarily two authors: William T. Cavanaugh and Talal Asad. The former is easier to read for those who want a well-sourced and scholarly book that is still very accessible to the general public. Cavanaugh’s “The Myth of Religious Violence” deals more closely with this theme, but his “Migrations of the Holy” chronicles how in modern society the “sacred” or the “holy” migrates from the Church to the State.

    Asad’s work is foundational to much of Cavanaugh’s own writings. His perspective is that of an anthropologist. If you don’t mind a bit more of a challenge, the best source would be his “Genealogies of Religion.”

    Timothy Fitzgerald’s “The Ideology of Religious Studies” is another book you could look to that argues that the category of “religion” is meaningless and should be abandoned.

    There’s also some interesting literature by those who do not abandon the concept, but radically reorient it to include what we would think of secular political behavior. The classic example is Robert Bellah’s “Civil Religion in America.” It is dated and doesn’t really adequately grapple with what religion precisely is, but does an excellent job illustrating how Americans use language very similar to what one would call “religious” in secular discourse. It is relatively short and can be found online. Worth a quick read to jar one’s thinking on the subject.

    I would probably be remiss if I did not mention Daniel Dubuisson’s “The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology.” He is a historian and anthropologist who abandons the idea of religion, but tries to create an alternative category, “cosmographic formations,” which are comprehensive views of the world. This would include not only Christianity and Islam, but Marxism, nationalism, liberalism, Platonism, etc. It is a good example of a functionalist approach.

    If you are interested in the political meaning of the Church, check out Cavanaugh’s “Migrations of the Holy” and Oliver O’Donovan’s “The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology.” For an exploration of scripture on the topic, you could look into C. Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age ” or Dieter Georgi’s “Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology.” I believe that N.T. Wright also has a forthcoming book on this very subject.

    If I could recommend one place for the layman to start, it would be with Cavanaugh’s “The Myth of Religious Violence.” It is extremely well-documented given the sheer breadth of topics that he covers and very accessible. You will find sourcing to follow whatever may interest you, from the origin of the Latin “religio” and its transformation through the Middle Ages and the into Early Modernity to the use of the identifying various traditions as “religions” in Kenya, India, and elsewhere as a discourse to manipulate colonized peoples.

    One last remark: many of Cavanaugh’s essays are available online without cost. You could search for them if you like, but his books are much richer.

  16. Years ago, when such a class was warranted (although truth be told, it was losing its relevance even then) in a computer literacy class the GA instructor made a comment about what will become of those left behind in our technological revolution? He felt like religion was the answer, and more specifically Christianity was the only thing giving us the answers. When I’ve told that story to liberal friends they have been aghast. My reaction at the time was some admiration that this person (who had spent some years working in software development) had at least grappled with the issue of the limits of progress and even more rightly what exactly “progress” means. I was reminded of this incident when reading this review of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
    Fully inhabiting India’s troubled present, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” can only hint at a less oppressive past — a “peaceful age” that to Abdul sounds like something out of myth, a time when “poor people had accepted the fates that their respective gods had written on their foreheads, and in turn treated one another more kindly.” This may seem too romantic a picture of Oriental fatalism. It is true, nevertheless, that migrants from the rural hinterland, drawn to Mumbai for hundreds of years — as long as the city, as constructed by British free-traders and their native collaborators, has existed — were never as desolate and defenseless as they are now.
    I guess I’ve always been more conservative than I’ve thought.

  17. By the terms of this article I am a conservative though I have voted Democratic in every presidential election I’ve been eligible to participate in. I’ve often wondered how a grand old word like “conservative” came to be coopted by a party like the Republicans, who seem overwhelmingly to be in their heart of hearts people who have decided as a life strategy to promote the interests of the most powerful, in the hope that if bad things happen, they will happen to someone other than the Republican. Craven, not conservative.
    Give me conservatives like Wendell Berry and C.S. Lewis, not “conservatives” like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.

  18. Good article, although I think a number of people could take the quiz and come out conservative who might otherwise be considered liberal. It may be that the devil is in the details.

    In terms of conservative meaning fiscally responsible, I don’t think you can claim that if you’ve taken a “no tax increase” pledge.

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