Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Some notes on conservatism and the priority of culture

Inevitably it's back to politics and economics. I don't loathe politics anymore than I loathe gravity. Politics is a natural and necessary part of being human because a natural and necessary part of being human is being part of the larger human community. Like many of my posts these days, this one very much ad hoc and off-the-cuff.

I am not a liberal nor am I what often passes for a conservative, which means, at least in the United States, a classic liberal. This holds true on both social issues and economic issues. The publication yesterday of the Note on financial reform issued by Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and about which there is plenty of commentary, leads me to simply state that conservatism that dares speak its name is not economically liberal, that is, rejects laissez-faire economics, as does the Church's social teaching reaching back at least 120 years to Pope Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, up to and including Pope Benedict XVI's most recent encyclical, Caritas in veritate.

So, what's a person to do? Well, what I do is to use a three-fold criteria: life issues, the importance of marriage and family, and religious freedom, which, as we are coming to find out the hard way, is not merely the freedom to worship as I choose, or not at all. Conservatives understand that religion matters and that, as Bruce Anderson, writing in The Independent a few years back in contrasting Lady Thatcher's classical liberalism with conservatism, "religion requires faith" and "secular matters [require] scepticism." On my Facebook profile my stated political view is "socially conservative and economically suspicious." This remains highly accurate.

Anderson went on to note that conservatives "know that freedom is not a panacea and that the social order requires more than anarchy plus the constable," which tends to be the view of the classical liberal who is  identified in contemporary politics as a conservative. Anderson touched on another contrast between the classical liberal view and that of the conservative, namely if you get government "out of the way" and let "people to run their own lives, most of them would be successful." Classical liberals, like Lady Thatcher, about whom Anderson was writing, do not understand nor sympathize with people who are unable to succeed, seeing it as "their own fault for not trying hard enough." Traditional conservatism, Anderson observed, "is much more humane, much more attuned to human weakness and to the plight of those trapped at the bottom of the heap." Stated theologically, classical liberals who claim the conservative moniker are effectively Pelagians. True conservatism is inherently compassionate. Because classical liberalism is not inherently compassionate, tending as it does towards both laissez faire capitalism and being socially liberal, which, in my estimation, is the worst combination of any of the ideological possibilities, George W. Bush used "compassionate conservatism" as a political slogan in 2000.

Most importantly for me, conservatism is not economically deterministic, deplores the crass commercialization and commodification not only of every aspect of life, but of religion and even human beings.

T.S. Eliot

As put over and against liberalism qua liberalism, conservatism does not imagine that all people are equal in every respect. It doesn't take very much experience to realize the falsity of such a pie-eyed utopian claim. All people are, of course, equal in dignity and, therefore, equal before the law and are endowed by God with certain inalienable rights. People should certainly be given an equality of opportunity to succeed, but success cannot be guaranteed. So, all of the expensive societal schemes that seek to obtain equal results can only do so by lowering standards and making everyone mediocre.

All of this before even touching on that increasingly endangered institution, the two-parent family. For a conservative, the state is neither theocratic nor agnostic, but favors faith over and against unbelief, the opposite of Western liberal democracies, which seek a de facto a-theism. Conservatism is not libertarian in any regard. I was reminded this week of a book by David L. Schindler we read quite a few years ago in our now-defunct Salt Lake Communio group: Heart of the World, Center of the Church: "Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation. Reading and discussing Schindler's book, which began with his critique of Neuhaus, Novak, and Wiegel, the so-called Catholic neo-cons, was very eye-opening for me. Hence, I am looking forward to the release of Schindler's latest book, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God.

In a recent post on his blog, the Rev. Dr. Peter Mullen, who is, undeniably, a very controversial figure, but a man who, like all conservatives, understands the importance of culture, quoted T.S. Eliot on culture:
An individual European may not even believe that the Christian Faith is true, but what he says and makes and does will all spring out of this history of European culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Nietzsche or a Voltaire. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready-made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.
Sounds a lot like much of what Benedict XVI says in his travels across Europe.

I have to say that I have really only gained an appreciation of Eliot over the past few years. Growing up how I did, in a cultural vacuum, I still have a lot of catching up to do.


  1. wow. That quote from Eliot is so prophetic. So sadly true.

  2. Interesting times that we live in. Increasingly, the globalized culture that we live in seems to also speed the process of the marginalization of Christianity. Even in Poland (not by any means a secularized country) a huge hurrah happened after the election of the first transgender MP to the government two weeks ago. The Church is being attacked and the Christian culture is being deliberately and intentionally undermined with great speed. One some days, I seem to share TS Eliot's sentiments, but I think D. Schindler also provides a way by which we can take seriously the task of the New Evangelization maintaining hope in the possibilities of renewal. For too long we have lived with the J.C. Murray Catholic accomodationalism, and it seems clear that the Church will only succeed to the degree that it witnesses in the midst of the culture and at the heart of the world to the love of God and neighbor and brings to mind the single destiny of all of humanity as ordered to communion with God.

  3. J.C.

    I couldn't agree more. Anything less will only lead to more of the same.

  4. Scott, thanks for the splendid post. Thanks especially for the clarifying definitions of conservatism and liberalism.


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