Always penetrating and provocative, my good friend Patrick Deneen has, once again penetrated and provoked, this time in a brief essay entitled ” Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

Here’s his summary of what seem to constitute the “core commitments” of American conservatism:

While difficult to define, contemporary American conservatism seems to be shaped by a certain set of core commitments. While not exhaustive, among those characteristics one could confidently list: 1. Commitment to limited government as laid out by the Founders in the Constitution; 2. Support for Free Markets; 3. Strong National defense; 4. Individual responsibility and a suspicion toward collectivism; and 5. Defense of traditional values, particularly support for family.

Deneen is not the first to note that many of these commitments actually derive from classical liberalism, wherein, he argues, lies a problem:


The Declaration [of Independence] is our nation’s work of high philosophy, a distillation of Lockean principles deriving from his Second Treatise on Government. Yet, thinkers from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk have shown the deeply anti-conservative bases of the social contract theory of Lockean (and Hobbesian) origin, one that is premised upon a conception of human beings as naturally “free and independent,” as autonomous individuals who are thought to exist by nature detached from a web of relationships that include family, community, Church, region, and so on. The Lockean logic subjects all human relationships to radical scrutiny, valorizing choice and voluntarism as the sole basis of legitimacy in any human bond. This logic radically destabilizes all existing ties, making individual calculation the primary basis on which to assess the legitimacy and claims of any association. This logic not only places the polity under its legitimizing logic, but all traditional relations, even finally the family itself. The logic used to justify America’s break with England worked like a steady solvent throughout its history, first detaching people’s allegiances from communities, from Churches, then from the individual States, and finally today – among the vanguard, the enlightened elite – from the nation and from the family alike. Today’s conservatives in most cases see this as a step too far, yet they have generally signed on in support of the philosophy that led to this culmination of the Lockean project.

One might respond that while the Declaration is indeed the central text of our “public philosophy,” it has always stood in tension with (and perhaps was meant to stand in tension with) other strands of American political culture, above all the sincere Protestant religiosity that found its home in the towns and homesteads, if not necessarily in the estates and salons of our colonial and post-colonial elites. While a “mind of a peculiar structure” might read one meaning into “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” an ordinary Anglican or Methodist reading his Book of Common Prayer or Bible might hear something altogether more orthodox. For everyone who hears or sees Locke in this famous phrase, there might well be another who hears or sees only Richard Hooker .

Certainly John Locke himself studiously cultivated the impression of a continuity between his thought and that of the famous Anglican divine. And there were Americans of the founding generation who were also at pains to diminish the conflict between classical liberalism and traditional religion. However much this move might cost in terms of philosophical clarity, it could be defended either as an accommodation to the power of the established church (in England) or to the necessary of popular enlightenment (in America). While Thomas Jefferson himself may have fondly hoped that the time would soon come when every young man in America would be a Unitarian, there were others who say that as at least impossible, if not undesirable. Here we have George Washington :

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ‘Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric.

The question I would pose to my friend Patrick is whether the logic of classical liberalism is so inexorable that the full fruition of its principles cannot be resisted, even by those who recognize that a healthy society requires the conservative commitments to faith and family. Or is it that our elites have lost touch with this old insight, so that our atheists have become bold, rather than cautious?  Is our problem that the tension in principle cannot be maintained or simply that it has not been maintained? Must we abandon the Declaration or simply the doctrinaires who are imprudent in their devotion to one version of its logic?

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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