Matt Anderson has a bee in his bonnet. The apostles of the Third Way – you know the type – have lately been pushing yet another effort to recycle the idea that “conservatism” is dead among young evangelicals because they despise “culture war.” For two weeks, Matt has been posting about the prospects for what he calls “non-culture war conservatism.” Today he attempts a summary post in which he boils it down to four “moves”:
- Recover a robust doctrine of creation.
- Emphasize the moral imagination.
- Remember the church has its own political order.
- Reframe American exceptionalism around America’s responsibilities, not its virtues.
Now, I am a pretty strongly conservative fellow myself, and I yield place to no one in distaste for seeing a combination of intellectual laziness and moral cowardice dressed up and paraded around as a superior alternative to responsible political engagement. And I regard Matt as one of the most promising young evangelical writers of the young generation.
That said, I have to say that I don’t think Matt has quite cracked the nut he’s working on. Matt wants to demonstrate that conservatism has something constructive to say about our present dilemma. But take a fresh look at his list and ask: what is “conservative” about it?
I like all four of these “moves” and support all of them. What I want to know is why we should label them “conservative” and thus decrease the chances of partnering with our progressive friends to promote them. I’m a conservative, but being a good Christian and a good citizen of my country come first. I view these four “moves” as being on that more fundamental level rather than on the level of ideological dispute.
This matters for reasons I’ve discussed at more length elsewhere; for now I’ll just say that we need to avoid absolutizing political disagreement, and we do that when we redefine the basic commitments of virtious participation in the social order as “conservative.”
Knowing what I know about Matt, I expect he would say (I’m putting words in his mouth; he’s free to spit them out if he likes) that a robust doctrine of creation is conservative because it attributes an integrity to the human social order, making it something worth conserving. Yet a robust doctrine of creation also gives us an external standard against which to judge the social order as we find it – a standard toward which we should presumably wish the social order to make progress.
I expect (getting a little more speculative here) Matt would say the moral imagination is conservative because it puts us back in touch with a natural moral standard, something like C.S. Lewis’s “tao,” as against attempts to reengineer human morality. Yet those who have sought to reengineer human morality have done so through manipulation of the moral imagination at least as often – if not more so – as through philosophical ideologies and so forth. What differentiates Matt’s appeal to moral imagination from Romanticism?
I expect he’d say safeguarding the church’s distinct political order is conservative because it preserves an institution that to some extent stands outside the tides of social change (yelling Stop, perhaps). Yet this kind of move is made more often by radicals than conservatives, as Matt himself notes. Nothing is more radical, more anti-conservative, than the reactionary. As a further illustration, on top of the examples Matt himself mentions, I would point to the continuing importance of implicitly totalitarian Marxist thought categories in the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre.
Surely American exceptionalism is conservative? It is when we define it in terms of America’s virtues. It becomes much less obviously so when we define it, as I agree we should define it, in terms of America’s responsibilities.
Matt sounds like he’s trying to get the bee in his bonnet to quiet down; I hope I’ve sufficiently stirred the hornet’s nest to prompt further reflections. I don’t want him to unsay anything he has said, but I do want to hear why he thinks these good ideas are “conservative,” and whether he thinks there are principles of good citizenship that transcend ideological boundaries.