If there is one silver lining to President Obama’s re-election—an event that fills many with apprehension—it is that it’s provided a clarifying moment for American conservatism.
For years, the conservative movement has been carried along by its “big tent” philosophy, which welcomes conservatives of various types. In the wake of Obama’s victory, however, these differences have been accentuated. Many conservatives believe this was a winnable election, and blame some faction of the GOP for supposedly blowing it. Social conservatives are warring with libertarians, foreign policy hawks with non-interventionists, immigration reformers with opponents, and generous spenders with fiscal conservatives. Recriminations are flying high, and plenty have ideas about reviving American conservatism.
What has gone unnoticed is just how secular the conservative discussion has become. In his famous book, God and Man at Yale (1951), William F. Buckley lamented the collapse of Christian consciousness among higher academics, and hoped conservatives could reverse the trend. Russell Kirk followed with his classic, The Conservative Mind (1953), arguing that conservatism was nothing if it was not supportive of a transcendent Judeo-Christian order. And Clinton Rossiter’s neglected study Conservatism in America (1955), declared that “no conservative can afford to be casual about religion. Those political or cultural conservatives who are indifferent are to that extent—and to a goodly extent it is—imperfect conservatives.” In recent times, many of these notions have been challenged. While many conservatives still embrace faith, and defend the Judeo-Christian heritage, the idea that modern conservatism is synonymous with faith and tradition has lost traction. A whole new generation of self-styled conservatives want little or nothing to do with either. When the creators of South Park, the crude but popular animated sitcom, were asked if they were “South Park Republicans”—since their show mocks liberals, especially liberal celebrities—they rejected the label, claiming the GOP wants nothing but “more government and more Jesus.”
Actually, the GOP has been accused of being un-Christian for wanting too little government; and Jesus is not as revered by the Right as he once was—and his teachings even less so. When the whole “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy over openly gay soldiers in the military came up, a number of prominent conservatives endorsed the Obama Administration’s effort to repeal it, and any injection of Christian morals into the debate was considered outdated, if not much worse.
The supposedly conservative Fox News “all-stars” all applauded the movement to repeal DADT, and a number of Republican senators gave Obama the key votes he needed to do just that in a lame duck session. More than a few “conservatives” have endorsed same-sex marriage, and even invoked conservative principles in doing so. “Pro-choice” Republicans have always existed, but fortunately, never taken control of the modern party. Whether that can last is anyone’s guess.
American conservatism, of course, has never been perfectly Christian—and sometimes, far from it—but its imperfect efforts to uphold the country’s moral and religious heritage is still welcome. But now that these attacks are emerging from within, traditional conservatives have to fight on two fronts—against anti-religious liberals, and secular conservatives.
This two-front assault on traditional conservatism has taken a toll. Intimidated by loose (and often ludicrous) charges of “theocracy,” many committed religious believers have hesitated to cite the Bible in support of anything political, even though our Founding Fathers did. A few misleading accusations against the Bible—on slavery or women’s rights, for example—are enough to cause modern conservatives to abandon Biblical arguments altogether. They have adopted a secularist tongue, albeit one that stresses conservative values and the Natural Law (as close to Biblical morality as they are willing to get.)
The debate over how to attract young voters is symptomatic of the challenges faced by American conservatives. Because the young are more liberal on social issues—at least at this point in their lives—traditionalists are being counseled by secularists to either remain silent about abortion and same-sex marriage, or even change their beliefs. But that would be tantamount to repudiating authentic conservatism itself. And since when did conservatives, who believe they have an “adult” understanding of human nature and culture, start deciding they should be deferring to the young for moral instruction? Wasn’t that destructive concept a distinguishing feature of the left during the 1960s? Shouldn’t responsible adults be instructing the young, and not the other way around? And if the young are allowed to drive our moral decisions, where does that leave the commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother”?
Of course, even some “adult” conservatives have proven poor role models for the young. It’s not just a relaxed attitude to adultery, divorce, and pornography; it’s a swerve into political immorality as well. After 9/11, it was perfectly reasonable and just to respond to the terrorists with force (and still is), restrained and guided by just war principles. But then, something happened along the way, and certain conservatives—not all, but far too many—snapped, and came out in defense of torture as a means of resisting terrorism. To this day, many still defend “enhanced interrogation,” a euphemism if ever there was one, and a direct assault on the dignity of the individual.
When Saul Alinsky published his notorious tract, Rules for Radicals, true conservatives denounced it for what it was—a relativistic assault upon the Judeo-Christian ideals of the West. Yet today, in what can only be lamented as a bizarre reversal—if not a descent into moral madness—some conservatives have actually endorsed Alinskyite tactics, and championed them as an effective way to beat the liberals at their own game.
The American conservative movement was once known for its clarity of vision and purpose; today, confusion and contradiction reign. If it is to recover from its current woes, traditional conservatives need to resist the temptation of secularizing conservatism—at least the kind that empties it of religious content—and not allow the transient fortunes of political parties to intimidate them into abandoning their deepest held beliefs. A careful reading of John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor would be a good way to calm the anxious nerves of American conservatives committed to eternal truth.
Traditional conservatives should certainly seek to elect capable and morally responsible leaders and work with non-religious allies as far as conscience permits. But lines need to be drawn, and core values need to be preserved. As important as elections are, there are some things even more vital, and religious believers should be the first to know that, and demonstrate it in their own lives. For the Christian, the only kind of conservatism that counts is a Christ-centered one.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
God and Man at Yale by William F. Buckley Jr.
The Conservative Mind by Russel Kirk
Conservatism In America by Clinton Rossiter
“Several Conservative Media Figures Support Repeal of DADT,” Media Matters for America, September 3, 2010.
“Eight Republicans Back “Don’t Ask’ Repeal,” Politico, December 18, 2010
“But Torture May be Necessary and Effective…Not!” by James H. Toner, Mission Capadonno.
Veritatis Splendor, encyclical letter by Blessed John Paul II, 1993