Monday, February 16, 2009

Hooray for Conservatism!

A couple of years ago, Father A. was at one of those boring clergy luncheons, at which one tries to sit with the bright funny people, but sometimes doesn't succeed.  On this occasion, he found himself in a vague political discussion with a colleague who was complaining about "conservatives" and the trouble they were causing.

"On the contrary," the chubby little Father responded.  "This country could benefit from some conservative leadership right now.  After all, it is George W. Bush's lack of conservatism, particularly in fiscal matters, which has brought us to this sad pass."

The colleague sputtered for a few seconds:  "But George -- but Bush -- but conservative."  At last, regaining a little composure, she asked who -- if not W. -- really was a conservative.

"Bill Clinton," answered Lutheranism's point man for all things irritating.  "After all, he slashed welfare benefits, avoided foreign entanglements, turned the deficit into a surplus, and fanned the flames of American business into a roaring steam-engine of prosperity."  (Perhaps Father A. didn't use that last wretched analogy.  He hopes he didn't.)  "Yes indeed," he said, hoisting his Diet Coke as though it were something worth toasting with.  "Here's to a true conservative, William Jefferson Clinton."

The other pastor smiled, the way one does when humoring one's demented uncle.  (If, of course, one has a demented uncle, which we certainly do not, no matter what anybody says.)

We mention this anecdote first as an excuse to tease our uncle and second to bring back a subject that the Egg has addressed often:  the curious difficulty of defining America's favorite political labels, "liberal" and "conservative."  The words have been used in so many different ways, over two centuries or so, that their continued use is a semantic embarrassment.  America's economic "conservatives," for example, are what the rest of the world calls "neo-liberals."  And if it is for some reason "liberal" to call for legalizing the medical use of marijuana, then what was the late William F. Buckley?

In response, of course, you have probably noticed "conservatives" of the mainline Republican variety trying to distance themselves from people they call "libertarians" or simply "Ron Paul."  But it seems to us that, where Ron Paul (or Pat Buchanan) are able to articulate a clear and consistent philosophical vision, the GOP in its struggle to become and remain an effective coalition has surrendered a coherent form of conservatism.  The security hawks and the deficit hawks, for example, are irreconcilable.  Both may claim the "C" word, but they self-evidently mean different things by it. 

(Meanwhile, and since Reagan, the word "liberal" has been so effectively used as an accusation and even a slur that very few Democrats willingly apply it to themselves, at least in public.  While they may be called to articulate a vision of "Progressivism" in the near future, they can probably coast on "liberal.")  

We won't pretend to solve the problem ourselves, in the limited space our editor permits for blog posts.  But we have been amused, over the past two years, by watching Andrew Sullivan lose friends and alienate people among the soi-disant "conservatives."  He has insisted, loudly and long, that his positions -- opposition to the Bush Administration, to Gitmo, to "Christianism," as well as his support for gay rights (including marriage), for the Obama candidacy, and, yes, medical marijuana -- are authentically conservative.

Early in our ministry, we lost many friends and alienated many people in much the same way, adjusted somewhat for ecclesiastical issues.  So perhaps it is redundant to say that we agree with Sullivan's assessment of "conservatism," even if our befuddled colleague might not.  Sullivan's conservatism is of the Burkean variety, by which he means that  "the core political virtue[s] [are] practical reason and common sense, not ideology, theology or absolutism."  (We might add to this a healthy, although not romantic, respect for the example of the past and the experience of one's elders.)

This being the case, Sullivan goes on, in a recent post, linked above, to adduce some recent poll data suggesting that while members of most religious communities are committed not merely to their theological a prioris, but also or even primarily to the application of evidence and reason, adherents of three particular traditions are not:  Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Evangelicals.  (Never mind, for a moment, that "Evangelical" here is, like "liberal" or "conservative," a tricky word to use correctly.  Sigh.  It's our burden, and we'll carry it forever.)

All of this allows Sullivan to say something which, while quite true, will also be counterintuitive for many Americans:

The Republican party is not, at this point in time, a conservative party, as Burke would understand it. It's a fundamentalist religious party.

He's right, if you accept his restriction of "conservatism" to the single Burkean sense.  And from this it follows that Fox News is a fundamentalist religious broadcaster, which ought to save them plenty on taxes.  

1 comment:

mark said...

Shouldn't talk about Uncle David that way. Unbecoming of for a cleric, be he liberal, conservative, OR evangelical.