As the Thing that Used to be Conservatism Continues Its March Toward Suicide

various people are trying to figure out “What happened?”

Two useful essays I have run across are here and here.

They tell intriguingly similar tales.  The first, by David Brooks, mourns the eclipse by purely economic conservatism of “the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

The second, intriguingly, tracks the way in which modern American Protestantism, particularly conservative Protestantism has lost its mind–and how conservative Catholics and conservatism generally has jettisoned a once promising intellectual Catholic heritage in order to conform to this.  The brilliant and insightful Daniel McCarthy writes:

There’s another key factor: the transition from a small scale “micro-Protestantism,” in which various forms of hierarchical authority were at least informally present even among more radical denominations, toward mass movements and megachurches. This is parallel to the breakdown of the older, locally focused federalist system in American politics and the rise of mass politics, particularly in the form of ideologically homogeneous parties (and para-parties like movement conservatism). Thus even within Protestantism the locus of authority has shifted from the small-scale, informally hierarchical, and communally consensus-seeking to a vast domain shaped by mass communications, national struggles, and outsized personalities.

American Catholics are not exempt from all this: they too are Protestants, and the Catholic right in particular has becoming strikingly anti-clerical. The contempt that right-wing Catholics hold for much of the church hierarchy is one manifestation; another is the tendency of ultra-traditionalists to believe that their knowledge of natural law or theological punctilio consecrates them next to the pope, if not beyond him, in authority. They claim, in effect, direct access to spiritual authority through their intimacy with texts.

Catholics traditionally have not had a problem with the teaching of evolution, for reasons not only doctrinal (Catholics have a more allegorical understanding of Biblical truth than Protestants) but also structural: as a hierarchy itself, the Catholic Church is more inclined than many Protestant denominations to leave certain kinds of questions “to the proper authorities,” so to speak, observing hierarchy and a division of competence outside as well as within the faith. The radical Protestant tendency implies that every man can be his own molecular biologist as well as his own confessor.

What’s more, the distinction between popular politics and the religious congregation breaks down under the influence of radical Protestantism. A Catholic can, or should, never feel fully at home in political democracy; he must recognize a different kind of organization (not just a different domain of competence) in the hierarchical church. When fellowship or fraternité is the organizing principle in faith as well in government, however, confusing the two becomes much easier — much as Catholics once were prone to confuse the hierarchical principle in the church with hierarchy in political forms. This assimilation of American Catholics to Protestant attitudes about governance has, of course, facilitated religious-right coalition building, and it helps to account for the newfound hostility many conservative Catholics, especially intellectuals, feel for the theory of evolution.

My root objection to Protestantism of this kind is political-philosophical: it’s the principle of mass opinion or personal opinion over disciplined knowledge, of mass taste over good taste, and of constant schism, resentment, and fracture, attitudes that far from leading to freedom actually enslave the state to the demands of well-organized groups. Every 18th and 19th century High Tory or Burkean Whig who fought against radical Protestantism in the old country warned of this very thing.

But keep in mind that authority systems are dynamic. Catholic authority can lend itself to obscurantism if the clerical authority of priests is opposed to the clerical authority of scientists. And Protestant freedom — the complementary habits of making up one’s own mind and of working things out as a group rather than everyone accepting a higher, narrower authority — can also work in many circumstances. But each extreme must be tempered by its opposite: Protestants, if they’re not to turn obscurantist, must recreate hierarchies and must not be anti-clerical, even if they need not become clericalists; similarly, Catholics can remain clerical but must not neglect thinking for themselves or reasoning outside of established authority. Either of these mixtures might work well.  But as an absolute principle anti-clericalism is deadly to the mind.

How does this play out? Look around.  We’ve already seen the rise of the Progressive Dissenter, of course.  But just as insidious (in fact, more so since he is convinced he is the orthodox savior of the Church) is the Reactionary Dissenter who routinely speaks sneeringly of the ordinary teachers and governors of the Church while encouraging a cult of personality around some celebrity (I speak from personal experience as the object of a cultus for a small sect) or worse, encouraging that cultus around himself.  It gets played out in our politics as we get our information and our convictions fed to us by Talk Radio or Fox, or NRO, not from the Catholic intellectual tradition.  It gets played out in our media consumption by choosing de facto gurus whom we anoint as mini-Popes (often without their knowledge or consent, and sometimes with their active encouragement).  Paul had a name for it: party spirit. It is one of the works of the flesh and it is one of the besetting sins of Protestantism and of the deeply Protestantized Catholicism of American culture.  We have to learn our Faith from the source and not filtered through that culture if we want to avoid the complete loss of our intellectual heritage as Catholics.  That means, gasp, trusting the teaching of the Church as it comes to us from the source and not getting it all filtered through culture warriors who heap  contempt on the bishops while claiming to speak for them.  It also means abandoning the cult of celebrity and learning to think with the Tradition and not merely with the tribe.


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  • Ok, being a filthy protestant, maybe I’m missing something here, but someone help me out:

    It gets played out in our politics as we get our information and our convictions fed to us by Talk Radio or Fox, or NRO, not from the Catholic intellectual tradition.

    (setting aside that only “right wing” sources are named instead of “left wing”)
    This makes no sense to me as it sounds like you’re complaining about listening to a specialist in a topic instead of ___. I don’t buy the convictions part, but “information”? Why wouldn’t you get political and news information from political and news sources? It reminds me of evangelicals who complain about getting information from ‘scientists’ instead of the ‘biblical tradition’.

    Now I’ll quite agree that there’s something deeply flawed in the leftist meme “the personal is political” (which is something I’ve seen all denominations guilty of) but there is something to be said about not making the political personal, either. But then I am a fan of Federalism, something which I sometimes wonder if it is compatible with Catholicism.

    • Ted Seeber

      That last sentence was answered by Pope Leo XIII in _Rerum Novarum_. I suggest you read it.

  • Dan C

    It is not coincidental that the beginnings of the development of atheism or the increasing number of Americans failing to identify with a religion (described by Michael Sean Winters as the “nones”) started in full force a decade after the Moral Majority and its companions were in full force. A generation later, and the children of this era reject the religion of the Moral Majority and its adherents. Christianity’s heavy armed politics that peaked with GWB is a major concern and cause of the current loss of faith in out communities.

    This is poorly attended in the essays of Douthat and Chaput, both which in varied ways decry the trend, decry the politics that these “nones” retain as a consequence of their lack of faith, but fail to see where their own politico-religious confrères and techniques of politicking have contributed to this.

    • Blog Goliard

      I’m finishing Douthat’s book right now…and I can assure you that he does see where his “own politico-religious confrères and techniques of politicking” have caused the same sort of ruin. From his reading (and mine), the Mainline and social-justice Catholics wrecked themselves on the shoals of Leftist party spirit…and then Evangelicals and their Catholic fellow-travelers, seeing how well that went, decided to head full steam for the shoals of Conservative party spirit.

      The original sins (in the original Mainline cases) were committed with the best of intentions: to help the civil rights movement. Which is true in our polity more broadly–now every political cause is as righteous and clear-cut, and as good an excuse to bend or break the usual rules (which become less and less usual), as ending segregation was…and who can stand upright in the winds that blow now?

      • So it’s like CS Lewis often said: A place for everything and everything in its place? That really, we should try and remember that there are so many things more important politics.

  • James Isabella

    David Brookes, writing about the (now long gone) tension between economic conservatives and traditional conservatives:

    “Ronald Reagan embodied both sides of this fusion, and George W. Bush tried to recreate it with his compassionate conservatism.”

    I’ve often said that I much preferred the pre-911 GWB to the post-911 GWB . I distinctly recall resonating with “compassionate conservatism” at the time in 2000, and thinking that we might be on the verge of something new. There was lots of talk of the government *cooperating* with charities (especially religious charities), instead of either having the government compete with charities (as Liberals seem to want to do) or getting the government completely out of the business altogether (as Economic Conservatives seem to want to do).

    Unfortunately, “compassionate conservatism” was one of the biggest casualties of 911.

    • Hear, hear! It was like everything went off the rails after 9/11. That bit of terrorism succeeded like no other bit of terrorism has. And I hear conservatives say things like, “9/11: the day the world changed.” What world did they live in before 9/11?

  • Ted Seeber

    One brother Knight in my council is absolutely of the position that the *ONLY* important Catholic teaching is anti-abortion. The rest of the pro-life “consistent ethic of life” spectrum escapes him; especially how economics can impact the choices made by moral relativists.

    He’s also the one who is most outspoken about Marian devotion, including yes, Medjugorje.

    And he’s the only one to come out against charity for the homeless.

    He even recently came out *against* the Knights of Columbus Voter Registration Drive- because the USCCB documents are not forceful enough in opposing abortion.

    But he is my Brother Knight- and I’ll work on him as much as I’ll work on the one in my council who thinks the best thing we can do for the unborn is pay for pre-natal care and make sure the parents have a roof over their head; who utterly disregards the idea of criminalizing abortion.

    • MarylandBill

      Actually, I think criminalizing abortion, while necessary, will not end abortion in this country. I don’t think your brother Knight is right, but if a way could be found to convince people not to have abortions without criminalizing it, that would also be a viable alternative. To some extent isn’t that what 40 days for life is about?

      • Ted Seeber

        Yes, it is. But what I still don’t understand- is why not a both-and approach instead of either or?

  • The Deuce

    I’m not particularly inclined to take anything David Brooks – he of admiring Barack Obama’s pant crease fame – says about “real” conservatism seriously. The role for federal government defended by Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter was smaller than the heavily indebted monstrosity we have now by many, many orders of magnitude.

  • The Deuce

    And it looks like Brooks has gone and given us another fine reason why nobody with a conservative bone in their body and an ounce of common sense should give the slightest attention to Brooks’ advice regarding what “true” conservatism ought to be: