Why I Call it the “Thing that Used to Be Conservatism”…

…is nicely captured in this comment from fellow Chestertonian Deacon Nathan Allen, who writes:

Anyone who uses the words “conservative” — or “liberal”, for that matter — in the context of American political discourse ought to be asked what exactly they mean by that word. Most of what is called “conservatism” these days has nothing whatever to do with the great American conservative tradition one finds set forth with clarity in the writings of scholars like Russell Kirk, for example. Ronald Reagan could not get the nomination of today’s GOP: he was “soft on terror” because he thought terrorists should be tried in federal court like common criminals and not have their cause dignified by treating them as enemy combatants, he was soft on torture because he signed the UN Convention Against Torture and called it an abhorent practice that had to be stamped out, and he was soft on immigration because he not only signed an amnesty bill into law but campaigned on the issue in a year (1984) when he was cruising to reelection and didn’t have to campaign on anything controversial. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

I find myself asking what exactly today’s self-styled “conservatives” are interested in conserving!

Apart from being (usually) anti-abortion (unless the baby being aborted happens to live in the womb of some civilian we have decided needs killin’ for some war aim like Hiroshima or a drone strike) and anti-euthanasia (unless the person we are snuffing is somebody we are *pretty* sure is guilty of a capital offense), the Thing That Used to be Conservatism has tended, more and more, to make moral calls that are either at odds with or even radically opposed to the teaching of the faith in establishing the common good (most notably in the department of unjust war, but also in a radically libertarian vision of the common good that has no serious interest in the weakest). In many significant ways, the Thing that Used to be Conservatism no longer has any interest in the common good and is often radically opposed to it due to the poisonous influence of a radical libertarianism that is a sort of mirror of the leftist obsession with radical relativism. As Reagan said of the Democrats, I say of the Thing That Used to be Conservatism: I didn’t move. It did. I remain what I’ve been: a Catholic who thinks that politics only exists for man, not man for politics and that party allegiances vanish the moment the party advocates things at odds with the moral principles of the faith. In our bipolar politics, people tend to hear “I no longer self-identify as a conservative” as “I am now a liberal”. No. It means I am now politically homeless since “liberal” typically means “zealous for the murder of the unborn” and “eager to pretend there is such a thing as gay ‘marriage'”. As a worshipper of a man who had no place to lay his head, I guess that’s to be expected sooner or later.

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  • Ken

    This is why I call myself a Traditionalist, or a Reactionary!

  • “As a worshipper of a man who had no place to lay his head, I guess that’s to be expected sooner or later.” This is a comforting word. Thanks.

  • ivan_the_mad

    The history of American conservatism is a story of competing and cooperating strands of conservatism. It is at root a disposition, a view of the social order. The contemporary meaning is merely a synonym for Republican ideology, which is fast becoming an amalgamation of many the worst ideas expressed in the forum or conceived in darkness. Happily, there are conservatives out there striving to reclaim the patrimony of Kirk, Lukacs, the Southern Agrarians, et al. The intellectual heritage of these strands is wonderfully diverse, far too broad for the narrow constraints of today’s common meaning.

    Ideology is an anathema to conservatism. Such ideology is expressed in various fashions in today’s usage of the word, whether through the primacy of the market or the primacy of American supremacy in foreign policy. Conservatives are heirs to a rich intellectual foundation. Hopefully efforts such as yours, Mark, will nudge even a few to discover it and to remember that it is always subordinate to the one Thing that truly has primacy.

  • This is another stupid attempt at libeling conservatives into submission. You may speak falsehoods as you please (Ronald Reagan would win the nomination in a heartbeat) but don’t imagine you are doing anything effective other than destroying your persuasive ability to bring people to Christ. You have a talent. It is a shame to watch you destroy the effective use of it.

    • GR

      I rarely post here, but though I should say a word in defense of this blog and its role in bringing people to Christ. I am ashamed to admit that for many years I allowed the GOP party platform to be a significant lenses through which I looked at the world and formed my moral judgements. So when confronted with the contradiction of being a good rank-in-file Republican, praying for the end of abortion on the one hand on Sunday, while making excuses for torture and war during the week, I realized that there was a problem somewhere. I thought the Church’s teachings on war and torture were probably just language inserted in the CCC to appease its liberal members. So with the Church “compromised”, I left to find a place to worship more in line with my views and my party. I was just too young and proud to admit the problem might be the political party that played such a large role in my professional and social life. Long story short, it was my family praying for me and forwarding posts from this blog and others like it that criticized the GOP and what currently charades as conservatism over a period of time that challenged me and opened a personal conversation in my heart about where my ultimate allegiances lie. I now no longer have a political party to call home, but happily something much better.

      • Mark Shea

        Thank you. This is the most encouraging thing I’ve read all week. God bless you, sir.

      • I’m sorry to hear that you left the Church and glad to hear that you have returned. Welcome home.

    • Mark Shea


  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    The GOP as a party is not longer conservative. They’re Right Wing and getting scarier every year. The sad thing is that so many well-meaning people who think of themselves as conservative see themselves as defending the values of George Bailey when they are really defending the rights of Mr. Potter.

    But the Democratic Party is no better. They certainly aren’t liberal in any sane sense of the word.

    Voting “the lesser evil” is only piling on the evil. The only thing we really can do is get involved on the local level and pray.

  • When asked, I say that I am in favor of limited government, lower taxes, gun ownership, and freedom of worship, press, speech, and assembly. I wish to conserve the principles found in the Constitution and the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That makes me a conservative, at least the way the word is usually used in common discourse.
    If, however, one were convinced that the common discourse regards the word ‘conservatism’ as tainted with plutocracy, or torture, or preemptive war, or secession from the union, or fascism, or racism, one could always use the term ‘Reaganite’ or ‘Goldwater Republican’ or even ‘Classical Liberal.’

  • KM

    Four “events” have finally pushed me away from the ever-devolving Republican Party.

    1. Before the election I and others were figuratively yelled at in blogs if we even dared mention voting third party. We were told that if we didn’t vote Romney, we would be aiding and abetting tyranny.

    2. When I posed the question in one forum that “if the original Assault Weapons Ban from 1994-2004 didn’t lead to tyranny and gun confiscation, why would a renewed ban lead to tyranny?” and the only answer I received was “it’ll make it harder and more expensive to get the weapons I want to prevent the slippery slope to tyranny,” I began questioning the arguments more. And the arguments kept getting more fearful and strange. If I dared to ask a question that suggested any tiny change to the status quo, much anger was directed at me.

    3. When I have suggested any solutions, no matter how careful or mild, to gun violence in other forums, some conservatives/libertarians sneeringly attacked me for being an “emotional, non-rational LIBRUL. ”

    4. When Drudge started linking to Alex Jones’ websites (which are crazy, dark libertarian conspiracy sites), I realized that mainstream “conservatism” has been infected with radical ideas. This is not an isolated incident. Other “conservative” sites I’ve frequented were linking to that and other much more radical sites. What’s worse is that mainstream people like Hannity were picking up on this stuff.

    So I cannot stomach it anymore. Currently I do not have a political party to call home. I pray that conservatism finds its way back to sanity.