Edicts of an Empire
December 25, 2021 (1,937 words)
Today’s catchy title is taken from the subject line of this week’s email blast from the long-time President of a small but highly-regarded liberal arts college located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley region of Northern Virginia. He is a stalwart man of principle, and his weekly message always inspires. This one also got me to thinking.
Our oldest attended this fine institution for two years early in the last decade, which is the only reason I’m still on their mailing list. It seems they hold on to every last one of their formerly-active contacts, forever. No one ever gets dropped.
This little college’s claim to fame is not accepting any financial subsidy from the federal government. It is therefore exempt from Edicts of the American Empire as they pertain to admissions and curriculum. It’s quirky approach to higher education attracts a total enrollment of approximately 500 young people from 46 states and 5 countries, each of whom feel drawn by the school’s unique mission. Business-as-usual at this place is to boldly proclaims what are understood to be timeless truths, in everything from campus policies to the syllabus specifics of course offerings.
At the same time, this independent stance puts the school in a precarious financial position, year after year. In order to survive and prosper, it must appeal to a select group of relatively well-off families who can afford to enroll their children without the benefit of standard issue, low interest student loans.
Along with finding its fair share of relatively well-off benefactors with a little spare cash to spread around, who will help bridge the ever-widening gap between tuition fees and actual operating costs.
Having to contend with outsized financial obligations can prompt one to turn an occasional blind eye to the ways and means of meeting those obligations. Or force an outright compromise on principle from time to time. This can happen to anyone. It can even happen at a highly regarded liberal arts college located in Northern Virginia, that prides itself on being uncompromising in its pursuit of truth.
Given today’s volatile political climate, one is forced to immediately identify as either conservative or liberal, to avoid being confused with the enemy. This paradigm may have its practical application in navigating daily life. But it ultimately limits one’s ability to discern the bigger picture, and develop an appreciation for the warp and weave of history. To say nothing of gaining a grasp on the meaning of life.
Most of my immediate circle of associates are salt-of-the-earth types. They are responsible and independent-minded, and don’t much care for being told what they can and cannot do by any governmental agency, at any level. When forced into making a choice on the matter, they tend to identify as “conservative” more often than not.
When I arrived at a semblance of adult political awareness around the age of forty, my inbred sense of rugged individualism led me into the conservative camp. Its set of assumptions became my dominant Linqua Franca. Now, almost thirty years later, my familiarity with those contours of speech prompts what I hope is a more nuanced analysis of our cultural stalemate.
There are two distinctly different kinds of conservatives, and there is more than one way to describe each of them. “Fiscal” and “social” is one way. I also happen to like “affluent” and “salt-of-the-earth.” I grant there is some overlap between these two designations. Some salt-of-the-earth folks aspire to affluence, or may have achieved a measure of same. And a few of the now-affluent may retain a trace of their salt-of-the-earth upbringing.
But the motives and objectives of these two economically disparate groups frequently do not align. In fact, they are often at odds with each other. This lack of alignment and outright opposition somehow manages to go undetected. Or at the very least is routinely downplayed.
What keeps them bound to each other is a shared belief in the essential goodness of America. Both fiscal and social conservatives view the United States as the best of all possible political arrangements – a nation that promotes individual freedom and material advancement at home, and operates as a force for good around the world.
Both feel their constitutional freedoms are being abridged by the expanding role of government in the lives of ordinary citizens. This is where things get tricky, though, and the fundamental differences start to assert themselves.
The freedom fiscal conservatives long for is “an absence of obstacles” first articulated by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. For all intents and purposes this is an economic argument, meant to facilitate the making of money. A citizen should enjoy carte blanche in becoming as rich and powerful as his or her ambition and diligence and skill will allow. With any sort of consideration for others being strictly optional.
Social conservatives, on the other hand, while not opposed to making a decent living, are more interested in what they think of as religious freedom. They want to live their biblical beliefs without interference from the State. They have noticed the categorical rejection of the Ten Commandments in recent years, and how those tenets have been replaced with a decidedly secular take on freedom centered around bodily autonomy. To them, legal abortion and marriage equality and gender fluidity form a renegade dogma that’s managed to receive official sanction from the government.
Both types of conservatives think the answer to their respective problem is a return to the principles espoused by our Founding Fathers. And for fiscal conservatives that would indeed do the trick. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness amounts to their dream scenario. But for social conservatives, the American Creed of me-first self-sufficiency is a repudiation of the Golden Rule they seek to emulate.
I sympathize with the awkward position social conservatives find themselves in. And I think they should be commended for taking a stand against certain Edicts of the Empire which are antithetical to what might be called authentic human flourishing. But these intrepid souls need to come to grips with the fact we live in a pluralist democracy, where everyone is entitled to his or her own version of the truth.
Look at the bright side: No one is insisting a woman abort her unborn child. And no one is being forced to marry someone of their own gender. You may not like living in a world where infanticide is legal, but our modern-day version of morality is simply the natural result of five centuries’ worth of “emancipation” from custom and tradition, in favor of what we like to euphemistically refer to as “the rule of law.”
In my view there is a pressing need for social conservatives to re-boot their thinking on how we got here, and how from their perspective things might be improved, moving forward.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Today’s unrestrained sexual shenanigans do not represent a sad betrayal of our nation’s Christian roots. I realize the origin of present-day degradation continues to be hotly debated by learned scholars. But this commoner agrees with those who think we were, at best, only nominally Christian to begin with. Since the betrayal in question started a couple of centuries before the Founders even thought of saying goodbye to George III.
The licentiousness that causes social conservatives such consternation actually grew out of the economic revolution that preceded it. Or that emerged in conjunction with it, depending on how you choose to date things. Everything got underway about 500 years ago, at the dawn of modernity. Fiscal conservatives are solely responsible for fomenting this economic revolution, as they will be only too happy to tell you. They note with pride how capitalism was the accelerant that fueled the Industrial Revolution, unleashing a marvelous engine of economic activity that created a rising tide and lifted many a boat. But that’s not the only thing it unleashed.
It is absolutely imperative for social conservatives to disengage from their fiscally conservative cousins. They must stop letting the latter’s lip service against abortion and the rest trick them into believing capitalism is “inherently moral.” My goodness, no activity on earth is inherently moral. To think otherwise is naïve, or disingenuous. We can, however, take heart in knowing there is really nothing wrong with how capitalism is currently practiced that a strong dose of love-thy-neighbor Christianity wouldn’t cure.
Social conservatives should then reconsider their hands-off approach toward economic behavior. As things stand now, they are loath to criticize capitalism’s obvious excesses and shortcomings, on the grounds economics is a “science” that operates outside the bounds of morality. Their squeamishness comes from chalking the whole thing up to being a matter of “prudential judgement.” Right and wrong do not enter the picture when making economic decisions, since those decisions represent value-free choices. What nonsense.
Which brings me back to a consideration of my favorite little liberal arts college located in Northern Virginia. That place gets everything right, with one glaring exception. It accepts the ideology of fiscal conservatives at face value – namely, that free-market capitalism implicitly honors human dignity and free will. By this logic, any government intervention in economic affairs amounts to a form of socialism. And socialism is not only opposed to the American way, it is more importantly opposed to Christianity itself.
At least that’s how we hear things framed by social conservatives these days. Which is odd, since for most of our country’s history this group was on the side of working people, not the plutocrats, and helped bring collective bargaining to the industrial workplace, among many other reforms. The social justice battle lines had always been clearly drawn, until the sexual revolution went mainstream in the 1960s, followed by the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Since then, social conservatives have gotten their wires crossed.
Untangling this ideological mash up will take some doing. That’s why I’m so disappointed in my favorite liberal arts college on this score. Its political science department should be spearheading the effort to bring Christian social teaching to bear on contemporary economic policy. Instead of parroting fiscally conservative boilerplate.
To its everlasting credit, this relatively small institution of higher learning is playing an outsized role in the restoration of the culture. It is the proverbial beacon of light in the darkness, not least when it reminds us being dutiful citizens does not extend to violating one’s conscience. In this week’s email message from the college’s President, the example of Thomas More is cited, for his famous rebuke of Henry VIII: “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
And on that note, I believe God most definitely has an opinion when it comes to economic behavior.
It is right and just to be unequivocal in one’s opposition to legal abortion, which certainly represents an all-time low in the history of Western civilization. But social conservatives should be doing a better job drilling down to the root causes of abortion and all the rest. Those causes can be found in the radical notion of freedom favored by fiscal conservatives in the pursuit of individual prosperity, without regard for damage to the social fabric such pursuit leaves in its wake.
It’s time for social conservatives to realize economic policy does not fall outside their purview. They should not leave these matters in the hands of fiscal conservatives. Economic policy affects every single one of us, in everything we do, every single day. It determines whether we will ever achieve authentic community, or continue to splinter into a nation of individualists, each hell-bent on our own momentary self-interest.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
December 25, 2021