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Conservative Confusion Continues

July 16, 2018 (1,303 words)

The inability of conservatives to properly delineate the historical fault lines of our cultural problems is why we find ourselves in such disarray. They continue to misdiagnose its origins, and mash together categories that should be separated. They lack discernment, and this leaves them toothless, repeating the same slogans over and over again. When what they should be doing is engaging the citizenry, and shedding light on the situation.

The latest perpetrator of confusion who has crossed my path is David D. Corey, PhD., a Professor of Political Philosophy at Baylor University. His essay The Paradox of War and Culture Wars is featured in the latest edition of Principles, the bi-monthly publication of Christendom College that arrived in yesterday’s mail.

Mr. Corey explains: “On the very front lines of the culture wars, we find two groups of elite soldiers arrayed against each other in heated combat. On one side is the Progressive Secularist who stands for liberation from the chains of traditions, especially religious tradition.”

Here we are, just two sentences in, and already the good professor has steered us into a gapping pothole. “On the other side stands the orthodox Christian. He is for preserving the institutions and practices that have for untold generations kept humans stable, healthy, and holy.”


… continuing to repeat a superficial analysis


Repeating this superficial yet morally-charged analysis does us all a disservice. We need to peel back the onion a little further. “Liberation from the chains of tradition” is something the entire modern world is guilty of, not just the Progressive Secularist.

But orthodox Christians such as David Corey have gotten very comfortable ignoring their unique contribution to the rebellion. They are content to assume the moral high ground and leave it at that.

To properly discern the penumbral totality, we need to widen our lens to encompass the last five hundred years, instead of a tight focus on the last two hundred and fifty years our academics and journalists seem to favor.

Before “liberal” and “conservative” ever came into being, there were believers and apostates. This was back when all believers were of the Catholic persuasion, since that was the only game in town. While putting belief into practice had always been an uphill battle, there was nevertheless a general societal consensus the struggle was worth the effort.

But the apostates continued to chip away at the consensus. They insisted it was belief itself that was to blame for the dire state of mankind. And the hierarchal Catholic Church, as primary administrator of said belief, was unanimously designated as public enemy number one. Thus the only “chain of tradition” we were ever liberated from was religious. There were not multiple chains of tradition, as in Professor Corey’s opening formulation.


… the only “chain of tradition” was always religious


Or to be a bit more precise, we were all liberated from having to hue to the tenets of the Catholic Church. Such as that old chestnut about how our will should be used to steer our emotions and desires away from an unfortunate tendency to indulge in one or more of the seven deadly sins.

After the revolution, what took the place of Catholicism as the accepted operating system of society was an ideology known as “classical liberalism.” In place of the Catholic emphasis on the common good, classical liberalism gained adherents by focusing on emancipating the individual from authority, custom, law, and tradition.

To apply a few broad strokes, this is what the Renaissance was all about – rejecting the Christian (Catholic) ethos in favor of a return to a pre-Christian, pagan ethos. The Protestant Reformation filled in a few important details, by establishing “individual conscience” as the only arbiter of right and wrong. Adam Smith’s Enlightenment version of capitalism provided a fresh, new intellectual justification to the pagan preference of looking out for number one. And so modernity was off and running.

What distinguishes us from the Middle Ages in the minds of most people today is the expansion of “personal freedom,” of course, but more specifically how all that new-found freedom has led to a remarkable increase in the material well-being of average citizens. It is an economic yardstick we use to measure history. And it is the economic question that has created all our cultural problems.


… we all rebelled against tradition


Before we morphed into opposing camps of liberal and conservative we were all together as one. We all were busy promoting Professor Corey’s “liberation from the chains of tradition.” For hundreds of years this liberation expressed itself most readily in the way we turned our backs on a concern for the common good. We were all quite happy doing our own thing, with no one or nothing looking over our shoulder to hold us back.

Under this scenario the favored and the advantaged, always in the vanguard of every era, used the new breathing room to accelerate their material advances. In addition to the raw barbarism and brute force applied in earlier times, the advanced technique of leverage was now employed to nudge things their way. This kept the proceedings on the up-and-up, making everything feel so much more civilized. But the admittedly smoother style still amounted to a raw, unmitigated exploitation of those less fortunate, or less intelligent.

All this came together in a special way with our country’s founding, which institutionalized the tenets of classical liberalism. The rougher edges of the radical ideology, as promoted by the likes of Franklin, Jefferson, and others, were glossed over with a patina of watch-maker Christianity favored by the likes of Adams and Washington.


… coming together in a special way at our Founding


Eventually, here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the disenfranchised rabble awoke to how their modest pursuit of happiness was being severely constrained by the familiar forces of exploitation, greed, and selfishness. The negative impact of these old stand-bys had not subsided one little bit under the new world order.

The Progressive Secularist we today cast aspersions on actually began life as a 19th Century reaction to an untenable economic situation. The early Protestants saw their material advancement as a sign they were saved and would be going to heaven. This pseudo-religious justification soon burned off, however, and the national pastime reverted to the age-old desire to do as well for oneself in this life as possible. The “haves” eventually started to justify their success in Darwinian terms of inevitability.

The first “liberals,” then, were those who objected to the economic injustice being perpetrated by the first “conservatives.” The latter group came to see themselves as traditionalists, preserving and implementing the enlightened ideas of economic freedom and religious freedom enshrined in our great Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Yes, it’s true, as modernity rolled into the 20th Century, “liberals” adopted the litany of wayward causes they have come to be associated with, such as reproductive choice and marriage equality. That’s unfortunate, to say the least. It allows the casual dismissal of their long-held, principled concern for social justice. Guilt by association is a powerful influencer over those unable to parse things out and think clearly.

What has hamstrung today’s high-minded conservatives is their unexamined acceptance of economic concepts such as enlightened self-interest. They don’t seem to realize that buying into “maximum personal freedom” when it comes to economic behavior is what gives free rein to a well-established deadly sin such as greed.

So in their own misguided way they are as guilty of moral turpitude as the liberals they hold in such contempt. Needless to say, this oversight undermines the integrity of otherwise laudable conservative positions on such things as traditional marriage and the sanctity of human life.

How is it that so many political theorists have no understanding of this?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
July 16, 2018

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