Whither Goest Conservatism?

A number of developments in the past month have put the spotlight squarely on the question, not too far back in people’s minds since last year’s election campaign, of what direction American conservatism is going to take in the foreseeable future. Until this year, after receiving criticism, the organizers of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had no problem allowing the Republican homosexualist group GOProud to participate. Still, news reports from CPAC discussed how many young attendees—the next generation of conservative activists—were supportive of same-sex “marriage” and a general downplaying of social issues. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, known as a conservative from my state of Ohio who was seriously considered as a Romney running mate, announced that he had shifted his position to support for same-sex “marriage” after learning that his son had same-sex attraction. Senator Rand Paul became a new conservative political icon with his filibuster to highlight the Obama administration’s suggestion that they could target suspected terrorists within the U.S. with drone strikes. Paul, like his father, has libertarian leanings and believes that some recreational drugs should be legalized. He also sees no problem with the “morning-after” pill, even though it is an abortifacient. A major report commissioned by the Republican National Committee to stake out the party’s future was strikingly silent on social issues and, in endorsing “comprehensive immigration reform,” seemed oblivious to the implications for the rule of law of accommodating millions of undocumented immigrants who broke the law to come here.

Is the new face of conservatism going to be one that features a less extreme version of the 1960s leftist “liberty of lifestyle,” with people the determiner of the moral norms they will live by? Does it embrace the Marxian idea that the character of marriage and the family are mere social constructs? Are such central principles of the American Founding—and of Catholic social teaching, for that matter—as the rule of law expendable when the political winds shift and they stand in the way of political advantage?  Is conservatism so eager for electoral victory that it will surrender the patient effort at political education needed to restore commitment to time-honored principles, even though the left—in good cultural-Marxist fashion—shows an uncanny patience in letting their attitudes sink into the fabric of American life so they can claim an eventual victory in transforming the American political order?

The great twentieth-century American conservative—and Catholic convert—Russell Kirk wrote about the “canons of conservative thought.” These included such points as how “political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems,” respect for the “mystery of traditional life” and rejection of “utilitarian aims of most radical systems,” the need for man to “put a control upon his will and his appetite,” and the belief that in contrast to reform “innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress.”

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It is difficult to see how disregarding the true nature of marriage and the family is anything other than a rejection of traditional life and innovation of the most perilous kind. Wanting to make more readily available personally destructive recreational drugs and the “morning-after” pill and a perspective that views sodomy as a non-issue—reflecting, in some measure, acceptance of an ethic of sexual libertinism—hardly show a concern about controlling the will and appetite. Downplaying the rule of law in the name of political expediency is perilously close to a utilitarian attitude. Immediate political imperatives—whether forging a broader electoral coalition for the next election, falling in line with a perceived new electoral “mainstream,” or simply surrendering to the pressures exerted by interest groups like the homosexualists—seem now to be at the forefront and the religious and moral considerations behind them downplayed. It looks as if some (many?) conservatives have bought into the stock thinking of the secular left: “Irrespective of traditional religious and moral teaching, I will make up my own morality.” Whether one buys moral relativism sweepingly or in a milder way, it is still moral relativism. The spirit of moral innovation and moral pluralism is hardly in keeping with upholding the “permanent things,” as Kirk used to say conservatism embraced.

It looks as if many who call themselves “conservatives” are ready to turn their backs on the most serious issues gnawing at us today, that go to the real root of a civilized culture: the shaping of the soul, strong family life, and self-restraint and the control of the passions. Perhaps they should consult Edmund Burke, the godfather of conservatism, who viewed it as a right of men to have help in restraining their passions from without (that is, from the state and law). Such other historic luminaries of conservatism as Montesquieu and Tocqueville emphasized the need for self-restraint and the dangers of a pleasure-orientation, especially in the sexual matters—which, of course, are among the things at the very core of the crisis of contemporary American civilization.

We are witnessing conservatives who seem to want to take their bearings from the left on many of the crucial cultural questions of the day.

By downplaying or ignoring social issues and culture, it is apparent that these conservatives want to define themselves by a quasi-libertarian economic stance or belief in a mostly uninhibited free market. They should ponder for a moment that it was economic neo-liberalism—that is, a modified version of laissez faire—in the new era of “globalization” beginning in the early 1990s that helped triggered a reaction in the form of the resurgence of the American left and the accession to power of Chavez, Morales, Lula da Silva, the Kirchners and the rest of the new generation of Latin American socialists and quasi-socialists. They should also consider that our Founding Era was anything but laissez faire in either economics or culture. Motivated by their religious background, the early Americans stressed—as Catholic social teaching does—that private economic activity must be governed by ethical norms and be carried out in a manner consistent with the general welfare. As such, there were numerous laws—on the local level—that put reasonable limits on economic freedom.

All this points to some crucial imperatives for many who call themselves “conservatives” today—especially the young, but also the not-so-young: They need to return to their intellectual roots, and study thinkers like Burke and Kirk. They need to learn more about the American Founding. They also need to study sound social ethics. They might even put aside sectarian or secular prejudices and take a look at Catholic social teaching, to avoid another ultimately fruitless round of economic quasi-libertarianism. Some conservatives may have the cart before the horse; they need serious education on many fronts and a formation in solid principles before jumping into political activism.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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