In the latest TAC, Heather Mac Donald of City Journal fame writes not so much on the issue topic of liberal/conservative and Left/Right terminology, but takes up an intramural fight between “skeptical” and religious conservatives. The problem is that the religious folks are hurting conservative arguments with an excessive reliance on religious claims:
The presumption of religious belief–not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it–does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith–nor do we need it to be conservative.
Of course, it’s true that people of conservative temperament need not have any religion, and it’s also true that conservatism has never strictly been tied to a particular set of religious claims. As a modern and post-Revolutionary phenomenon, conservatives have often eschewed or transcended confessional labels. The good, old days of the Holy Alliance were wonderfully ecumenical and not tied to any particular orthodoxy. Some even say that one of the chief characteristics of conservatism is that it is a kind of social and political thought that need not have much to do with orthodoxy, and a brief glance over The Conservative Mind would seem to confirm that with a parade of a number of theologically latitudinarian and non-religious gentlemen (Paul Elmer More and Santayana being the ones that leap to mind immediately). Bolingbroke was a forerunner of the skeptical conservative, and Humean skepticism is sometimes considered a source of British conservative thought. It has been to my own dismay that the general acquaintance of most high conservative thought with the substance of theology has been limited at best, and it is partly for that reason that I proposed reimagining conservatism in terms of the patristic thought of our Christian tradition.
But the typical conservative assumption that man is fallible and not perfectible by human means is tied inextricably to the Christian understanding of the Fall. The skeptical man will say that this is not necessarily so, and that any fool can see that man is fallible without recourse to a doctrine of ancestral sin. But that doctrine is the only thing that makes sense of the predicament of man that preserves the possibility of true meaning. With the Fall, there is also Redemption. With mere fallibility, there is no remedy and so, ultimately, no hope in this world or the next. Further, the detachment of conservative thought from the Christian roots that nourished it in the first place is both a losing proposition and an abandonment of a sizeable part of the patrimony we have received from our fathers. Put simply, without a theological vision (and our tradition points us towards the theological vision of our civilisation’s Faith) conservatives have no meaningful vision of the good life and can only cavil and harumph at liberal, meliorist plans on the grounds of their impracticability rather than for their fundamental spiritual error and hubris. Without such a vision of consecrated order, ordained by God, conservatism becomes obsessed entirely with what is immanent and cannot form any coherent statements about who man is or what his purpose is supposed to be.
Now if it seems reasonable that religion and conservatism do naturally go together in certain important respects that are unavoidable (which is not to completely identify the two or assume that they are equally important), what of the claim that religious conservatives are dominating the scene and that the “conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies”? Where is it doing this? I sought in vain for examples elsewhere in the short article, but found only dime-store theodicy.
The brief ID-as-science fad is fizzling out, as far as I can tell, and not before time, and on matters of policy I am not aware of any place where arguments are being advanced with especially heavy reliance on religious claims. Not that I would find it at all troubling or worrisome if this were happening, but I don’t see it happening. There was the unfortunate Schiavo business, which did not see a strict skeptical vs. religious fight so much as it saw fight between enthusiasts and realists of various stripes.
From the tone of the article, I get the impression that this is not so much a complaint about any particular reliance on religion in argument (which is not markedly greater today among conservatives, and may have actually diminished) as it is a complaint about rhetoric and cultural attitudes within the movement: secular conservatives feel ostracised or left out of the club because they don’t believe. No one is showing secular conservatives the door, and no one is dismissing their arguments (John Derbyshire typically has better arguments on almost every subject than the entire editorial staff at First Things put together), so I am curious what has elicited this defense of a position that was not, so far as I was aware, under any pressure.