As you all probably know by now, there is a new blog for secular conservatives called Secular Right. That’s fine as far as it goes, but at the same time I don’t quite see the point. If the point is to say that non-believers and secular people can be conservatives, too, that seems to be something in no need of demonstration or argument. As I have noted before, and I will say again, Russell Kirk could identify conservatism in Santayana, and we might find many other skeptics and secularists as we look back. Having granted that, one would like to see some of these secular conservatives acknowledge more often that respect for a transcendent moral order is an integral part of the conservative mind and some recognition that such an order would have to have been established by God. If the point of the project is to say that modern conservatism has become too religious, or too wedded to Christianity, and therefore a specifically secular conservative resistance to this trend is necessary, I will have to laugh, because here our secular friends will have then embraced a popular myth that does not have much in the way of evidence to support it. If it is simply to argue for inclusion among other conservatives, I haven’t seen many efforts to cast them or keep them out.
I will repeat what I said a couple years ago when I was objecting to the fad of skeptical and secular conservatives lamenting the tremendous power of religious conservatism and alleged over-reliance on revealed religion:
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.
If secular conservatives have “pride in Western Civilization,” as Derbyshire puts it, they cannot very well ignore or deride as nonsense the central religious inspiration of that entire civilization, which is Christianity. Are they obliged to accept revealed truths? No, but they can and should pay due respect to the revelation that animated Western societies for most of their history and the traditions of our ancestors that have been tested over time and which have endured to become established customs. If all they are asking for is to “play in the band,” as Derbyshire says, no one is telling them that they cannot.