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Against Founder Worship

Conservatism in America must go beyond the ideologies of Philadelphia.

In light of our country’s revolutionary founding, the very name of this publication is an oxymoron. Or, at the very least, it poses an interesting dilemma to those who claim both the adjective and noun as their own. What is an American conservative?

This question has proved vexing throughout the history of the conservative intellectual tradition in this country. We devoted a special issue of the magazine to exploring it last summer. There’s a tension in our conserving precisely because the genesis of this country was so very unlike that of its continental counterparts in Western civilization.

What became these United States, and then the United States, is far younger than most cultures and countries from whence We the People came. Because of that youth, our options of what we can conserve seem much more limited than those of the countries of the Old World. With such a relatively short history, the American political tradition has fixated on monumental events in the civic psyche, most importantly the Founding era of the late 18th century and the governing documents that it produced.

Thus, it is unsurprising that much of what is called American conservatism or hopes to set the bounds of American conservatism seeks specifically to conserve the particular political philosophy of our founding documents. The latest entry to this genre comes from Robert Curry in American Greatness. “An American who claims to be a conservative and yet rejects the founders is a CINO,” Curry writes, riffing off of the Republican in Name Only insult. Curry, tracking closely with the Claremont Institute, on whose board he serves, clearly sees the political philosophy of the American Founding as a crowning achievement of Western civilization. In this sense, acknowledgement of the principles of the American Founding is insufficient: Endorsement—perhaps even reverence—thereof is the only properly conservative position.

Curry’s piece is cursory, insofar as it neglects to explore this and the many other presumptions that underlie his argument. But this neglect is instructive, illustrating how much a sense of Founder-worship has pervaded the American right. Of course we must not question the wisdom of a group of men who gathered in Philadelphia nearly 250 years ago. These men are our civic saints, the Constitutional Convention the successor to the Council of Nicaea. In a country with such a young tradition, such a diverse population, and such a varied, weak national culture, the need for a cloud of witnesses like these is readily apparent.

The problem is that the American political tradition is not monolithic. It never has been. In fact, the very project of a federal Constitution was not without its detractors at the time. In elevating beyond reproach the ideas of the winning side of the Founding debates, the American conservative movement ignores important elements of this country’s tradition. Yes, the Anti-Federalists suffer from their nomenclature, as a movement defined by its opposition is inevitably disadvantaged (hence, “pro-life”). But these Americans who opposed the more centralized federal government enshrined in the Constitution of 1787—or, more favorably put, supported localism and decentralization—were just as American as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, they would have found the suggestion that their Americanness was forfeited by their philosophical disagreements simply bizarre.

In more recent times, those who exhibit willingness to revisit any aspect of the Founding are subjected to the charge of “un-American”—or at least CINO, in Curry’s telling. Curry singles out Brad Littlejohn’s recent review of What’s Wrong With Rights? in this publication: “What’s a supposed American conservative doing arguing there are no natural rights?” Curry asks. “Why, revealing that he is actually a CINO, of course.”

The irony is that Littlejohn’s review concludes by channeling what can only be read as a dispositionally conservative warning against this very type of sloganeering:

Whether we are talking about free markets or free speech or religious freedom, we must renounce the temptation toward self-justifying sloganeering and re-dedicate ourselves to the hard work that once characterized Burkean conservatism: weighing the desirable against the possible, the universal against the particular, the individual against the community.

Unsurprisingly, Catholic intellectuals Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari are similarly given the CINO label by Curry. Their insufficient fealty to liberalism renders them insufficiently conservative, it seems. “Deneen, Ahmari, and the others are considered to be in some sense conservatives,” Curry writes, “But they are not trying to conserve the American idea.”

America is not an idea. It’s not even partly an idea; ideology is insufficient to define a country. After more than 400 years since Europeans landed in North America, this country—and, more accurately, its constituent localities—has developed its own distinct culture and cultures that order the rhythms of life differently than in other places in the world. Americans reflect a distinct, albeit weak and diffuse American culture regardless of whether they profess whatever political philosophy defines an “American idea.”

But setting aside the question of whether an idea can define a country, is this “American idea” that which political conservatism should seek to conserve? Conservatives face increasingly radical challenges to what we hold dear in various forms: transgenderism in elementary schools and public libraries, poisonous racial narratives that only seek to divide, a rootless ruling class with nothing but disdain for the people in the places it left behind, massive corporate power intent on enforcing this new regime through the marketplace.

A conservatism worthy of these challenges must be guided by real principles: faith, family, community, culture. Too often, prioritizing the finer points of the “American idea” only serves to obfuscate the task at hand. Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and others who question the political philosophy enshrined in our Founding documents are no less American than those who endorse the ideas that won the debates of the late 18th century in this country. And, more importantly, their ideas may be more conducive to conserving that which makes life worthwhile than a blind fealty to the product of the Constitutional Convention.

The point is not to relitigate whether the American Founding was in fact a return to an earlier tradition or a liberal departure therefrom, a properly conservative response to tyrannical overreach or a radical revolution from tradition more akin to its contemporary in France. The point is that the Founding is not enough.

Real principles—faith, family, community, culture—must drive an authentically conservative politics in America. Of course, there’s a paradox here as well, as these principles are essentially human and so in a sense universal. But American conservatism seeks to conserve these universals within a distinctly American context. This means one that is lived out in the particular, varied communities that constitute this polity—regardless of whether the members of those polities ascribe philosophically to the “American idea.”

about the author

Emile Doak is the executive director of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes The American Conservative.  He is a graduate of Georgetown University, where he studied political philosophy and theology, and previously worked in education before returning to the field of his studies.  His writing has appeared in First Things, Front Porch Republic, Crisis Magazine, and elsewhere. A proud native of Herndon, Virginia, Emile and his wife live in the historic district of their hometown with their two daughters.

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