Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Political Benedict Option

My colleague Leah Libresco has been at CPAC, where she observed that the libertarians didn’t really want to have much to do with social conservatives. Excerpt: Throughout the panel, the social conservatives seemed to be soliciting the help of the libertarians, trying to speak their language, while the libertarians seemed indifferent to the idea of […]


My colleague Leah Libresco has been at CPAC, where she observed that the libertarians didn’t really want to have much to do with social conservatives. Excerpt:

Throughout the panel, the social conservatives seemed to be soliciting the help of the libertarians, trying to speak their language, while the libertarians seemed indifferent to the idea of converting social conservatives. The libertarians answered the questions that were posed to them but made no parallel attempts to appeal to socially conservative tenets in order to attract their fellow panelists to libertarian positions.

The closest the libertarians came to trying to attract social conservatives, rather than just rebut them, was when Matt Welch of Reason argued that religion benefits from a free market in churches and contrasted the vibrancy of American churches with the weakening ones in France. However, the diversity of American sects is not necessarily attractive to social conservatives, any more than a strong environmentalist is pleased by a completely free market in cars, where some meet gas efficiency standards and some do not.

Leah goes on to say that the panel left her feeling the truth of Ross Douthat’s observation that on gay marriage, social conservatives are now negotiating the terms of their surrender. I take her to mean that the CPAC panel made clear that the “surrender” is not simply over the resolution of gay marriage, but more broadly — even within the conservative movement.

Libertarians know that social conservatives are losing badly on this issue, and they also intuit that the gay marriage issue is such an emotional one, and has been made to carry such symbolic weight in American politics and culture, that to have been wrong on this issue (“wrong” = on the losing side of the argument) carries with it a stigma. Libertarians don’t want to be tainted by it — and, given how fast the culture is moving in their direction, they don’t see what’s to gain by tolerating social conservatives. And not only that, many younger libertarians believe now that social conservatives are positively malicious, given their stance on gay marriage.

Granted, this is just one panel at CPAC, but you see the logic here. To be sure, there remain tens of millions of social conservatives, and Republican candidates need our votes. But the day is coming, and coming soon, when holding on to our votes is going to be more costly to GOP candidates who need to win over Independents, than it is worth.

It’s time for social conservatives active in politics to start thinking about what the post-SSM landscape looks like. This was a major battle, and we lost it decisively. But social conservatism doesn’t begin or end with same-sex marriage. Abortion remains, of course, but there are other issues of importance to us. We have lost American culture, no question about it, so we have to find ways to protect our institutions and our religious liberties in the new settlement. Principled libertarians can be helpful here.

Plus, it’s time — past time, really — for social conservatives to move beyond the great issue that has defined our particular politics since the 1980s: fighting the Sexual Revolution. It still must be fought, of course, in our families, churches, and communities, but we’re not going to do anything through political action on this front. Social conservatism has to include resistance to the great liberalizing force of our era, sexual emancipation, in large part because of the effect it has on the traditional family, the bedrock of our society. Russell Kirk said that the family is the institution most necessary to conserve There are other threats to the stability of the family, threats that have nothing to do with sexual mores. I’m thinking about health care and economic policy primarily, but there are others, including defense policy, which anyone who knows families that have been separated for long periods of time by America’s current wars understands to be destructive of the social fabric.

Politically active social conservatives have by and large been unwilling to question their free-market, libertarian economic views, and have kept their focus on abortion and same-sex marriage. Now that opposing SSM is a lost cause, and a cause that, given the emotional dynamics of the gay rights issue, increasingly makes us political pariahs, that unpleasant fact frees us to widen our areas of concern. This book is a good place to start thinking in a broader way about what it means to be socially conservative today. 

Finally, the most necessary truth, I think, is that social conservatives should learn that politics isn’t the most important thing to our cause. It never was. Culture is more important than politics, and we have badly neglected the culture. This is hardly a novel point. It’s worth re-reading the short essay the political theorist Claes G. Ryn wrote in this magazine in 2006, as part of its What Is Left? What Is Right? symposium. I’m going to reproduce it here in full, because there’s no link directly to the Ryn piece:

Modern American conservatism has been enthralled by politics. It should be obvious to all by now that this has been a debilitating preoccupation. Society’s long-term direction is not set mainly by politicians. It is set by those who capture a people’s mind and imagination. Conservative politicians and policy wonks have failed to reverse any of the main deleterious social trends of the last half-century not because they have lacked financial resources but because efforts like theirs have limited efficacy in the first place. While they have gobbled up millions and millions of donated dollars, the activities that shape the deeper sensibilities and desires of Americans have continued to be dominated by people trying to dismantle what remains of traditional American and Western civilization.

Fascination with politics pushed into the forefront of the conservative movement individuals of limited philosophical and historical discernment. More and more they came under the influence of the zeitgeist and manipulative donors, which has contributed to sometimes ludicrous terminological confusion. Today “conservative” often means leftist, as in wanting to reshape the world in the image of a single ahistorical model (“democracy”). Many so-called conservatives are better described as Jacobins. Most neoconservatives are ideologically intense universalistic liberals. Needless to say, what Americans call liberalism has long been difficult to tell apart from European social democracy.

To recover, American conservatism would have to reorder its priorities and most especially put politics in its place. America’s crisis is at bottom moral-spiritual and cultural. Though a new alliance of homeless political groups is desirable, a realignment would be unavailing in the long run unless the old obsession with politics were also broken. The issues most needing attention will make the eyes of political junkies glaze over.

Modern American conservatism did not take to heart the insights of its most perceptive minds. Those who came to set the tone in the movement as a whole, William F. Buckley Jr. prominent among them, were political intellectuals. It seemed to them that dealing with the moral-spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization was not the most exciting and pressing need. The political intellectuals drew attention and respect away from efforts whose relevance to politics was not immediately obvious. That advanced philosophy and artistic imagination might over time do more than politics to change society did not even occur to most of them. Other than politics, what most interested them was economics. Some paid lip service to philosophy and to what Russell Kirk, following Edmund Burke and Irving Babbitt, called “the moral imagination,” but the humanities seemed worthy of little more than a polite nod.

The problem, simply put, was lack of sophistication—an inability to understand what most deeply shapes the outlook and conduct of human beings. Persons move according to their innermost beliefs, hopes, and fears. These are affected much less by politicians than by philosophers, novelists, religious visionaries, moviemakers, playwrights, composers, painters, and the like, though truly great works of this kind reach most minds and imaginations only in diminished, popular form.

Yet the conservative movement did not direct its main efforts toward a revitalization of the mind, imagination, and moral-spiritual life. There it relied on shortcuts. In the area of ethics, for example, it assumed that churches would handle the job. But the churches, too, had been deeply influenced by the general moral, intellectual, and aesthetic trends of society. The god worshiped by many was a figment of a polluted, sentimental imagination. The so-called evangelicals did little to break out of their accustomed intellectual poverty. Roman Catholics formed a core within post-World War II conservatism. Their church had more than superficially resisted major destructive trends in Western society. But as conservative intellectuals they, too, cut corners. For the most part avoiding an advanced engagement with philosophy and the arts, they were satisfied with upholding “orthodoxy,” which they did with Protestant-like earnestness.

The kind of intellectual, aesthetic, and moral-spiritual renewal that might have transformed the universities, the arts, the media, publishing, entertainment, and the churches never quite came off. Without a major reorientation of American thought and sensibility, conservative politics was bound to fail.

The neoconservatives reinforced the preoccupation with politics and public policy. They claimed that before their coming to the rescue American conservatism had been intellectually feeble, but, in reality, it had exhibited far greater scope and depth prior to their arrival. Mentioning just a few thinkers of the 1950s and ’60s proves the point: Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, John Lukacs, Thomas Molnar, Robert Nisbet, Peter Stanlis, Wilhelm Röpke, Peter Viereck, Eliseo Vivas, Eric Voegelin, and Richard Weaver. Behind several of them stood the perhaps most powerful and prophetic American thinker of the 20th century, the Harvard Professor Irving Babbitt (1865-1933). Instead of fully exploring, developing, and applying the insights of such thinkers, the conservative movement wanted to get down to politics without delay, first by trying to elect Barry Goldwater president. Having a flawed sense of priorities, conservatism would before the end of the 20th century go almost completely off the rails, becoming a captive of party, money, and media celebrities.

To complain about today’s terminological confusion is not to imply that the terms used here have single, settled definitions. Words like “conservative” and “liberal” can be meaningfully defined and be useful, but any definition of this type simplifies complex reality. The more philosophical the study of life, the more inadequate such definitions appear. It is partly for this reason that traditional conservatives have insisted that conservatism is not an ideology. Even the best of principles are transcended by the enduring higher purpose of civilization. The means chosen to advance that purpose must change as historical situations change. For example, a conservative would never say, as would some classical liberals (or libertarians), that the legitimate functions of government are always and everywhere the same.

The word “conservative” was always problematic. It seems to imply that conservatism is all about conserving something already achieved. But conservatism wants to conserve the best of the humane heritage because the latter is an indispensable guide to finding and promoting the good, the true, and the beautiful in the present. The spirit of civilization must forever adapt to new circumstances.

Today highly destructive social trends have themselves become traditions of a sort. Hence the spirit of civilization will have to assert itself in sometimes radical-looking ways, not least in politics. It must free itself of incapacitating habits. One such habit is the increasingly philistine obsession with politics.

If I were a social or religious conservative who had money to donate, I would not give it to political causes. I would use it for strengthening our institutions as places of effective cultural resistance to the times we’re in, and the times that we’re entering. Make them function like the Benedictine monasteries of Western Europe did during the Dark Ages: as institutions and communities that bear and pass on our moral and spiritual vision in a time and place that does not share it, so that one day, far into the future, it will be there for rediscovery, and the rebuilding of society out of the ruins. Understand, I’m not advocating a withdrawal from politics, but rather a strategic reorientation of our priorities, and a reallocation of our resources — financial, organizational, and yes, spiritual — toward battles that are less fierce and emotionally satisfying, but far more important in the long run, if the virtues that we believe define a good society are to survive the new Dark Age that our fellow Americans embrace as Enlightenment.