Orthodoxy & Intellectual Conservatism
Since the Second World War, Roman Catholicism has had enormous influence on American intellectual conservatism. The postwar rebirth of conservatism had two sources: libertarianism—a reassertion of classical liberalism against statism—and cultural traditionalism. For Russell Kirk and other leading traditionalists of the era, the Roman Catholic church, with its soaring intellectual edifice and unitary vision of faith and reason, matter and spirit, was the natural conservator of Western civilization and the sure source of its renewal after the catastrophes of the 20th century.
The Catholic contribution to conservative intellectual life has been hard to overstate. It is impossible not to notice the steady stream of right-of-center intellectuals into the Roman church: Kirk himself, his libertarian sparring partner Frank Meyer, earlyNational Review luminaries such as L. Brent Bozell Jr. and Willmoore Kendall, and many more. One does not—or should not, at least—convert to a religion for any reason other than one thinks it is true. But there is something about the intellectual culture of Catholicism that draws thoughtful conservatives, even amid an exodus of rank-and-file American Catholics from the church.
Prominent intellectual conversions have been notable among Evangelicals, many of whom find in the Roman church a more solid theological, philosophical, and historical grounding for their faith. As the Baylor University philosopher and former Evangelical Theological Society head Francis Beckwith told Christianity Today after his 2007 return to the Catholicism of his youth, “We have to understand that the Reformation only makes sense against the backdrop of a tradition that was already there.”
Much less well known is the small but growing group of American conservative intellectuals who embrace Christianity, but not in its Western forms—who are neither Catholic nor Protestant. There is a distinct set of conservative converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, which depending on your perspective either left, or was left by, Roman Catholicism in the Great Schism of 1054.
What attracts them? Read on.
UPDATE: Please read the thoughts from my TAC colleague Daniel Larison on his own journey to Orthodox Christianity. I didn’t interview Daniel for this essay because it didn’t seem right to feature a TAC editor in the piece. Daniel came to Orthodox Christianity not from another Christian church, but out of a secular background.