Home/Daniel Larison/Burke, Creeds, Ideology

Burke, Creeds, Ideology

I’ve been slow in getting together a response to Brooks’ latest (sorry, Rod), which I read just a little while ago via Sullivan.  The general argument makes sense: those who possess a traditional conservative mentality or temperament, the Burkean conservatives, are disillusioned by the reign of abstraction among the various factions of the GOP.  So far, so good.  He then uses this to explain the GOP’s political reverse:

To put it bluntly, over the past several years, the G.O.P. has made ideological choices that offend conservatism’s Burkean roots. This may seem like an airy-fairy thing that does nothing more than provoke a few dissenting columns from William F. Buckley, George F. Will and Andrew Sullivan. But suburban, Midwestern and many business voters are dispositional conservatives more than creedal conservatives. They care about order, prudence and balanced budgets more than transformational leadership and perpetual tax cuts. It is among these groups that G.O.P. support is collapsing.

Perhaps it is implicit in the rest of the column, but Brooks does not seem to stress enough that the reason why GOP support among these groups is collapsing is that ideologically driven policies take little account of present realities and attempt to shoehorn society into an imagined model.  GOP support isn’t simply collapsing because its increasingly ideological nature offends the temperamental conservatives in America, but because the policies it has managed to implement have generally failed even on their own terms.  It is in no small part ideology’s hostility to reality and the repeated, doomed attempts to force reality to conform to absurd expectations that makes the temperamental conservative flee from it.   

There are also some problems with Brooks’ remarks on several of the examples of “what the temperamental conservative believes,” and a whopping great problem with his final sentences when he says:

American conservatism will never be just dispositional conservatism. America is a creedal nation.  But American conservatism is only successful when it’s in tension — when the ambition of its creeds is retrained by the caution of its Burkean roots.      

Some may even call me ideological for insisting on this point, but America isn’t a creedal nation.  I don’t think such a thing can exist.  More to the point, talk of a nation existing as a creedal nation is itself an ideological assertion, an attempt to construct a national identity that can be defined in abstract terms and whose membership is defined by adherence to abstract propositions.  To describe a nation as creedal is to a very large extent deny that “the individual is a part of a social organism and thrives only within the attachments to family, community and nation that precede choice.”  First and foremost, the confessing of a creed is an act of will, which means that a creed is something chosen.  If organic relationship defines our membership in a nation, creedalism is, at best, redundant or a bit of rhetorical icing on an already-baked cake, and at worst an attempt to repudiate the unchosen attachments and obligations to people and country in an effort to broaden or “open” national membership to whomever feels inclined to profess the creed. 

It seems to me that this creedalism, which refers to an imaginary creedal nation, is one of the sources of the conservative predicament today.  Indeed, Brooks’ agrees that it is part of the problem.  However, he believes that it is only because of the excesses of these supposed “conservative creeds” that things have gone awry, and not the insistence on creedalism itself.

There are also a number of other difficulties with the way that Brooks advances this argument.  

There is a problem with the choice of words that stems from the prior acceptance of creedalism: he describes the rise of various ideologies as the result of conservatism in America “becoming creedal” (because America is “creedal”).  This might give someone the impression that the lover of prudence and small platoons doesn’t actually believe (credo, credere) anything, lest he, too, becomes attached to a creed, but relies on tradition, prejudice and instinct alone.  The word creed has long been conventionally applied to a certain brand of nationalist ideology that I just talked about, but actually I think the word creed is ill-suited to describe it, and could actually be impious.  

Its religious and specifically Christian origins lead the person who uses it for a political identity to one of a few undesirable results: he either conflates his political cause with a religious creed, losing the merits of both, or he replaces his own religious creed with that cause, or he invests a political cause with godlike authority.  The implications of having a “national creed” are also rather worrisome, since it means that anyone who fails to embrace a certain set of ideas, usually political ideas, cannot be a member of the nation.  Like the religious creed from which this language of creeds derives, a national creed implies anathematisation for those who do not confess it.  A political creed cannot help but be ideological.  I am less certain that the same can be said about religious beliefs.

Brooks’ talk of creeds allows him to include religious conservatives among the ideologues, but they do not belong to the phenomenon he is describing.  He writes:

Over the past decade, religious conservatives within the G.O.P. have argued that social policies should be guided by the eternal truths of natural law [bold mine-DL] and that questions about stem cell research and euthanasia should reflect the immutable sacredness of human life.

But temperamental conservatives are suspicious of the idea of settling issues on the basis of abstract truth. These kinds of conservatives hold that moral laws emerge through deliberation and practice and that if legislation is going to be passed that slows medical progress, it shouldn’t be on the basis of abstract theological orthodoxy [bold mine-DL].   

Brooks is right that temperamental conservatives are wary of “settling issues” on the basis of “abstract truth.”  Put this way, most religious conservatives might also recoil from such settlements.  An essential element to religious conservatives’ thinking is that they believe God is the author of both natural and moral law and that they are necessarily complementary (just as truth is one, divine, natural and moral law are ultimately one).  Further, they would, and I think they do, argue that man discerns natural law through observation, rational deliberation and reflection no less than he does the moral law, and they would also hold that these are confirmed by revelation.  In someone of a conservative temperament, this does entail a fanatical and terrible simplification of the difficulties and complexities of contingent circumstances, but instead provides the guiding moral principle that informs and shapes all prudential judgements appropriate to the given case.  Moral casuistry is not situationalist ethics or relativism, and it cannot proceed without a grounding in eternal verities.  It was Kirk, the interpreter of Burke, who held that an essential element of the conservative mind was the recognition of a “transcendent moral order.”  I believe Kirk would have found the description of conscience–our moral sense integrally bound to natural law–and what Newman called “the illative sense” as a species of abstraction to be completely wrong.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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