Roger Scruton’s Big Question for the Right
Related to this is the emphasis you place on what you call the “first-person plural,” a phrase that occurs several times in the book.
Yes. Ultimately, political order does not generate itself. For that reason, social contract theories are suspended in mid-air, so to speak. All political order presupposes a pre-political order, a sense that people belong together. And then, of course, they might seek a contract that embodies their togetherness. But the togetherness has to be there.
With Oakeshott’s remarks about conservatism as a “disposition” in mind, I was very struck by something you say about the tone of voice in which this book is written. You say: “The case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents.” What do you mean by that?
So much of modern political conservatism—and you see this in America, which has a quite articulate conservative movement compared with us—is phrased in elegiac terms. [It’s about] what we’ve lost—we’ve lost the traditional working-class family, the black family or whatever it might be. Now, all that is perfectly reasonable. But the most important question is what have we got, rather than what we’ve lost, and how do we keep it?
That’s well said. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think Scruton’s insights here point the way forward for religious conservatives in this rapidly changing social order. We must give up on the hope of restoring the past in this culture. It’s not that some aspects of the past shouldn’t be reclaimed, but rather that doing so, at least at a society-wide level, is not feasible at this point in time. The more we act as if it were so, the greater our losses will be once we definitively lose an unwinnable battle. This “take back America” stuff is self-deluding nostalgia, and the more conservatives believe it, the worse off they will be.
There are times when you have to fade into the forest and retrench. I’ve called this call for retrenchment the Benedict Option, because it strikes me as the most sensible strategy by which religious conservatives can engage the world as it is now and is to come. The Benedictines were ordinarily not completely cloistered; they engaged with the people in the areas where their monasteries were. But they established walls and habits that set them apart from the secular world, and gave them the means to preserve their identity over generations. This is what I’m talking about: how to preserve the core of our identity in a post-Christian culture?
I don’t think anybody has the answer yet, and it may be that the answer will only emerge after we try a number of different things and see what stands the test of time. The thing is, we have to try. A Protestant friend wrote me yesterday about struggles within his church community, and how he’s run into a buzzsaw of opposition in trying to bring real content to the Sunday school curriculum. He reports that the adults think everything is going to be okay for the younger generation if they just keep doing what they’ve been doing and hope for the best. Meanwhile, he says, they are just processing kids who emerge fluent in moralistic therapeutic deism, but theologically and culturally ignorant of Christianity.
Absent an adult conversion, these kids aren’t likely to make it as Christians in the world as it is and the world as it shall be in the next few years and decades. It grieves my friend, but he says it has been a real lesson for him in the power of fear of change within a community. This, I told him, is the kind of conservatism that kills. To paraphrase Burke, a church community without the means of change is one without the means of its own preservation. The art of it is figuring out what needs to change in our way of living and doing for the sake of preserving our core values.
So, to pivot towards the future, let me put the Scruton question to the conservatives in the room: What have we got, and how do we keep it?
I’ll take a non-comprehensive stab at answering this from a religiously conservative point of view.
What we’ve got is enough people with a cultural memory, and cultural awareness, of what we have lost, and a desire to both reclaim it from the past and pass it on to our future, to make a community. For some it will be actual local communities; for others, it will be virtual communities. I suspect for all of us it will be a combination of both. We have to preserve those communities and the virtues they embody. We’ve got to build institutions dedicated to this end — which, for religious believers, has to mean dedicated to the service of God within our particular tradition, not dedicated to the service of the tradition itself, if you appreciate the distinctions. Schools, churches, institutions of civil society — all kinds of institutions that incarnate our values and pass them on in a living way: this is what we’ve got to have if we are going to keep what we’ve got.
We live in a time of cultural revolution, in which everything that is solid, from a Christian point of view, melts into air. If we want to hold on to what we’ve got in terms of our faith and our values, we’ve got to make our beliefs concrete in new ways, ways designed and built to endure the radicalism of the situation we’re now in.
We’ve got a First Amendment, the penumbra of which grants us lots of latitude for running our own religious lives as we see fit. The ground of liberty in this way is going to be shrinking, that’s clear, in the coming laïcité. But we still have a lot more freedom than do religious folks in other countries, and that’s worth preserving. I am a conservative, not a libertarian, but we live in a fundamentally libertarian social order. It might make sense, then, to vote for principled libertarians over conventional conservatives, if the principled libertarians truly respect the liberty of unpopular religious minorities to live within their sphere and flourish. I believe that over the course of my children’s lifetime, defending the First Amendment is going to become the most important cause for religious conservatives, because on it everything else for us will depend.
These are my two ideas this morning. I welcome yours. As I said, my conservatism is primarily religious and social, not economic, so my answers reflect that.
UPDATE: Peter Lawler’s comments on this are here. (He also signs up for the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Christian” camp.)