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What Would Burke Do?

The neglected tradition of high church conservatism
Edmund Burke / Wiki Commons.

Edmund Burke might not like what American conservatism has become. With its devotion to abstract rights, democracy, and perpetual growth, the American Right today looks more like a stepchild of Thomas Paine than an heir to the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France. But Burke would recognize the conservative movement’s rhetoric of liberty, its anti-elitism, and its alienation from institutions of authority. Those are the hallmarks of a disposition Burke described as “the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.” In 1775, that was how he characterized the creed of Britain’s rebellious New England colonies. Today, those words apply to the faith of many in the Republican Party’s base.

Burke was no Protestant, though he was not Catholic either. (His mother, wife, and sister were.) He was an Anglican who defended the establishment of the Church of England, even as he eloquently argued for toleration of Dissenters—that is, Protestants—and Catholics. Indeed, he wrote to his friend Thomas Erskine, “I would give a full civil protection … to Jews, Mahometans, and even pagans.” Burke was, in the words of scholar Peter Stanlis, a “High Church Anglican” for whom “the Church of England was Protestant in her national sovereignty, but essentially Catholic in her inherited doctrines and forms of worship.”

His attitude toward Dissenters—who sought to disestablish the national church or separate themselves from it—was ambivalent. In the case of the American colonists, he sympathized with their Whiggish political principles (he was a Whig himself, after all), but the philosophy he espoused, most famously in Reflections, was a high church conservatism to match his High Church Anglicanism. His understanding of the proper relationship between faith, culture, and politics was very different from that of the radical Protestants, whose anti-establishment views held revolutionary implications for the social order.

High church conservatism may seem odd to Americans accustomed to the culturally Protestant and politically populist low church variety. But Burke was just the first in a long tradition. “A considerable amount of English conservatism,” sociologist Robert Nisbet noted, “beginning with Burke and extending to such minds as Coleridge, Newman, Disraeli and Matthew Arnold, was activated and shaped by the religious revolution … that paralleled the democratic and industrial revolutions.”

Not all high church conservatives are Anglican; some are not even religious. Similarly, not all right-wing Anglicans or Catholics are politically high church. Perhaps the majority of Catholic conservatives today, swayed by Republican propaganda, have assimilated downward to the low church conservatism of their allies. The distinction arises not from doctrine but from one’s overall approach to politics.

Low church conservatism, more familiar, is readily described. It has five common characteristics. First, it values faith over works—what counts is the character of a politician and the intentions behind his actions, not the outcome of his policies. No man, of course, can read another’s soul, thus in practice the low church conservative places great value on professions of ideological purity. Sinning politicians like Newt Gingrich and David Vitter may be forgiven, so long as they say the right things. Disastrous policies—wars gone awry, for example—may be pardoned on account of righteous aims. Conversely, good works count for naught without profession of the right political faith.

Second, low church conservatism retains the anti-clericalism of its religious counterpart. This entails a pervasive anti-elitism. For the low church conservative, a popular broadcaster such as Rush Limbaugh possesses greater authority than a scholar such as Russell Kirk. The former derives his position from (or has it affirmed by) the congregation—his listeners. A Kirk, on the other hand, appears all too priestly. To be right requires no special learning, only acceptance of a basic creed.

A third trait is a tendency toward cultural separatism. The low church conservative prefers building parallel institutions to compromising with existing centers of authority. Sometimes this is commendable. More often, it is not. The proliferation of “conservative” movies, “conservative” dating services, “conservative” universities, and a “conservative” counter-counterculture—complete with “conservative” Che T-shirts—is emblematic. The low church conservative abhors the mainstream; the word itself is a pejorative.

Fourth is a belief that the eschaton is imminent (if not immanent). Every political battle is a clash of titanic principle, a skirmish in the final conflict between light and darkness. Every bellicose dwarf in command of a developing nation is a potential Antichrist, or the geostrategic equivalent, a Hitler. No Saddam or Chavez is merely a tin-pot dictator.

Fifth, and most important, right makes might. Moral truth is easily known, and nothing should stand in the way of its application in policy. The goal of politics is to enact what is right and true. When a Bush administration official told Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” he was not being cynical. He was naïve: for how could righteous men possessed of great power fail to achieve whatever they set out to do? From this logic, it follows that abortion can be ended and the sexual revolution repealed, if only we elect enough Republicans.

Not all of these convictions are blameworthy. Some are justified. Much of the mainstream culture is irredeemable, even if conservative alternatives are lousy. Truth should prevail in politics: the high church conservative simply pursues this end in a different way, working through customs and institutions rather than against them. There lies a crucial distinction: low church politics dissolves hierarchies and structures. And it proceeds with the self-assurance of the elect, in contrast to the circumspection of high church conservatism.

For the low church conservative, politics is teleocratic—a purpose-driven activity. In the language of British philosopher Michael Oakeshott (very much a high church type), the low church conservative views the state—and perhaps his church, too—as an “enterprise association.” The high church conservative, on the other hand, considers the state to be a “civil association,” whose enjoyment is its own reward. He believes politics should be nomocratic—a matter of upholding a constitutional framework within which diverse ends can be pursued. As Oakeshott says, “the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection.”

Critics of the high church disposition in religion contend that it reduces faith to pure ritual—“bells and smells.” A critic of high church conservatism might see in Oakeshott a correspondingly substance-free politics. Irving Kristol, for example, thought Oakeshott’s philosophy “irredeemably secular” and “impossible for any religious person.”

Yet Oakeshott is exceptional. For Burke and other high church conservatives such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Russell Kirk, politics does have limited substantial ends. But those ends are more open than liberal or libertarian critics of conservatism deign to acknowledge. There is a strong inclination among high church conservatives against interfering in the social order except to preserve its constitutional architectonics.

High church conservatism is the opposite of low church. It privileges works over faith, being more concerned with prudent policy than with the inner moral character of politicians or what they profess. It is deferential (sometimes to a fault) to hierarchy and suspicious (also sometimes to a fault) of popular movements and enthusiasm. It is leery of eschatological passions. And above all it works to avoid schism—the high church conservative’s objective is to preserve the fabric of society and, so far as possible, elevate its culture. This, he believes, can only be done within the mainstream of national life. For Coleridge and the 19th- century poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold, the function of an established church is less religious than cultural. As Coleridge writes, “Christianity, and a fortiori any particular scheme of Theology derived and supposed (by its partizans) to be deduced from Christianity, [is] no essential part of the Being of the National Church, however conducive or even indispensable it may be to its well-being…” Its being, or essence, is in the preservation of culture.

For his part, Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy proposed a dramatic solution for low church Protestantism’s culturally schismatic tendencies—establish the Presbyterian and Congregational churches alongside the Church of England. That would inject “popular church discipline” into the establishment, while immersing the Protestants in the mainstream of the nation’s culture. “Being in contact with the main stream of human life,” he writes, “is of more moment for a man’s total spiritual growth … than any speculative opinion which he may hold or think he holds.”

Some variation on this principle is an indispensable tenet of any high church conservatism, except perhaps Oakeshott’s variety. And it is, of course, completely inapplicable to the American circumstance, where the First Amendment—to say nothing of public opinion—precludes the establishment of any religion. Nor are the federal government’s cultural organs, such the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, sufficient to fulfill the mission that high church conservatives ascribe to a national church. On this rock, the prospects for such conservatism in America might founder.

But not necessarily. High church conservatism has had a surprisingly robust history in the United States—a country born in a Whiggish and Protestant revolt. There may be less cause for astonishment than one might think. Before the Revolution, and for a while afterward, many of the colonies-cum-states had established churches, either Anglican or Dissenting. Though the Revolution was in no way high church and hastened disestablishment, the Constitutional Convention was another matter. After all, it produced a nomocratic charter, sought to integrate potentially schismatic factions (big states, small states; slave states, free states), and was infused with a spirit skeptical of democracy (inspired in part by Shays’s Rebellion). It is even tempting to suggest that the Constitution serves for Americans the same function that the Book of Common Prayer serves for Anglicans: uniting the high church and low in a formal or symbolic way rather than a doctrinally substantive one.

High church conservatives across the Atlantic, however, would be quick to observe that a constitution that fails to provide for continuity of culture may not succeed in perpetuating a form of government, either. To Coleridge, a national church, as a guardian of the national heritage and character, was as integral a part of the constitution as the state itself. Upon it depended “the morality which the State requires in its citizens for its own well-being and ideal immortality.” This sounds very much like the “constitutional morality” that the American political theorist Willmoore Kendall argued was necessary for the operation of the Constitution—an ethical base to teach Americans how to select virtuous representatives, who in turn would exercise restraint and prudent deliberation in the wielding of power.

American high culture flourished in the 19th century in the absence of any substitute for the national church that Coleridge and Arnold desired, with New England in particular supplying a literature that aspired to be both world-class and quintessentially American. Yet New England’s regional culture could not stand in for the constitutional ethos that Coleridge believed was necessary. Perhaps this lack of a national “constitutional” culture is one reason that Americans in the 20th century, waylaid by World War and Depression, drifted from their constitutional course.

The prime task of American conservatism should have been to correct that drift. In the 19th century there had been few self-conscious conservatives, but nomocratic traditions of politics remained strong, even after the disruption of the Civil War. America had discovered a back door to constitutional morality—not through a national church and culture but by way of another high church principle: federalism. The Anglican Communion itself is a federated body, while the Catholic Church has long endorsed the idea of subsidiarity—that needs should be met at the most local level possible, preferably through the institutions of civil society. Federalism was the matrix in which the impressive regional cultures of 19th-century America arose, and it accounts in large part for the survival of the constitutional ethic.

Once federalism had come under assault by successive waves of reformists and progressives, and as Leviathan extended its reach deeper into civil society, an energetic high church conservatism was needed to revitalize the constitutional order. But only the first intimations of such a thing arose in the 1950s, in the work of writers such as Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet. More than compensating for their salutary influence, however, was the advent of a militant Cold War conservatism. Although the intelligentsia of the Cold War Right was Catholic to a disproportionate degree—think of National Review, led not only by Catholic William F. Buckley Jr., but with senior editors Willmoore Kendall, L. Brent Bozell Jr., Frank Meyer, and James Burnham all crossing the Tiber sooner or later—it was also disproportionately populated by ex-radicals and ex-Communists. They retained the marks of their former faith even as they embraced a new one with zeal. The result was not low church conservatism but an ultramontane anti-Communist Right.

A high church Right might have taken its place after the fall of the Soviet Union. But before the end of the Cold War, conservatism in America experienced a Protestant Reformation, as the populist New Right of the 1970s opened the way for an evangelical influx into the Republican Party. For all the righteous energy the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and other Religious Right groups brought to conservatism, they lacked the high church concern for prudence and order. They were teleocratically driven at a time when America needed nomocratic conservatism.

Today, the American Right is divided between low church and “no church” tendencies. On one side are tea-party activists who believe that a renewed commitment to core conservative issues—God, guns, gays, and now taxes—will return the Right to power. On the other side are soi-disant “reform conservatives” who are not conservatives at all but social liberals (in the case of David Frum) or social democrats (in the case of the tokens on the editorial page of the New York Times). These “no church conservatives” are analogous to the liturgical traditionalists within the Anglican communion who nonetheless want to revise—or really reject—the moral content of traditional theology.

High church conservatism remains to be rediscovered. It will not offer the Right an easy road to power, but then that is not what it is meant to do. More important than reclaiming Congress or the White House, or even “winning” on specific issues, is the task of restoring the constitution—not only the written Constitution but also the cultural framework that must undergird it. Without an institutional, national clerisy, high church conservatives are in the awkward position of having to anoint themselves for the task. But after 30 years of low church conservatism, some alternative must be found. 



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