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The Conservative Heresy

‘Religious right’ is an oxymoron.


Just a few years before his death, the great Roger Scruton gave a fascinating interview that (I think) gets to the heart of the whole conservative project.  Sir Roger says that,

In the world in which we are now, where it’s so difficult to find a transcendental source for moral values—given the skepticism about religion and so on—we have to look for other sources.  And it’s been very much part of the consciousness of Western civilization since the Enlightenment that there are other sources.  One must open one’s eyes to nature and to the human world.

That, I think, is the essence of Anglo-American conservatism.  It’s an attempt to defend “traditional values” without relying on traditional metaphysical systems. And, of course, those values are predominantly Christian.  There are pagan and Jewish elements, but these are filtered through Christianity.  So, conservatism is really an attempt to defend Christian values without relying on Christian metaphysics. 

And it doesn’t work. Conservatism doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work for two reasons.

First of all, you can’t make Christians without the Church (i.e., the Body of Christ).  That’s like trying to grow apples without an apple tree.  You can try, of course.  But the result—this new, hydroponic strain of “cultural Christians”—leaves a whole lot to be desired.  They’re sour and mealy and lack essential nutrients.

Secondly, you end up sidelining thinkers, activists, and voters who are too “Jesusy”. 

Scruton put it very well.  Conservatism isn’t just about defending traditional values. It’s about (A) defending traditional values given (B) the difficulty of finding transcendental sources for values and (C) a prevailing intellectual culture of religious skepticism.

From the conservative’s perspective, (B) and (C) actually make the Church a liability in the pursuit of (A).  You can’t have a rational discussion about the virtue of pietas or the nature of commonwealth when the vicar keeps butting in about his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  It’s unseemly.

There’s a third, even more vital reason why conservatism failed: because religious conclusions can’t be defended from secular premises.  If one agrees to argue only from Enlightenment sources (nature, reason, etc.), Christian values are indefensible.

No Christian—Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—should be surprised by that statement.  This is what the Church has always taught, and what the faithful have always believed.  While God reveals Himself through natural law, He reveals a great deal more through divine revelation.  Christianity doesn’t make sense without both reason and supernatural faith. 

The trouble is that conservatives reject supernatural faith as a first principle.  They may argue for an “enduring moral order”, as Russell Kirk did.  But they’re not usually talking about the grace and truth of Jesus Christ (John 1:17).  By and large, they mean something more like “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase.

And the reason we need revelation as well as natural law is because nature, like Man, is fallen.  Every sin that human beings commit has some mirror in the animal kingdom.  Many animals copulate with members of their own sex, or kill their own young, etc.  That’s why these evils were common even among highly civilized pagans like the Greeks and Romans. 

Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of good arguments against all these vices from natural law.  The trouble is that, without divine revelation, those arguments don’t “take.”  You need both faith and reason.  We have neither.

It’s true that conservatism, as a habit of resisting change, has proved useful to Christians.  For instance, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke makes a passionate case for the Church of England:

The consecration of the state, by a state religious establishment, is necessary also to operate with an wholesome awe upon free citizens; because, in order to secure their freedom, they must enjoy some determinate portion of power.  To them therefore a religion connected with the state, and with their duty towards it, becomes even more necessary than in such societies, where the people by the terms of their subjection are confined to private sentiments, and the management of their own family concerns.  All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society.

That’s a beautiful line, and true. Yet Burke’s case for the Church of England has nothing to do with Anglicanism.  It has nothing to do with Christianity, for that matter.  And if the C. of E. lost its ability to exercise that “wholesome awe” upon the English people, it would no longer serve any purpose at all—at least, not in Burke’s view.

Of course, that’s exactly what has happened.  The idea that anyone might be awed by the C. of E. today—wholesomely or otherwise—is laughable.  

In the twenty-first century, our case for the Church should be the same as it was in the first: it is the Body of Christ, without which there is no salvation. Instead, Burke’s argument for the Church in 1790 becomes an argument against the Church in 2022.

Speaking of Scruton, he offers a new defense the C. of E. in his 2013 book Our Church.  Sir Roger argues that religion is necessary because “religious beliefs shape the allegiance and coherence of a community”:

Religious experience is a specific way of encountering and solving the problem of membership, and one that engages another and deeper aspect of the human psyche, which is the recognition of the sacred and the associated fear of profanation.

He goes on:

Religion expresses a profound and species-wide longing for purity, a longing to be “cleansed” of the many and minute transgressions that are the price we pay for consciousness.  This idea—conveyed to Jews, Christians, and Muslims by the story of the Fall—is not an arbitrary addition to the store of religious dogma.  It is the heart of religion in all its forms and an inescapable part of the human condition.

And because the C. of E. is England’s “national church” (Scruton argues), it is the most suitable nexus for these cleansing rituals.

Well, all right. But net notice that Scruton’s argument is just a softer, more modest version of Burke’s.  It still has nothing to do with Anglicanism, or Christianity, or even God. 

Carl Jung said that Christians didn’t need therapists because we have pastors. Sir Roger seems to say that atheists don’t need pastors because they have therapists. What is church to Scruton except a big group therapy session? He doesn’t say.

These are extremally English examples, but American conservatives have the same exact problem.  They praise churches for passing on good values, strengthening communities, providing for the needy, etc. And that praise is well deserved! But these conservatives are still justifying the Church by its social utility. That doesn’t work in the long run, for three reasons.

First of all, Christianity isn’t supposed to be socially useful. Time and again, Jesus warns His followers that they will be persecuted by lawful authorities (Mt 5:10-12), that His teachings will cause social unrest (Mt 10:34-36), and that families will turn against one another for His sake (Mt 10:21). 

Secondly, very few people will perform religious rituals unless they believe in the efficacy of those rituals. “Social utility” is not enough. Hardly anyone goes to confession with a Catholic priest just because he want to get something off his chest. That happens in the movies, but not in real life. (In real life, most Catholics don’t even go to confession with a Catholic priest.) 

Thirdly, and most importantly, conservatives are training folks to think in terms that are antithetical to Christianity.

Our Faith is not remotely concerned about helping us to flourish in this world. On the contrary. If you take Jesus at His word, the ordinary Christian’s life is pretty grim. We accept suffering in this life, though, in exchange for the pearl of great price: an eternity spent in blissful contemplation of the Blessed Trinity.

That is what Christianity is. That is the Church’s self-identity. It gets souls to Heaven. Any good it does in this world—and it does a great deal of good!—is incidental. To focus on that worldly good, as conservatives do, is to implicitly reinforce secularism’s imperative (to help men to flourish in this life) and reject Christianity’s (to help men flourish in the next).

C. S. Lewis was right. While the Christian life ends in unspeakable comfort, it begins with dismay. So, the man who comes to the Church seeking only to flourish in this life will realize the Church doesn’t share his priorities. 

Two paths then open up to him. Either he can walk the hard road of the Saints, or he can look for a quick jolly at the sleezy bar down the road. But he can’t hang around just for the stained glass, or the old-timey hymns, or even the “traditional values.” Someday, he’ll get restless. He’ll move on. Whether he takes the high road or the low road… well, that’s up to him.

Anyway. Strictly speaking, “religious right” is an oxymoron.  “Christian conservative” is a contradiction in terms, because conservatives actively discourage ordinary folks from prioritizing supernatural faith and the afterlife. 

Whether or not they mean to is irrelevant. The point is, they do. They train Christians to think in “this-worldly” terms, the way irreligious folks do. Little wonder if those Christians come to think irreligious thoughts.

To be clear, I know that Christians will find ourselves “on the Right” far more often than we do “on the Left.” I’m not trying to make Christianity out to be a kind of smug centrism. We’ll leave that to the Solidarity Party. 

My point is that notions like Left vs. Right and liberal vs. conservative shouldn’t color our judgment one way or the other. That’s City-of-Man talk. We belong to another country.

This is why conservatism has failed, and continues to fail, and will go on failing. Conservatives think that life better in and around the Christian Church. And they’re right! What they can’t seem to grasp is that it’s only by losing our lives—for Christ’s sake—that we find them. 

Here, too, Lewis put it best: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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