A Church of Conservatism?

Proper Western conservatism (commonly called “traditionalist conservatism”) is concerned with the social order, that is, the sum total of society’s laws, regulations, rules, customs and, more generally, the elements that give rise to society’s structure. Since America and the other Western societies are fundamentally disordered as a result of the victory of the Left in the culture war, proper conservatism tries to preserve the remaining vestiges of a properly-ordered society and to expand the properly-ordered realm. Conservatives, then, must understand how societies function.

The vast majority of people, including even the vast majority of the well-educated, believe that the continuing existence and basic functioning of any society is a cosmic given, as unchangeable as the rotation of the Earth. That’s one of the main reasons why liberal “social experiments” are carried out so frequently: John Q. Public thinks society will continue to have the basic character that it has right now regardless of how we tinker with it. In reality, however, societies preserve their existence and maintain their character only through continual deliberate action. And this action does not occur spontaneously. Its ultimate source is the system of ideas believed to be true by the society’s leadership class.

But ideas do not automatically translate themselves into concrete action. Effective action requires organization, both in the abstract sense of forming an order to the activities, and in the concrete sense of creating and maintaining organizations to carry on the work.

The concrete work of maintaining America’s current—liberal—order falls to the myriads of specific organizations dedicated to liberalism: the government bureaucracies, the colleges and universities, the news and entertainment media, the legal and bureaucratic organizations such as the ACLU, MALDEF and Greenpeace, and so on.

And observe that these organizations form a gigantic, de facto, church.

For what is a church other than an organization dedicated to three basic goals: promoting a body of doctrine, directing people to concrete action, and conducting worship? And do not the liberal organizations do all three?

Certainly liberal organizations are dedicated to promoting their doctrines; this is the most obvious manifestation of the “liberal bias” that conservatives are right to notice and warn about. And certainly liberal organizations such as the ACLU are dedicated to directing people to concrete action in support of liberalism: liberal advocacy groups are incessantly working to promote liberalism and to punish manifestations of conservatism.

But liberalism also involves worship, which is basically the public ascription of worth to that which is worshipped. What, for example is “celebrating diversity” if not the worship of the liberal god of diversity? In worship, man’s attention is drawn away from the immediate, the transient and the selfish, and toward the things that are honorable, permanent and holy. Worship lifts man by orienting him toward that which is most important and which he needs in order to live well. Worship also instills in man an emotional, not just intellectual, love for the good, a love that is necessary if he is to persevere in the good.  It is by being fortified through regular worship that man can find the strength to live as he ought, and the liberals understand this, even if only intuitively. Thus liberal artists are constantly creating works of art that worship liberal persons, deeds and ideas, and liberal educators are incessantly catechizing their charges in the doctrines of liberalism and exhorting them to emulate the liberal saints.

All of this liberal religious activity is necessary in order to maintain the liberal society that America has become. The fact that this society is unsustainable in the long term because it is based on lies is relevant to this discussion only in the sense that we must prepare for the day when liberalism no longer rules. Right now, liberalism rules, and if not for the tireless efforts of the Church of Liberalism, the Left would lose its hold on America almost instantly. Even an illegitimate form of society requires great effort to maintain.

All of which raises an important question: Where is the Church of Conservatism? Certainly elements of it exist, and this church does significant work in ensuring that America still functions adequately. After all, we are not a “failed state:” In most areas the people are relatively safe and can maintain a reasonably comfortable existence. And there are still people and organizations teaching a proper doctrine of how society ought to be ordered, directing people to proper action, and worshipping the true and living God. But this conservatism is, de facto, an underground movement

If, then, we are serious about reestablishing a properly-ordered America, we must give serious thought to a “Church of Conservatism,” that is, concrete organizations that will teach doctrine, direct men’s actions, and properly worship not only God but also (in the sense of “ascribe worth to”) the properly-ordered society. How can we preserve (or restore) a properly-ordered America if we don’t understand and love her? And how can we understand and love her if we are not taught to? And how can we be taught if no organization exists to teach us?

The Christian churches do some of the work that will need to be done, but they are quite inadequate. Aside from the fact that many of them (possible a majority) are supporters of the liberal status quo, most churches focus on the spiritual order, and are content only to teach a few minor clichés about the secular social order. Someone, sooner or later, will have to do the work of properly ordering American society. The formation of organizations for this purpose, or at least for aiming men toward this purpose, should be one of our key goals as traditionalist conservatives.

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34 thoughts on “A Church of Conservatism?

  1. In reality, however, societies preserve their existence and maintain their character only through continual deliberate action.

    Hmm, this is questionable. Yes, you don’t get civilization for free. But its development seems more the unconscious result of individuals making individual choices rather than anyone deliberately setting out to create a civilized society. Which is why it seems such a given.

    Its ultimate source is the system of ideas believed to be true by the society’s leadership class.

    This is at best a partial truth. Economics and technology probably have more to do with the changes than elite opinion.

    From Ross Douthat’s NYT blog post:

    But suppose for a moment that we thought of the sexual revolution as something closer to the industrial revolution instead: A shift that was shaped by books and individual personalities and political movements, certainly, but that was fundamentally driven by economic and technological changes that would have happened even with a different cast of characters and choices.

    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/two-ways-of-looking-at-a-revolution/

    Ross, being the apostle of conservatism to the New York Times reader, has to be a bit of a squish, but he’s essentially correct.

    Dreher had some worthwhile things to say too:
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/sex-communism-and-machines/

    • TMWW, you’re missing the point. Individuals create culture through deliberate action. Churches are established, laws are passed, and customs are created by deliberate action. The coordination of the parts into a whole is difficult or impossible fully to grasp by rational analysis, but the parts proceed in an easily-understandable way: people want to do it, they decide to do it, and then they do it.

      In this, conservatism has been too reactive, assuming that it will be enough to defeat the Left’s individual initiatives. The right has not acknowledged that society is fundamentally disordered.

      Economics and technology have their influence, but man lives by what he articulates in words. Saying that econ. and tech are the primary driving forces makes the situation seem hopeless, or at least mysterious, which is isn’t. People act according to custom and according to their beliefs, and both are largely shaped by deliberate action of the authorities.

      • Saying that econ. and tech are the primary driving forces makes the situation seem hopeless, or at least mysterious, which is isn’t.

        This is just raw assertion. The situation _is_ hopeless, at least in the short run.

        Exceptions:

        1. Forming small, at least partially isolated communities seems worthwhile.
        2. Secular people don’t have children, so the long term outlook is good.
        3. There is always the (very) small possibility that some catastrophe will radically change econ/tech. (The least appealing possibilty, so I’m not sure that I’d call it a hope.)

      • This comment is even more of a raw assertion than mine, because I at least provided a basis for my position, whereas you simply assert that it is “hopeless.” In my essay, I never speculated on the probability of success, I simply pointed out that deliberate action is required in any scenario.

        In fact, you list of exceptions supports my main point: Even if, God forbid, America were to pass out of existence, the survivors would have to engage in just the sort of deliberate order-forming activities that I describe in my essay.

      • The situation is hopeless for society at large in the short term because either:

        1. the econ/tech has to change
        2. the people have to change, probably through selection for genetic resistance to liberalism

        Working harder etc. won’t cut it.

  2. In general, this article showcases the two main diseases of conservative thought:

    1. Viewing liberalism as a substitute religion rather than the denial of religion that it is. The inability to get inside a non-religious mind.
    2. Viewing the triumph of liberalism as primarily the result of elite policy and propaganda. The preference for seeing things as a result of personal agency.

    Conservatives understand liberals better than vice versa, but these are the two major biases conservatives have which prevent them from fully understanding liberalism.

    A egregious example of #1 is the use of the word “worship” here. A lot of what liberalism does can be thought of metaphorically as being worship, since there is some resemblance, but it’s not actually worship and to treat it as such is an abuse of language.

    • Liberalism is both the denial of true religion and a substitute, i.e., false, religion. Man is an inherently religious animal.

      As for your point # 2, I agree that external factors such as economics and technology are important. One could say that liberalism is the articulation of what it feels like to exist in contemporary Western society. But personal agency decisive: if enough people say “No!” to the existing order, it will fall. And my larger point is that change doesn’t happen passively. People make it happen when they organize and act.

      • No, it is the denial of religion period. Man does not appear to be nearly as inherently religious as most people once thought.

      • “Religion” is what man believes (and therefore how he behaves) about the ultimate concerns, and every individual and every culture has a set of beliefs about ultimate concerns. This is why liberalism is a false religion. You may not like the word, but the reality to which it refers is there nonetheless.

      • Your definition of religion, like many definitions, is so broad as to be meaningless.

      • No, it points to something important: That man usually acts, even if unconsciously, in accord with a body of officially-endorsed answers to life’s big questions. This “body of answers” always functions as an at least de facto religion. And since it serves the same function as a religion in the ordinary sense, it is correct to identify it as a religion in any case.

    • Most people have no broader or more transcendent concerns than making life more pleasurable for themselves together with some concern that life be pleasurable than others. To call this religion in anything but a highly metaphorical sense is an abuse of language.

      • People always believe that the authorities (whoever they might be) have found the answers to life’s big questions, and that they can rely on these answers. Most people, for example, think that diversity is wonderful and discrimination is wicked, because America’s authorities relentlessly teach these doctrines. Of course, some people have “second thoughts” from time to time, but unless they can find a persuasively articulated opposition to the doctrines of liberalism, they eventually go back to the status quo.

  3. I am much more pessismistic about the possibility of useful political action – the religious Right is lacking in both power, and cohesion as a basis for power. Not only do I think it will be ineffectual, it may be counterproductive.

    I think we should concentrate on Christian evangelism (winning converts) and deepening the Christian life in uncompromizing ways (prayer, monasticism etc). We should be rigorously rejecting of lies, ugliness and immorality. Any groups will be small and should be personal and local, if possible.

    A big problem is that the Christian Right has absorbed all sorts of supposedly-positive values, such as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ which it tends to put as such as priority that they are in practice simply assumptions, indeed they are more solidly-assumed than anything about Christianity (a religious article is more likely to question the reality of miracles, or prophecy, or angels, or the virgin birth, or the resurrection than the intrinsic goodness of democracy or badness of slavery).

    • Bruce, you are right to be suspicious of institutions. They have all indeed been corrupted, especially the church. This is because all institutions accept the premises of liberalism, some tacitly and some explicitly. Even the churches mostly accept these premises, which sometimes leads them, as you say, to begin rejecting even Christianity!

      But organizations that explicitly identify and reject the premises of liberalism would be different. I visualize organizations that identify, reject and correct these premises. Organizations founded on explicit opposition to the liberal status quo. Somebody needs to begin saying publicly that the Emperor has no clothes.

      “Politics” in the sense of appealing to the masses to support us does, indeed, have zero chance of producing the kind of fundamental change we need. But I’m referring to politics in the original sense: discussion and action having to do with the establishment of a just and properly-ordered society.

    • Bruce is more right here than Alan. Evangelism in the West is unlikely to do much good as the sentiments of most people are against it. It is probably best to focus on practicing your own faith, on having kids, educating them in the faith, and building alternative institutions.

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  5. I have a question for . How do you know that “people are basically religious,” at least in all circumstances?

    1. You can’t get there through introspection. Not all people are like you.
    2. You can’t get there through looking at vestigial religious practices and beliefs either. They’re _vestigial_ and it is easy to overestimate their importance.
    3. You can’t get there through looking at most of the cultures that have ever existed. Our culture is radically unprecedented in many ways.

    • I didn’t use the phrase “people are basically religious.” What I have said is that people always rely on the answers to the big questions of life that are supplied by the authorities, and that the body of thought on which these answers are based may accurately be called a religion.

      And I know these things by observing what people say.

      • And I defined my terms. I said that man always operates (a least on average) in accordance with a body of doctrine that he receives from the authorities.

  6. the body of thought on which these answers are based may accurately be called a religion.

    Not if it doesn’t make reference to some purposeful and transcendent reality.

    Taking a social or philosophical position on religion, such as that it doesn’t much matter, is not in itself a religion.

    Don’t throw around words like worship and religion which analogies and then treat them as literal truths.

    Eg. “Football is my religion.” Football is not a religion, but there are some similarities: it can be the most important thing in a persons life, it can involve community of a sort etc. But everyone with half a brain knows that it isn’t literally a religion, that you’re just using a metaphor. Same for liberalism.

  7. “Religion” is what man believes (and therefore how he behaves) about the ultimate concerns, and every individual and every culture has a set of beliefs about ultimate concerns. This is why liberalism is a false religion. You may not like the word, but the reality to which it refers is there nonetheless.

    Alan is correct, and this is why, by the way (or one reason why), it is philosophically untenable to argue that “religion should be kept out of politics”. Very literally, that can’t be done. A “religion” is just a set of beliefs that a person holds about the ultimate questions of life: where do we come from? What matters? Etc. So what does it mean to say that Christianity is a “religion”? After all, in my day-to-day life I don’t really think of it as a “religion”. I just think of it as a description of the way the world is. Why should my version of “the way the world is” be excluded from the public square, but a liberal’s shouldn’t?

    And make no mistake, secular liberalism *is* a religion – or at least, it’s a religious point of view. I think, Thursday, that some of this is semantics, so perhaps I’ll offer a slightly amended way of explaining our position:

    But everyone with half a brain knows that it isn’t literally a religion, that you’re just using a metaphor. Same for liberalism.

    I would change the wording of Alan’s argument just a little and say that while not everyone subscribes to a religion in the sense of an organized religion like Christianity, Islam, etc., everyone has a worldview that is religious. Everyone has beliefs about those Important Questions: where we came from, etc. Secular liberals who “don’t believe in God” do, then, necessarily (I mean necessarily), believe in something else, even if they haven’t fully thought out their belief system, and even if that something else is “there isn’t any spiritual dimension, and I’m not quite sure how we got here but I think we probably evolved from chemicals”. Why is that worldview any less “religious” than mine or Alan’s?

    The football analogy fails pretty badly because nobody actually, literally thinks that football explains the Important Questions of the universe. But secular liberalism is actually, literally rooted in the (religious) beliefs that there is no God and nothing matters.

    • An ultimate belief can be described as a metaphysics or an ideology.

      The precise use of words is important because throwing around words like religion and worship imply that non-religious people are thinking about things in the same way that religious people are. But they are not.

      If you want to say that liberalism is not neutral towards religion, as it purports to be, why not just say that?

    • The football analogy fails pretty badly because nobody actually, literally thinks that football explains the Important Questions of the universe. But secular liberalism is actually, literally rooted in the (religious) beliefs that there is no God and nothing matters.

      You’ve missed the point. People really do literalize that football = religion metaphor. Jonathan Haidt, in a rare lapse, has done so, because of its ritualistic character, ability to bring people together etc. I could cite examples of where people have literalized the art = religion metaphor too. So to say that people don’t really confuse things like football or art with religion is false.

      • This reminds me of an argument between Max Scheler and Martin Buber I once discussed at Throne and Altar (http://bonald.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/is-idolatry-possible/), where Scheler basically took Alan’s side, and Buber basically took yours. I see some validity to both points of view, but your position is the right one at the most fundamental level. For everyone individual and every society, there is something that functions like a religion, but religion is not defined by its function but by its internal essence, and these functional equivalents of religion are often internally nothing like real religion.

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  10. I agree that over the past 50 or 60 years, America has been in cultural decline. The so called “sexual revolution” is one of the worst manifestations of this decline. Societies do go through phases. In many ways, starting with the sixties, decline did begin. But I am concerned about your overall point. You want to return America to what it was? Yes, the past sixty years have involved discarding much of value. It would have been better had not these things–respect for authority, religious faith, respect for absolutes, respect for fatherhood, motherhood, and the family–been lost to the extent they have. So in the past there was good we have lost. But that does not imply that overall, we should call the past “good.” America was not, on the whole, all that good. Human societies have always involved, at their very core, a great deal of evil. It is a good idea to turn back the clock in the sense of regaining what has been lost. But it is not a good idea to suppose that any certain past state of our society is and ideal to be striven for.

    • It is, of course, impossible to reproduce the past. But we should strive for a more properly-ordered society, using past American society as a model.

  11. Here is I think what I am trying to get at: You say that “America and the other Western societies are fundamentally disordered as a result of the victory of the Left in the culture war.” I agree that what you call the victory of the left in the culture war is real in at least some ways, and that this victory has brought a new kind and level of disorder. But it is also true that America and other Western societies were *already* fundamentally disordered *before* the particular culture war we are referring to even got started. Human society as such has always been fundamentally disordered. I don’t think that means human society in essence is fundamentally no good. Societies take many shapes, include many different manifestations, are guided by many different motives, some of which are ideas. And societies deserve to be subjected to critiques, including from a Christian theological perspective. So there are meaningful distinctions to be made among different kinds of order and disorder, different kinds and degrees and combinations of social good and social evil. But I assert that it is fundamentally contrary to Christian faith to identify one particular group or philosophy as THE UNIQUE source of disorder.

    • I agree that it is not correct to blame liberalism entirely for disorder in society. The ultimate cause of human disorder is the Fall, and the consequent tainting of human nature with original sin.

      But something fundamental happened in the liberal revolution, which began in earnest several hundred years ago, and began its successful bid for supreme power in the Sixties. Something fundamental changed when, for the first time in human history, a society’s elites began teaching that we must all agree that homosexuality is good, that it is wrong to deny foreigners the right to immigrate to our country, that we are a bad people because our ancestors had slaves and conquered a continent, and so on. I have spoken of the uniqueness of these developments in an essay that is no longer online due to leftist hackers. Perhaps I’ll post it at the Orthosphere.

      My overall point, then, is that liberalism has produced a uniquely disordered society, and even the flawed social order that of the fifties would be vastly preferable to what we have now.

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