Thursday, May 12, 2005

MH - It All Depends On How You Define It

As a follow-up to that previous post, I’d like to offer an excerpt and comment on Jonah Goldberg’s question “What Is a Conservative?” It seems a good time to raise this question, what with there being so many factions out there these days. It’s a good column; I don’t agree with everything, but I think he’s right about many things, and provides ideas that can be adapted into understanding deeper truths.

For example, in this paragraph he seems to echo the comments of Fr. Schall:
Conservatism in its most naked form is amoral. It all depends on what you’re conserving. A true revolutionary in a truly decent and humane society is almost aurely going to be a fool, an ass, a tyrant, or, most likely, all three. A conservative in a truly evil regime is even more likely to be the same. Hence, it seems to me, that no person can call himself a Christian if he isn’t in at least some tiny way a conservative because to be a Christian is to conserve some part of the lessons or teachings of that revolutionary from 2,000 years ago.

IMHO, he’s exactly right here. Certainly many of us would react querulously to the idea that we live in “a truly decent and humane society.” That’s why people like JPII were true radicals in the countercultural messages they preached. He adds, “And it seems to me patently obvious that religion and conservatism aren’t necessarily partners. Put it this way, Jesus was no conservative — and there endeth the lesson.”

He also makes a salient point in this paragraph:
It also needs to be said that you don’t really have to be a free-marketer or capitalist to be a conservative. There are vast swaths of life that one may wish to conserve that are constantly being uprooted, paved over, or dismantled by the market. As a practical matter, there are serious problems with trying to protect things from market forces. Protecting horse-and-buggy society from the automobile may be a conservative instinct, but in order to translate your instinct into practice you may have to do some pretty un-conservative (and tyrannical) things. But, in principle, if conservatism implies a resistance to change than it seems to me opposing the profound changes free enterprise imposes on society is a conservative impulse.

As I pointed out last week, subsidiarity and solidism are not liberal practices, in the way we’ve come to define them. The entire school of economic thought we’ve been discussing emphasizes smaller economic units, more local control, and less government intervention. Where we might run into a problem with the modern conservative ideal is in the suggestion that restrictions (whether governmental or moral) need to be attached to free enterprise in order to keep it from overrunning our humanity. I think Jonah exaggerates (in order to make the point) with his comment about horse-and-buggy society, but he raises an excellent question: for example, if the government were to put some kind of restriction on Wal-Mart in order to keep it from running mom-and-pop stores out of business (assuming that could be proven; I’m also exaggerating to make the point), would we view that as an un-conservative action, again using an accepted definition of the word conservative? He’s probably right, which means at some point you’d have to decide if doing the un-conservative is doing the right thing. If you answer “yes,” and if you think of yourself as a doctrinaire conservative, you’re likely to have a short-circuit somewhere along the line. (Which is why I defer to Fr. Schall’s disagreement with the use of the term as an all-encompassing ideology.)

Here’s what Jonah comes up with as a definition of conservatism: Comfort with contradiction. And I think that’s pretty good, as long as we’re discussing a certain kind of comfort in certain areas. There are some contradictions I can’t feel comfortable about: a Republican party that embraced a pro-abortion presidential candidate, for example. And this leads us directly into the link between Christianity and conservatism, which we’ll revisit at the end of this discussion. Jonah’s link is this: “[B]eing a Christian involves some level of conservatism. It is a devotion to a set of principles set forth in the past and carried forward to today and, hopefully, tomorrow.” But if this is the link between religion and politics, how does that link function in the routine interaction between the two?
Christianity, as I understand it, holds that the perfect world is the next one, not this one. We can do what we can where we can here, but we’re never going to change the fact that we’re fallen, imperfect creatures. There’s also the whole render-unto-Caesar bit. And, of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition assumes we are born in sin, not born perfect before bourgeoisie culture corrupts us into drones for the capitalist state.

In other words, while Christianity may be a complete philosophy of life, it is only at best a partial philosophy of government. When it attempts to be otherwise, it has leapt the rails into an enormous vat of category error. This is one reason why I did not like it when President Bush said his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I don’t mind at all a president who has a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s just that I don’t think Jesus is going to have useful advice about how to fix Social
Security.

Just so - sort of. It’s been one of my main gripes with bishops’ conferences that try to interject themselves into all kinds of political issues (such as raising taxes). Jonah's right in that I doubt you can find explicit instructions in the Bible that says "Thou shalt introduce personal savings plans in thy Social Security reform." Perhaps what Bush should have said (and, for all I know, maybe this is what he was trying to say) is that Jesus is his philosopher, his councilor, in all aspects of life. Maybe Jesus doesn’t make political decisions, but He makes us what we are (if we let Him), and what we are is what we will be, even if we’re politicians. In a way, this goes back to my early essay on All the King’s Men, which I contended was not about political men, but about men in politics, which is something entirely different.

You can’t deny that there’s a moral element to all decisions, including Social Security. To simply abolish it, for example, when people who’ve given to it Therefore, while Christ may not have the exact answer as to how to fix Social Security, it would be short-sighted to suggest that a conscience informed by Christ’s teachings would take a unique set of factors into consideration when deciding what policy to pursue. Christianity may be a partial philosophy of government, or it may be no philosophy of government at all; if you assume that your philosophy of life influences your philosophy of government, it would be impossible to say that your philosophy of government is only partially influenced by Christianity, in the same way that it would be impossible to say that glass of water has only been partially influenced by the packet of Kool-Aid you just poured into it.

Can political philosophy exist divorced, in part or in whole, from your philosophy of life? Are they separate circles that intersect in a particular area, or is one circle – the philosophy of politics – a subset wholly contained within that larger circle, the philosophy of life?

Christ may not tell us how to vote on every single issue; He tells us how to live, which is bigger. A well-informed life, which is to say a well-informed conscience, will lead us to the decisions He wants us to make. He wants us to think for ourselves and to conform those thoughts to His will; and to the extent that we pour Him into ourselves, we will take on His color and He will be present in our decisions. So to that extent, He is a political philosopher, since political philosophy is that smaller circle within the larger circle that we as Christians have totally pledged to Christ.

In the end, Jonah comes full circle (if I can belabor that image), so we wind up exactly we were in Fr. Schall’s discussion. Is Christianity conservative, or does it simply have certain characteristics that it shares with conservatism? Here’s Jonah:
Any ideology or outlook that tries to explain what government should do at all times and in all circumstances is un-conservative. Any ideology that sees itself as the answer to any question is un-conservative. Any ideology that promises that if it were fully realized there would be no more problems, no more trade-offs, no more elites, and no more inequality of one kind or another is un-conservative.

This is right, which is why Christianity can be seen as un-conservative for all the similarities there are between the two.

Christianity is, as Jonah writes, “a complete philosophy of life,” but as Christians we also know that not everyone accepts the message; indeed, we are acutely aware that we will be hated and reviled by many for our beliefs. And then there’s original sin, of course, which pretty much guarantees the existence of some kind of conflict. For that reason, we know it ain’t gonna happen, not in this world. And I don’t think Christians try to pretend that we can create heaven on earth. Plus, of course, there’s that pesky “free will” thing I keep talking about, which Communists, for example, would never accept.

Jonah concludes his column with a quote I find hard to refute: “Conservatism isn’t inherently pessimistic, it is merely pessimistic about the possibility of changing the permanent things and downright melancholy about those who try.” But as Christians, we’re called to rise above it all: “Be not afraid,” as JPII said. To be realistic about the difficulties facing us is not the same thing as being pessimistic. And to be pessimistic is human, part of our fallen nature; but our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made Heaven and earth. I figure anyone Who can accomplish all that, especially in a week, is deserving of our confidence.

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