At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The Neoconservative Philosophy

Although it had been in circulation for decades, it was only during the tenure of our last president that the term “neoconservatism” really gained traction.  It is a funny thing, this word, for while it was a Jewish intellectual, Irving Kristol, who first coined it, those to whom it was ascribed would alternately embrace it or, which was more frequently the case, eschew it as “anti-Semitic.”

Whether “anti-Semitism” is or ever was a meaningful concept is a matter with which we needn’t concern ourselves.  What we know is that it is commonly equated with anti-Jewish animus.  The point I wish to make here is that not only is it illegitimate to view the word “neoconservatism” as the function of this sort of animus, but it is wrong to think that it is a pejorative term of any sort.    


Neoconservatism is a distinctive political orientation.  In fact, not only is it distinct from what I will call the classical conservative tradition, it is fundamentally different in kind from the latter. 

We have a tendency to define political orientations in terms of the specific policy positions typically associated with them.  For example, a “liberal” is someone who supports “abortion rights,” “labor unions,” expansive “welfare” entitlements, etc. while a “conservative” opposes abortion and favors “limited government” and a “strong national defense.”  But the identity of any political orientation really comes into focus once we look beyond the substance of the policy prescriptions to the formal philosophical suppositions that inform them.


Epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy are three branches of philosophy.  The first is the study of knowledge.  Those who specialize in epistemology concern themselves with such questions as: What is knowledge? Is it attainable and, if so, how do we attain it?  Ethics is the study of morality.  Ethicists analyze such basic moral concepts as obligation, right, good, evil, virtue, and a host of other topics constitutive of the moral life.  Political philosophy, as the name suggests, is the exploration of politics.  Characteristic political philosophical questions are: What kind of entity is the state?  What is or should be the relationship between the government and the citizen?

Upon analyzing neoconservatism, what we discover is that epistemologically, ethically, and political philosophically, it is much more akin to what is commonly called “liberalism” than it is the classical conservatism of which Edmund Burke is said to be the “patron saint.”



From the neoconservative’s conception of America as a “propositional” or “creedal” nation—a nation erected upon an idea—we can derive his conception of reason.  For the neoconservative, Reason stands over and above culture and tradition.  It is owes nothing to contingency.  There is one and the same Intellect for all rational beings, regardless of time and place. This, of course, doesn’t mean that all people possess equal intellectual facility; what it means is that if there was such equality, then all rational minds would converge seamlessly upon the same ideas.    

The neoconservative is, in other words, a Rationalist.  As such, he is of a piece with leftist Rationalists of various sorts who for the last couple centuries or so have insisted upon the competence of unaided Reason to supply “solutions” to all of life’s problems.


However, this Rationalism of which neoconservatism is the most recent expression is exactly that intellectual fashion against which classical conservatism originally emerged as the distinctive tradition that it is.  It was the Rationalist’s substitution of an omniscient, omnipotent Reason for an omniscient, omnipotent God that inspired Burke and the like to formulate what has since been known as conservatism.  


The neoconservative’s idea of Reason is inseparable from his ethics and his political philosophy.  Let’s look at the former first.

The abstract, universal, omnipotent Reason at the center of the neoconservative’s epistemological scheme provides access to moral principles that are equally abstract and universal.  That is, morality, for the neoconservative, is comprised first and foremost of principles, whether they are called “Human Rights,” “Liberty,” “Equality,” “Freedom,” or whatever. These are principles that, because they are held to be accessible to all rational beings, are self-evident. 


Now, principles are indispensable to any morality; there is nothing distinctive, much less controversial, about a moral vision allotting room for principles.  But the rationalist morality of the neoconservative both assigns principles a central position as well as regards them as timeless.  Since that which is timeless by definition transcends time, what this implies is that the moral principles of the neoconservative transcend tradition, habit, and custom. 

In short, these moral principles owe nothing to just those things that classical conservatives have regarded as the sources of moral inspiration and character formation.  Principles, as I said, are important.  Yet to concede this much is most certainly not endorse the neoconservative’s understanding of principles.  Rather, for the classical conservative, far from subsisting in advance of tradition, moral principles are abstracted from it.  That is, moral principles stand in relation to traditions of conduct the way that grammatical principles stand in relation to living languages: before there are principles there must first be a tradition to give them life.


Political Philosophy

The neoconservative views the state—or what is more customarily referred to as “the nation-state”—as a certain kind of association, what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called an “enterprise association.”  An association of this kind is determined by its end or goal, a substantive state of affairs toward the realization of which all of the associates are expected to contribute.  In the case of the state, this goal has been variously defined: Equality, Freedom, Security, Piety, Prosperity, and Virtue are just some of the candidates that have been submitted. 

When the neoconservative erroneously speaks of it in terms of a system of “free enterprise,” he reveals his bias in favor of this reading of the state.  If this is what the state is, then its end is Prosperity or Affluence.  More telling, however, is the neoconservative’s penchant for conceiving the state, or at least the American state, as a Democracy. 


In one sense, of course, the United States is a democracy.  The neoconservative’s assertion to the contrary notwithstanding, “democracy” refers to nothing more or less than the terms in which authority is constituted; it does not refer to the engagements that a state will or should pursue.  “Democracy,” in other words, is a certain kind of procedure.  It has nothing to do with the results that a government will seek to produce.  Democracy could give us Ron Paul or Barack Obama, the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas.  So, those who think that only a faux democratic system could catapult a terrorist into office are sorely mistaken as to what democracy is.

An enterprise association is incompatible with the freedom and liberty that our Constitution was designed to supply and secure, for the members of an enterprise association are not free to pursue their own ends but, rather, are required to part with some of their resources in order to pursue the end of the collective enterprise. 


The classical conservative knows this.  This is why he sees in the Constitution, at least as it was originally conceived, the terms, not of an enterprise association, but of a civil association. 

Neoconservatism is a distinctive way of attending to politics, but it is eons apart from classical conservatism.    

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Barbara A.M.

    (substitute “neoconservative” for “ayn rand”)

    Column: You can’t reconcile Ayn Rand and Jesus
    By Stephen Prothero


    The new darling of the Republican Party is pro-choice and anti-religion. She once wrote that, since “an embryo has no rights,” abortion “should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved.” And when asked by Playboy magazine whether religion “ever offered anything of constructive value to human life” she answered “no,” adding that “faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life.”
    Her name is Ayn Rand, and though she died in 1982 this novelist, philosopher and anti-communist crusader is the hot new thing in the GOP. The American public may have met the April opening Atlas Shrugged, a film based on her novel of the same name, with a collective shrug, but Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh tout her books, and her genius. And the opening line of “Atlas Shrugged” (“Who is John Galt?”) pops up regularly on handmade signs at Tea Party rallies.
    Among Rand’s adoring acolytes on Capitol Hill is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who at a Library of Congress symposium held in 2005 on the centenary of the Rand’s birth called her “the reason I got involved in public service.” Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who announced his third presidential run last recently, has invoked Rand in the House on matters as disparate as NASA and the post office. His son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, used her novel Anthem in Senate hearings in April to argue against government regulations to phase out the incandescent light bulb.
    When asked to name his favorite political philosopher, George W. Bush named Jesus Christ. But Ayn Rand is the GOP’s new savior, and no one seems to be taking notice of just how opposed their two philosophies are.
    Individualism vs. collectivism
    In Rand’s Manichaean world, it is not God vs. Satan, but individualism vs. collectivism. While Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” she sings Hosannas to the rich. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged (which, alas, is only slightly shorter than the Bible) are captains of industry such as John Galt. The villains are the “looters” and “moochers” — people who by hook (guilt) or by crook (government coercion) steal from the hard-won earnings of others.
    Turning the tables on traditional Christian morality, Rand argues that altruism is immoral and selfishness is good. Moreover, there isn’t a problem in the world that laissez-faire capitalism can’t solve if left alone to perform its miracles.
    I first read Atlas Shrugged and her other popular novel, The Fountainhead, while festival-hopping in Spain after graduating from college, so I can attest to the appeal of this philosophy to late adolescents of a certain gender. As an adult, however, Rand’s work reads to me like a vulgar rationalization for greed lying on top of a perverse myth of the right relationship between individual and community. So when Ryan says that, “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism,” I have to question his use of the word “explaining.” “Duping” seems like the more appropriate verb.
    As someone who has written extensively on the religious illiteracy of the American public, I am not surprised that few Republicans today seem to understand that marrying Ayn Rand to Jesus Christ is like trying to interest Lady Gaga in Donny Osmond. But there is nothing Christian about Rand’s Objectivism. In fact, it is farther from Christianity than the Marxism that Rand so abhorred. Despite the attempt of the advertising executive Bruce Barton to turn Jesus into a CEO in his novel The Man Nobody Knows (1925), Jesus was a first-class, grade-A “moocher.”
    I am somewhat surprised, however, at how few GOP thinkers seem to see how hostile her philosophy is to conservatism itself. Real conservatism is first and foremost about conserving a society’s traditions, including its religious and political traditions. But Rand’s Objectivism rejects in the name of reason appeals to either revelation or tradition. The individual is her hero, and God and the dead be damned.
    Real conservatism is also about sacrifice, as is authentic Christianity. President Kennedy was liberal in many ways, but, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” was classic conservatism. Rand, however, will brook no such sacrifice. Serve yourself, she tells us, and save yourself as well. There is no higher good than individual self-satisfaction.
    One of the reasons we are in our current economic quagmire is that none of our leaders is willing to ask us to sacrifice. Democrats call for more spending and more taxes; Republicans call for lower taxes and less spending, and what we get is the most fiscally ruinous half of each: lower taxes and more spending.
    A budget of too little Jesus
    Over the last few weeks, various Christian groups have criticized Republican leaders for proposing a 2012 budget that in their view is both un-Christian and anti-life. First, dozens of professors, priests and nuns at various Catholic universities criticized House Speaker John Boehner for a legislative record on the poor that was, in their estimation, “among the worst in Congress.” “Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings,” they wrote. “From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.”
    Then a consortium of evangelical and Catholic groups aired an ad scolding Ryan, who spearheaded that GOP budget, for his own “anti-life” stands. In this ad, Father Thomas Kelley, a self-described “pro-life” priest from Elkhorn, Wis., insisted that “God calls us to protect life at all stages,” not just in the womb.
    In short, these Christians are telling the GOP that there is too much Rand in their budget, and too little Jesus.
    I don’t see either Atlas Shrugged or the Bible as holy writ. I think the Bible is more wise, better written and, ironically, less likely to come across as holier than thou, but I have not come either to bury Ayn Rand or to lament her recent resurrection. My aim is to force a choice.
    If you are going to propose a Robin Hood budget, you have to decide whether you are robbing from the poor to give to the rich, or robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Because you cannot do both. You cannot worship both the God of Jesus and the mammon of Rand.
    I don’t agree very often with the Watergate criminal and evangelical leader Chuck Colson, but he has it right when he refers to Rand’s “idolatry of self and selfishness” as “the antithesis of Christianity”
    Rand’s trinity is “I me mine.” Christianity’s is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So take your pick. Or say no to both. It’s a free country. Just don’t tell me you are both a card-carrying Objectivist and a Bible-believing Christian. Even Rand knew that just wasn’t possible.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment zydeco joe

    For the THIRD time …

    This column is entitled “the interaction between faith and culture.”
    The more common term is ‘religion and society.’
    It appears in connection with the Saint of the Day (Catholic)
    blog, so supposedly it adopts a Christian viewpoint.

    So why is there no reference in the vision statement (“Regardless of one’s views on religion, there is no escaping..”) to H. Richaed Niebuhr’s classical typology on the subject, set forth in his seminal work CHRIST and CULTURE ?

  • Jack Kerwick

    Relax Joe, I never saw your comment about Christ and Culture. Maybe it didnt’ go through.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment zydeco joe

    why are you deleting my CHRIST and CULTURE posting?

    Is it because Prof. Niebuhr was a Lutheran (and a “liberal”) and not a Catholic conservative?

  • http://Afewsubstativequesitons. Ed R

    Then what would the stance be, and rational used for, the following of both a “classic conservative” and a “neo-conservative” (unless this very question is indicative of a “neo-conservative):

    Defense spending
    Abortion rights vs right to life
    Support of Israel
    American Exceptionalism

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Zydeco Joe

    one more time, since it apparently did not go through the first time, earlier today.

    This column is entitled “the interaction between faith and culture.”
    The more common term is ‘religion and society.’
    It appears in connection with the BELIEFNET Saint of the Day (Catholic) blog, so supposedly it presents a Christian viewpoint.

    So why is there no reference in the vision statement (Regardless of one’s views on religion..) to H. Richard Niebuhr’s classical typology of the subject, as set forth in his seminal work CHRIST and CULTURE ?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment quinn colson

    I saw Levin’s and J.C.’s postings last week. They were spot-on, in accurately pinpointing LIKUD policies as the inspiration for much neoconservative foreign policy. And in noting that neoconservatives actively sought to libel their opponents as “anti-Semites” -i.e., opponents being those who didn’t subscribe to the hardline LIKUD view of what constitutes Israel’s security.

    Stop trying to re-write history, Dr. Kerwick – as you attempted in your Anti-Semitism and anti-Christian bigotry piece- only to have your rhetoric debunked by numerous knowledgeable posters (at least those whose comments were not deleted.)

    word to the wise: you can’t claim to be a Christian and yet- as it appears to be the case here- have a problem admitting when you are wrong when the truth emerges and the facts dictate it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment eve harow

    what is the Neoconservative movement’s position on pedophile priests?

    and don’t tell me ‘a wide stance’. LOL!

  • Jack Kerwick


    I appreciate your taking the time to visit this site. But check yesterdays: “Caution: Misology Free-Zone.” Please, feel free to contribute more in the future. But if you can’t resist your impulse to hurl insults at those with whom you disagree, then your postings will summarily deleted.


  • Jack Kerwick

    M, Levin,

    I thank you for visiting my site. But as of yesterday, I resolved to ban all insulting language. Charges of “anti-Semitism” and the like are nothing more or less than ad hominem attacks and they will not be tolerated here (see “Caution: Misology-Free Zone”). If you would like to make contributions to our discussions here in the future, I welcome them. But if you insist on name calling, I will simply delete your remarks.


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