At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Conservatism’s “Patron Saint,” Edmund Burke, and the GOP

posted by Jack Kerwick

As the members of America’s “conservative” party struggle to get a hold of themselves following this past election, they should revisit—or visit—the thought of modern conservatism’s “patron saint,” Edmund Burke.  

If anything distinguishes conservatism from other brands of political thought it is its affirmation of tradition.  This Burke makes clear.  This attachment to tradition, in turn, is inseparable from its disavowal of “metaphysical abstraction.”  Radicals of all types think that they can surmount their cultural traditions—their civilization—by bringing them before the tribunal of their own intellects.  Burke is having none of it.

“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason,” Burke famously wrote, for “we suspect that this stock in each man is small [.]”  Human reason, far from preceding tradition, is actually dependent upon it. Thus, rather than rely upon their own reason, individuals “would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages”—i.e. tradition.  


This lofty conception of Reason for which radicals are known—F.A. Hayek called it “the fatal conceit”—gives rise to a morality of ideals or principles.  For example, the radicals of the French Revolution upon whom Burke set his sights touted the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.  Radicals in other times and places have centered their attention on Human Rights, say, or Virtue, Piety, Democracy, and the Will of the People. 

There is nothing wrong with ideals and principles as such.  The problem sets in when they are treated as if they were timeless and self-evident truths that can be effortlessly grasped by people everywhere.  It is when we ignore the fact that these ideals and principles are meaningful only within the context of the specific traditions within which they developed that trouble promises to ensue.   


As Burke says, we must guard against “the metaphysic sophistry” and “delusive plausibilities” of radicals who would divest our ideals of “every relation” so that they are left standing “in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.”  We must take care to remember that it is “circumstances” that “render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

Those who follow a morality of ideals aspire to be something like “citizens of the world.”  Those who recognize that morality is rooted in tradition, however, know that “charity starts at home,” as we say.  They recognize, in other words, that it is our families, churches, and local communities—our “little platoons,” Burke called them—that make us into the moral beings that we are.


Given that the family is the quintessential “little platoon,” it is with the imagery of the family that Burke chose to drape the relationship between the citizen and his state.  The English, he wrote, “claim and assert our liberties,” not as deductions from abstract principles, but “as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity [.]”  

Burke explains that in giving to “our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood,” the idea of an inheritance conjoins “the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties” while “adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections [.]”

The turn from a morality of ideals toward a traditional morality that Burke urged has been heeded by many a conservative.  The same, unfortunately, can not be said of Republicans.  Neither do they seem to share his skepticism of Reason.


But if the members of America’s “conservative” party did listen to Burke, maybe they would realize a few things.

First, because the best intentions of even the brightest of folks often have wildly unpredictable consequences, top-down societal schemes for which Big Government is known must be resisted at every turn.

Translation: a genuinely federal, or constitutional, government of the sort mapped out by the Founders must be the goal for which every conservative works.

Second, national defense is one thing.  International crusades or wars for Freedom or Democracy or any other ideal are something else entirely.  Every conservative must recognize them for the utopian, and inevitably destructive, fantasies that they are.   


Third, massive third-world immigration of the kind that America has been promoting for nearly a half-of-a-century conservatives must strive to end.  The morality embodied by our institutions generally, and our constitutional institutions particularly, is culturally-specific.  That is, it is Eurocentric.  The vast majority of today’s immigrants are strangers to Western moral norms, when they aren’t outright hostile toward them.  And in any event, not only are there no institutional arrangements in place to encourage them to become literate in our ways.   The spirit of our times encourages non-Western immigrants to resist assimilation.

Familiarity with Burke is necessary if the members of our conservative party are going to start acting like conservatives.      









A Party of Moderates

posted by Jack Kerwick

In his most recent piece, the widely respected Thomas Sowell remarks upon the GOP’s decades long insistence upon nominating “ad hoc moderates”—like Mitt Romney—as their presidential candidates—even though these moderates unfailingly “get beaten by even vulnerable, unknown or discredited Democrats.” 

Sowell expresses what appears to be the consensus among many in talk radio, to say nothing of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party. 

Sadly, far from shedding light on the GOP’s woes, this consensus is a reflection of them.

When Republican voters decry “ad hoc moderates,” it is to “Republican-In-Name-Only” (RINO) types that they refer.  That is, it is Republican liberals for whom they reserve their disdain.  But this grievance implies that there is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between Republicans who are “moderates” and those who are not.


The truth of the matter is that no such distinction exists.

In other words, with few exceptions, the vast majority of Republican politicians are “moderates.”   In practice, if not always in rhetoric, they are liberals, Big Government tax-and-spenders.

Doubtless, the widely shared perception among those on the right that Mitt Romney is, as Newt Gingrich referred to him in the presidential primaries, a “Massachusetts moderate,” is correct.  Seldom noted, however, is that Gingrich himself is no less of a “moderate.”  In fact, Gingrich is actually more of a “moderate” than the former Massachusetts governor.

From his support for “spreading” Democracy around the planet, foreign aid, and an individual “health care” mandate, to his support for a ‘flex fuel” mandate, Medicare D, the bank bailouts of 2008, and everything in between, Gingrich is as avid a proponent of Big Government as there is.   


Yet Gingrich isn’t the only “conservative” alternative to Romney from the primaries who isn’t conservative. Rick Santorum is another.

The United States government currently has its military personnel in some 160 countries or so. Santorum wants an even stronger American military presence. He also never renounced the “Compassionate Conservatism” that he once avowed, an ideology of Gargantuan Government that lead Santorum to call for greater government involvement in the life of civil society—including its religious institutions.

In 2005 Santorum gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation in which he claimed: “If government is to be effective,” then “charities, houses of worship, and other civil institutions” have to be, not just “respected,” but “nurtured” (emphasis mine).  Among the things that he wanted to see done is for the federal government to “dedicate a larger percentage of” its “GDP to foreign aid” and to abolish “genocide, international sex trafficking and the oppression of minority groups… around the world [.]”


George W. Bush, in spite of winning two terms and presiding over a Republican-controlled Congress for 75% of his time as president, was at least as much, and probably much more of a “moderate,” than Romney or any other RINO. 

The federal government continued to swell under Bush and his Republicans.  His “Compassionate Conservatism” did absolutely nothing to advance anything that can remotely be called “conservative” and much to retard it. Not since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society has federal spending increased to the extent that it did under Bush’s watch. 

It isn’t just these much touted “conservative” stars and veterans of the GOP who are indistinguishable from the “moderates” who self-styled conservatives disdain. While it borders on blasphemy to suggest it, the truth is that no less a figure than Ronald W. Reagan was also a “moderate.” 


In other words, Reagan, though brilliant at articulating a vision of liberty, did not govern as a conservative. 

The federal government ballooned during Reagan’s eight years as president. He succeeded in eliminating not a single government program, let alone an agency.  Taxes were cut in his first year as president, yes, but they were increased many times after that.  Spending far exceeded even Jimmy Carter’s wildest forecast, we “cut and run” after more than 200 of our Marines were killed in Lebanon, and millions of illegal immigrants were granted amnesty—all during Reagan’s tenure.   

The Republican Party is not divided between conservatives and “moderates.” It consists of varying degrees of “moderates.”  Until this is grasped, until, that is, we realize that conservatives’ ticket to winning future elections is to make sure that they are, well, conservative, Republicans will continue to lose ground with the American public.     




More “Conservative” Blindness

posted by Jack Kerwick

In his most recent piece, the widely respected Thomas Sowell refers to the GOP as “the 8th wonder of the world” for its uncanny ability to continue “repeating the same mistakes for decades on end [.]” The Republican establishment, Sowell complains, persists in nominating “ad hoc moderates”—like Mitt Romney—as their presidential candidates—even though these moderates unfailingly “get beaten by even vulnerable, unknown or discredited Democrats.” 

This, Sowell thinks, is because these “pragmatic moderates…feed pablum to the public, instead of treating them like adults.” When it comes to conveying a “coherent argument, instead of ad hoc talking points,” Republican politicians generally fail abysmally.


Given the admiration that I always had for Sowell, it pains me to confess that his analysis—which has been echoed by many others in “the conservative media”—reveals the depths of the mess in which the mainstream right is mired.

In other words, it is Sowell’s mentality that accounts for why Republicans are “the 8th wonder of the world.”

When Sowell decries “ad hoc moderates” he means to refer to “Republican-In-Name-Only” (RINO) types.  That is, it is Republican liberals for whom he reserves his disdain.  And when he criticizes their penchant for “ad hoc talking points,” as opposed to “coherent argument,” it is their inability or unwillingness to explain to voters the rational and moral superiority of their positions to which he speaks.


There is more than one problem with this reasoning, but the one problem that is most glaring—and most serious—is the assumption that lies at its heart.  It is the assumption that there really is a meaningful distinction to be drawn between Republicans who are “moderates” and those who are not.

Sowell lambasts Mitt Romney for being an “ad hoc moderate,” but during the presidential primaries he endorsed Newt Gingrich.  How, we must ask, is the latter any less a “moderate” than the former?  If anything, from their respective stances on immigration to foreign policy to Big Government generally, the case can be made that Gingrich is actually more of a so-called “moderate”—i.e. liberal—than Romney. 


And what is true of Gingrich is no less true of Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, and virtually every other Republican who is widely heralded as a “star” of “the conservative movement.”

Most tellingly of all is that it is also true of the god of the movement, Ronald W. Reagan.  If a “moderate” is a Republican liberal, and the latter is but a champion of what I have elsewhere called Gargantuan Government, then, in practice, even if not in rhetoric, Reagan was as much of such a champ as anyone.

The federal government continued to grow and grow and grow during Reagan’s two terms in office. He succeeded in eliminating not a single government program, let alone an agency.  Taxes were cut in his first year as president, yes, but they were increased many times after that.  Spending far exceeded even Jimmy Carter’s wildest forecast, we “cut and run” after more than 200 of our Marines were killed in Lebanon, and millions of illegal immigrants were granted amnesty—all under Reagan’s watch.   


Neither Sowell nor most people would say that Gingrich was inarticulate—and no one, at least nowadays, would say anything of the sort about Reagan.  For that matter, neither is Romney, Santorum nor any number of other Republican “moderates” incapable of talking a good talk.

But in the end, their feet failed, as they always fail, to synchronize with their lips.

Can it be, not that Republicans fail to convey their message, but that they fail to implement it when they have the chance to do so?  Can it be that they have ruined their credibility because their walk never meshes with their talk?

It is true that Republicans have a more difficult time making inroads with the American public given that much of the media remains under the control of Democratic sympathizers. Yet it never seems to dawn upon Republican politicians and commentators that they have made their rivals’ work that much easier by repeatedly professing their commitment to ideals that are conspicuously remote from the real world, ideals that they never come near to fleshing out. 


For example, Republicans go on and on about “limited government” and “lower taxes,” say, but everywhere Americans look, all that they experience are burdensome taxes and an omnipresent government. Such is the case whether Republicans are in or out of power.

Republicans, in short, all too easily come across as insincere.  They can even be seen as more, not less, power-hungry than Democrats because of this.

Until Sowell and others on the right understand that conservatives’ ticket to winning future elections is to make sure that they are, well, conservative, Republicans will continue “repeating the same mistakes” for more “decades on end.”    




2013 Resolutions for “Conservatives”

posted by Jack Kerwick

In the spirit of this holiday, I suggest the following list of resolutions for Republicans for 2013.

Republicans must resolve to:

(1). Acknowledge that your party is not a “conservative” party.  Recognize, and then admit, that it is a neoconservative party.

(2). Come to terms with the fact that neoconservatism is almost as antithetical to genuine conservatism as is welfare-liberalism, socialism, and, in short, full-blown leftism.  And then realize that this is because neoconservatism is but another species of the latter.

(3). Disavow anyone among your ranks who prides himself upon being, say, a “Kennedy Democrat,” or a “Scoop Jackson Democrat.”  You should resolve to disavow such a person just as quickly as you should disavow a self-declared “conservative” who regards The Weekly Standard and Commentary as “conservative” publications.  Fortunately, these are two birds for which you will need only one stone, for it is a certainty that anyone who professes to be a Democrat in the mold of JFK or Scoop Jackson will think of these publications as conservative in nature.


(4). See “conservative” talk radio and Fox News for what they are.  If Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and others really are “alternative media” voices, as they are forever assuring us, this is only because they are an acceptable alternative.  And they are an acceptable alternative only because they are a scripted alternative.   

Our “conservative alternative media” unfailingly adheres to the Politically Correct script.  This is why the left has succeeded in not only maintaining, but actually strengthening its hold over our culture during just that period that our “alternative media” has exploded.

(5). Abandon all cult-like worship of all politicians—particularly those at the national level.  Few things are as inimical to liberty as this.  Republicans seem to have a glimmer of this insight whenever they speak to the phenomenon that Sean Hannity routinely refers to as “Obamamania.”  Yet when it comes to the boulder in their own collective eye, they are oblivious. 


Yes, the elevation of Barack Hussein Obama to the stature of a deity is both idolatrous and dangerous.  However, it is no less idolatrous or dangerous when Ronald Wilson Reagan is immortalized.  For that matter, it is equally idolatrous and dangerous to deify Abraham Lincoln and even “the Founders.”

This brings us to our next resolution.

(6). Eschew the deification of all politicians, certainly, but especially those who have championed, not just “Big” government, but Gargantuan Government. 

Indeed, it is without exaggeration that Republicans can be said to worship Lincoln.  Our 16th president they have canonized as a saint.  Yet there is no figure in American history who has done more to “fundamentally transform” the relationship between the citizen and the government than “Honest Abe.” 


Via four long years of the bloodiest war Americans, to the present day, had ever seen, Lincoln succeeded in revoking the Founders’ vision of a federalized, constitutional government rooted in states’ rights.  He was the stuff of which the anti-Federalists’ (and many of the Federalists’) nightmares were made. Lincoln established the precedent for the ever growing consolidation of authority and power that continues to unfold at neck-breaking speed today.

Stop worshipping Lincoln and start realizing that he was as perilous a threat to liberty that America has ever faced.

(7). Drop all talk of “the Reagan Revolution.” This is closely related to the last resolution. 

There was no revolution.  Federal debts and deficits ballooned under Reagan. No department, no program, was eliminated.  Taxes were cut, yes, but so too were they increased, and they were increased more frequently, and far more significantly, than they were reduced.


Reagan talked a good game—a great game, actually.  But he didn’t walk so well.

In practice, Reagan was every much a champion of Gargantuan Government as the Democrats with whom (he all too infrequently) did battle.

(8). Continuing this same theme, repent of the cover that you ran for George W. Bush throughout his presidency. 

Any politician who refers to himself as a “compassionate conservative” is neither compassionate nor conservative.  Government exists to see to it that justice is done.  Compassion is for individuals to dispense.  Bush was as gargantuan a spender of tax monies as any politician has ever been.  He increased the size and scope of the federal government.

Obama is our president today because Bush was our president yesterday.


(9). Concede the glaring inconsistency of simultaneously advocating “limited government” while calling for a larger military.  In other words, recognize that the military is government, that the larger the military, the larger the government.

If you are in favor of a smaller, less intrusive government, then you must favor a smaller, or at least not a larger, military.  If, on the other hand, you favor a larger military, then you favor a larger, not a smaller, government.

(10). Call out, by name, those self-declared “conservatives” who actually threaten the cause of liberty.  Even if this proves to be an endless task, which it undoubtedly will, it is a task that needs to be fulfilled.

Happy New Year!

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