Living in a culture that is hostile towards traditional views of faith and morals, few of us would deny the hegemonic control exercised by our opponents upon our political parties, government bureaucracy, courts, academic institutions, unions, mass media and popular culture. One need only to look at the Canadian media’s hostile portrayal of a few modest gains in bringing pro-family/pro-life views into recent party leadership debates to prove their tenacity in attacking the legitimacy of any debate that challenges the reigning politically correct orthodoxy. Indeed, even pro-lifers often fail to notice the extent to which they have appropriated ways of thinking introduced by our opponents in order to stifle such discourse. Though a pragmatic desire to influence a broad audience may shy activists from associating their cause with particular religious or political groupings, the inability to placate our adversaries should cause us to re-examine the religious and philosophical grounds for our beliefs and the means by which we disseminate them to the culture at large.
Perhaps some guidance into these issues can be found in a recent edition of the American conservative quarterly, Modern Age, whose Symposium on Religion and Conservatism asked, “Is religious faith a necessary ground for conservatism?” After reading the contributions provided by a broad array of Catholics, Protestants and Jews, one could not help but admit many reasons to view conservatism as the natural ground for those of religious conviction and faith in traditional morality. An accurate understanding of human nature, commitment to objective moral norms, a reverence towards the often neglected wisdom of the past, both secular and religious, and an appreciation of the necessity for prudence to guide the application of such insights into everyday life and politics come across through the symposium as the strengths of a principled conservatism. Indeed, the varied backgrounds of the symposiasts would reveal to any fair-minded believer the lie to the politically correct charge that religious sensibilities threaten to bring intolerant and anti-democratic sentiments into public debate.
As a whole, the symposiasts’ religious convictions and their critiques of modern/post-modern thought, cohere into a number of fundamental insights and principles. Whatever their particular brands of conservatism or religious tradition, they are essentially in agreement about man’s fallen nature, which inspires their sobering skepticism against programs that seek to replace religious truth with all encompassing political ideologies (i.e. radical feminism and economic leveling), or our irreverent attempts to play the God that we deny. As one contributor and author of an upcoming book on bio-ethics, Peter Augustine Lawler describes them, our adversaries are “Liberationists” who seek Marx’s program not to understand human nature but to transform it. This is as much a phenomenon of right-wing libertarianism as it is of leftist ideologies. Whereas conservatives see prudential limitations to state power as necessary for protecting the dignity of the human person from ideologically motivated bureaucratic experimentation and the economic disasters likely to ensue from such fancies, their opposition to libertarian hopes for salvation through a radically free-market reveals their skepticism to radicalism from all corners. Rather than leading to an irrational obscurantism, the symposiasts regard their religious insights as the source of a moderating wisdom superior to the abstract dreams of the political extremist.
More than just a negative critique of modern liberalism, the symposium reveals the common grounding of its contributors in a tradition of thought that provides principled guidelines for order in the soul and the commonwealth. Russell Kirk summarized this in his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, where he listed as his first canon of conservative thought the, “belief in transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems are at best religious and moral problems.” Kirk, drew these convictions from an intimate familiarity with the Western canon, and the influence of the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke. Numerous symposiasts reiterated the importance of our Western heritage, and the wisdom handed to us in the writings of sacred Scripture, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas and other greats that provide the means to combat the impiety of the our times.
Inspired by religious convictions that are above politics, and weary of those who hope to bring the Kingdom down to earth (whether in the guise of a materialist utopia or a theocratic state), the symposiasts remind us of the need to prudentially apply the insights of religious faith into the political sphere. They admit the existence of significant strands of right-wing/conservative thought that are either hostile towards religious faith or view its value in simply instrumental, utilitarian terms. The American experience itself reveals a conservative movement that only came to achieve political power through allegiances of people with widely differing philosophies, who shared a common ground in their opposition to the reigning, institutionalized liberal orthodoxy. Nevertheless, despite the undeniable strength of the “fiscally conservative” wing of North American conservatism, whose tendency towards radical individualism and economic concerns tempts the movement away from controversial moral issues, the stances of President Bush in the area of supreme court appointments, UN policy, bioethics, faith-based initiatives and his use of distinctively life-affirming language, goes to show a constructive religious influence in American politics (at least) that goes beyond lip-service. None of this would have been possible were it not for the hard work of brave, articulate and dedicated people of faith who sought to provide a conservative alternative to the hostile liberal adversary.