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Ain't That America: Holiday Edition

Sunday Night Journal — December 17, 2006

The Liberal Conservative (2)

Last week I closed by quoting Mark Henrie: “…traditional conservatives endeavor to correct liberalism, not to save it.” Having thought about that a little more, I’d like to elaborate on it. I don’t want to save liberalism as a philosophy, but I do want to save liberal institutions. Back in May, I started a discussion on the Caelum et Terra blog with the title Can, and Should, Constitutional Liberalism Survive? My own “quick and brutal” answer to the question was “As to the ‘should’: yes, I would like for it to, because I think at it's best it’s worked very well. But as to the ‘can’: no.”

Never mind my “no” at the moment. I was struck, in the discussion that followed, by the indifference of the mostly traditionalist Catholics to what the collapse of constitutional liberalism might mean. Of course we were talking somewhat abstractly, and one can’t generalize from the comments of those who happened to read the blog and happened to be interested enough to comment, but the most commonly voiced opinion treated constitutional liberalism as at best a poor state of affairs to be tolerated, more or less unhappily, by Catholics. The great interest was in the deficiencies of liberalism, and in the distance between the liberal state and a hypothetical Catholic one.

Here’s where a conservative temperament shows itself. One component of this temperament is undoubtedly a keen awareness that things could be worse, that there is, at the very least, an even chance that change will be for the worse, and a corresponding impulse to consider very carefully the worth of what we have and know, before discarding it in favor of what we do not have and do not know.

As Daniel Nichols said in that discussion, “A relatively peaceful and prosperous society is nothing to be taken for granted. It is hardly the norm in human history.” The liberal democracies of the West are not waging war amongst or within themselves. Our governments do not actively oppress us (yes, I know, there are many subtle ways in which we are not free, but I’m talking about real oppression, the kind that imprisons and tortures and executes at will). We can depose our rulers peacefully, if enough of us want to—a complaint about our rulers is really a complaint about ourselves. We have a level of abundance that makes real, desperate, killing poverty—the poverty of Haiti and of parts of Mexico, say—rare. We are free to practice our religion without significant restraint—we are free as individuals, and our churches are free. We do indeed have to put up with a great deal that is contrary to our faith and harmful to us and our families, and we watch far too many of our fellow citizens lost and fainting, like sheep without a shepherd, but we are not seriously inhibited in our own practice.

One can debate whether and how the development of these institutions is intertwined with liberalism, philosophically and politically, but the fact is that they developed together, and we can’t simply extract what we like and throw the rest away, as if we were peeling an apple. The task is more like separating the wheat and the tares—it’s impossible, finally, but we can do some good by nurturing what’s good and suppressing what’s bad, perhaps enough to keep the tares from taking over altogether.

Nor can we whisk away one social order, and substitute another, as if we were changing the scenery on a stage. These changes involve collapse and construction, and the collapse is often full of violence and suffering, and the construction slow, haphazard, and unguided, not particularly likely to end with something we would like.

I would rather see liberal institutions survive, which entails somehow grounding them in an absolute moral order, than wait, in pleasurable anticipation, for their collapse. My own guess as to where the uncorrected present course will take us is to something far worse. In an early issue of Caelum et Terra there was a review, by a contributor whose name I can’t remember, of a book the name of which I can’t remember, which suggested that one possible outcome of the evolution of the liberal society might be “a tabernacle for anti-Christ.” I thought I knew exactly what he meant, and I think of the phrase frequently, especially when I read a news report of some grotesque new bit of tinkering with the stuff of human life itself. “Freedom” in this new order will be, in the private sphere, almost unlimited and unattended by responsibility; in the public sphere, severely limited and ineffectual, consisting mainly of entitlement to benefits.

We can be sure, even setting aside the possibility of its being the habitation of a real anti-Christ, that an order which has decided that human life and sexuality are but machinery to be manipulated by the clever and powerful will persecute Christians. There is a rage against what is left of Christian order, and an impulse to criminalize what seems, to the new age, the intolerable hostility and active opposition of Christianity to its sexual and technical proposals. Liberalism, in both the philosophical and political senses, taking evolution as a paradigm, never expected the atavistic obstructionism of religious believers to continue to be a problem for it as late as the 21st century. Like any faith that sees itself as an organizing principle for society, it can tolerate only so much denial of and resistance to its fundamental premises. Even allowing for the intensity generated by the specific situation of the Bush presidency, many on the cultural left seem to have a permanently high level of scorn and fury. When I hear their uncensored views I think of the Irishmen of whom Yeats wrote, who would have been violent “had they but courage equal to desire.” (You could say, justly, that this is true of many on the right as well, but most of them are not anti-Christian.)

One can make a reasonable argument that the best response to this situation is to head, literally or figuratively, for the hills, and attempt to lay the foundations for a new kind of Christian civilization apart from the decaying one around us. To those who want to try this, I say “Godspeed.” My own view is that to give up on liberal institutions is to concede the future to forces heading toward a disaster which would probably not spare those enclaves in the hills. I don’t think it’s just an intellectual calamity that Solzhenitsyn has in mind when he refers to the “calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.”

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