Needed: A new conservative apologetics
By Alan Roebuck
This essay is not intended for liberals or the undecided. To justify the key assertions made here would take at least a book, and probably a small library, and therefore this essay is only intended to be a "word to the wise," i.e., the conservative. Let's face facts: Conservatism is losing. Although an occasional conservative counterattack has limited success, the overall tendency in America, and all of western civilization, is toward the left. Conservatism has remained viable mainly by redefining its goals, so that today's conservatism is mainly about impeding, rather than decisively reversing, our leftward movement. Thus, for example, mainstream conservatism is not trying to re-stigmatize homosexuality, but only to limit the advance of its legitimization.
Conservatism is losing because, although pockets of conservatism remain, liberalism has effective control over the official thinking of America. Our generally accepted ways of thinking about almost all subjects, and therefore our generally accepted ways of doing almost all things, start with the premises of liberalism: man, not God, is the supreme being, and therefore we must emphasize liberty, equality, openness to the outsider (i.e., multiculturalism), and nonjudgmentalism
Liberalism is, in fact our (unofficial) state religion. Calling liberalism a religion does not sound so strange now that Ann Coulter has popularized the idea, but we also have to understand that every nation must have a state religion. Every large group of people must have leadership, and leadership requires a comprehensive system of thought that provides a basis for making decisions. Furthermore, the majority of the people must agree, at least for the most part, with this system of thought, because leaders cannot lead unless most of those being led respect the decisions and their rationales.
America, like all nations, must have an at least unofficial state religion. Until roughly the 1960's, this state religion was Christianity, albeit a watered-down version. But nowadays it is the philosophical system of liberalism that provides the basis for almost all our decisions, although we must acknowledge a significant residual influence of Christianity.
Therefore conservatives will not make any progress without challenging, in the arena of public intellectual combat, the foundational ideas of liberalism. People do not judge ideas and proposed actions in an intellectual vacuum: they judge them in accordance with the worldview they already possess. Those with an at least somewhat liberal worldview, i.e., the vast majority of Americans, will not give much support to properly conservative ideas and policies, aside from certain cases that are so blindingly obvious that they overwhelm the liberalism of all but the most committed leftist (e.g., same-sex marriage, mass immigration, the death penalty.)
How do we effectively challenge liberalism? Since liberalism is a set of ideas, we must fight it by formulating both a conservative worldview (i.e., a comprehensive, coherent and explicit formulation of conservative principles), and a conservative apologetics to defend and advance this worldview. The ideas of conservatism need to be more clearly understood and articulated as a coherent whole, so that we can know where to draw the line between conservatism and liberalism, and so that we can articulate arguments that those not already committed to liberalism will find persuasive. Since liberal thinking is literally all-pervasive, even most of us conservatives have a lot of liberalism in our thinking, and so the first order of business is to understand liberalism deeply, and to know exactly where it goes wrong.
An intellectual discipline of conservative apologetics (which does not currently exist, as far as I can tell) will be the link between the conservative worldview and our goal of a society where conservative ideas have effective control of society. This is primarily a war of ideas, and our enemy is fighting for ideas that are clearly false. If we argue effectively, we can win eventually.
So what exactly is conservatism? This is not the place for details, but conservatism is primarily a view of the proper way to order society. Although conservatism is necessarily concerned with individual behavior (through such issues as abortion and homosexuality), its proper focus is on how American society as a whole ought to be ordered, that is, what our laws, customs and practices ought to be. Conservatives have traditionally held that "ideology," i.e., the attempt to articulate, rationally and comprehensively, the basic principles of human life, is futile. But at this late hour we need to fight back, and the only cure for bad ideas is good ideas, aggressively promoted.
It will have to suffice for this essay to mention one specific element of conservatism: its opposition to the liberal emphasis on the individual and his alleged right to be free from all connections he does not freely choose. "Freedom" in this sense is impossible to achieve, and the attempt to achieve it must end in the anarchy that inevitably leads to dictatorship. To be free in the truest sense, man must be a part of groups larger than himself, groups that have legitimate claims on him, such as his family, religion and nation. Conservatism's emphasis on society rather than the individual helps explain why the conservative movement has been ineffective despite the fact that roughly one third of all Americans (including this author) identify themselves as evangelical Christians, i.e., theological conservatives. Such people ought to be naturally supportive of political conservatism, but in fact most American Christians do not appear to care enough about the direction in which our society is moving to take effective action. Most evangelicals are primarily concerned with evangelism and with the personal relationships of believers with God and with other believers, and they are content to leave political activism to others.
Conservatism's primary need is for organization, both in the intellectual sense of consciously and explicitly formulating the conservative worldview and a conservative apologetics, and in the sense of organizing conservative personnel and their activities. We're in a war, and wars are won by armies, not by disorganized bands of warriors. A large group of warriors, no matter how brave and aggressive the individuals may be, will never win a war unless they are organized into units, trained in proper tactics, and led into battle.
At the very least, we need two things: a few individuals with the necessary leadership abilities, and money.
We should not try to be popular. As an object lesson, compare theologically liberal churches with the "seeker-sensitive" churches that have been springing up throughout evangelicalism. Neither group teaches orthodox Christian doctrine, at least not in their sermons. But whereas the liberals don't teach it because they don't believe it, the "seeker-sensitive" churches don't teach proper Christian doctrine because they don't want to offend the uncommitted. Most seeker-sensitive churches have on their websites statements of faith that are (small-o) orthodox, referring to the inerrancy of the Bible, Jesus' sinless life, atoning death, and resurrection, and so on. But their Sunday sermons, designed for the non-Christian visitor, contain none of the doctrines that trouble unbelievers, such as sin, Hell, and man's inability to save himself. Their desire to be popular has led them to censor Christianity.
We conservatives must not be like this. The necessity of gaining votes by not offending the uncommitted has led the Republican Party to abandon any meaningful support for most issues of authentic conservatism. But if we are to restore proper conservatism we must look to the future. We must be primarily concerned with reestablishing a proper view of society, and working to train the next generation of leaders in proper thought and action. Probably a majority of people will not like what we have to say, but our goal should be to influence those who will make a difference.
a) Lawrence Auster suggests a think tank dedicated to the study of liberalism. ("Institute for the Study of Liberal Society"; scroll to the bottom of the page.) An intellectual discipline must be founded by a group of scholars, and any movement must have some formal organization and apparatus. Such an Institute will stimulate the development of the discipline of conservative apologetics and give it an initial boost of legitimacy, as well as producing intellectual ammunition for conservative activists. Liberalism has several thousand think tanks already; they're called colleges and universities. And although there are several think tanks dedicated to various specific aspects of conservatism, we need one dedicated to conservatism per se.
It must be emphasized that this think tank must not study liberalism according to the currently dominant thinking and practices of mainstream academics. Although it must produce intellectually credible work, a conservative think tank must challenge the status quo, and be prepared to be regarded as personae non grata in academia.
b) Steven Warshawsky suggests a publicity campaign (newspapers, radio, TV, billboards, etc) to educate the public in various elementary principles of conservatism, and including web sites for the public to learn more. This is an excellent way to get John Q. Public to do something he rarely does now: think about liberalism and conservatism in a way that extends beyond clichés. And since liberalism cannot be rationally defended, there are many latent allies of ours waiting to hear the good news. The ultimate goal of conservative action is to make society in general honor conservative ideas, and this is where it can start.
c) Eric Heubeck suggests "study groups" for the development of conservative "scholar/warriors." (Contained in "The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement") This is a part of his more general idea that we must "...advance a true traditionalist counter-culture based on virtue, excellence, and self-discipline" by " ...promot[ing] a set of beliefs more compelling than that of our opponents." Since any serious movement must be led by an elite, training traditionalist conservatives through a sort of "house church" movement is an excellent idea. Appealing to John Q. Public is not enough; we must also train leaders who will take conservative ideas into the important institutions of society. Heubeck's vision does not include "infiltrating" these institutions, which he believes (with good reason) to be hopelessly corrupt; instead he envisions gradually creating a new American society in parallel to the existing corrupt liberal one, with the hope that the liberal society will eventually collapse because the public gradually withdraws its support. Although I acknowledge that this type of approach may be necessary, there is the historical example of liberals gradually taking over the West's conservative institutions, from which I infer that the reverse process is possible.
d) R. J. Loewenberg and David Yerushalmi have announced an initiative to found a string of on-campus organizations dedicated to nurturing conservative student activists in traditionalist thinking and to bringing intellectually profound criticisms of liberalism into the university, which is the temple of liberalism, i.e., its ultimate seat of authority. Or, to switch metaphors, they propose to attack the beast in his lair. While I do not know enough about this specific program to be able to endorse it, the general idea is excellent. The university is where the intellectual leaders of America are trained, and most people are still at least somewhat intellectually malleable during their college years.
e) Looking ahead to a wider campaign for conservatism, we need works of art that portray the conservative worldview as true, good and beautiful. Man thinks at least as much with his emotions as with his intellect, and a properly ordered society will see to it that the people have an emotional as well as an intellectual attachment to the ideas that govern society.
Alan Roebuck is a Reformed (that is Calvinistic) Christian.