British author Douglas Murray recently wrote what he calls a “bit of self-criticism” about the American right in the online magazine UnHerd. Murray builds his argument around what he considers a very serious problem: “Bill Maher, Bari Weiss and a slew of other liberals who have fallen out with their own tribe have chosen not to identify as conservative.”
The issue popped into Murray’s mind while at the National Conservatism Conference last autumn, which he graced with his presence although he said he was “only about two-thirds in agreement with the conference agenda.” Murray humbly declined a request to speak at the conference, settling for a panelist position instead. After listening to a talk there by conservative scholar Patrick Deneen, it became clear to Murray “why disenchanted liberals like Maher would never in a million years join the American Right.”
“Many of the obsessions of the American Right,” he huffs, “are too illiberal to possibly win over anyone but that type of person who jumps political sides, boots and all, because they favour the political certainty of its all-encompassing ideological home.” Among these unhealthy “obsessions” are the right’s affinity for religion, pro-life views, opposition to no-fault divorce, and more. In other words, Murray’s problem is with the substantive things that differentiate the right from the left.
With typical British condescension, Murray added that Americans are ultimately free to do as they please. “But they can hardly be surprised if others outside of their flock refuse to join them as a consequence.”
There are many problems with his little diatribe. First, Murray is a foreigner, and one who is ignorant of his subject. The “genius of keeping religion in the background during the founding of America was that it allowed it to flourish in the foreground later on,” Murray claims. In reality, the Continental Congress of 1778 recommended that states encourage “true religion and good morals” because these are “the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness.”
While no national church was established on these shores, almost every American founder believed that government has a duty to promote religion and legislation informed by Christian mores. Numerous state governments supported teaching Protestant Christianity in schools via public prayer, Bible reading, and religiously themed curricula up through the 1960s. Murray’s problem, then, is not with the right but with American tradition.
Second, Murray is a neoconservative. These are the original “disenchanted liberals” whose movement formed in the 1960s and 1970s to commandeer American conservatism and whose spawn became the architects of disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Murray deprecates social conservatism just as his ideological predecessors did. Recall that the neoconservative author Ben Wattenberg in a Heritage Foundation lecture once mocked the anti-Equal Rights Amendment movement because “the central notion that Phyllis Schlafly has been pursuing in recent years is: ‘unless we stop ERA there will be men in women’s rest rooms.’” For Wattenberg, the Soviet Union posed a greater threat than domestic left-wing ideologies such as feminism. But Schlafly correctly perceived these ideologies as an existential challenge: a nation without healthy social institutions, like the traditional family, cannot defend itself against anything.
Unfortunately, men wound up in women’s restrooms anyway. But Wattenberg’s trivialization of the anti-ERA movement illustrates both the shallowness of neoconservative thought, and its hostility toward genuine expressions of conservatism.
Murray also emulates his ideological forebears by demanding that the right arrange its politics around the tastes of disenchanted liberals fleeing the very “cancel culture” and “cult of woke” they helped create. Indeed, Weiss continues to slander opponents as anti-Semites and “toadies” of autocrats, a term she used in an interview to describe Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii before realizing that she was unsure of the word’s meaning. Maher has characterized the right’s immigration views as bigoted and mocked the faithful, even declaring “religion must die for mankind to live.”
Due to the novelty of his being a “conservative” homosexual atheist, Murray enjoys no shortage of invitations to conservative conferences and media. That toleration is not enough, however. It seems the right must not only mute or abandon religiosity, but it must also celebrate what he does in the bedroom, lest they fail to appeal to would-be liberal converts who otherwise “instinctively revile conservatism.” It’s not enough that the GOP and conservative pundits promoted the transgender candidate Caitlyn “Bruce” Jenner for governor of California. Nor is Murray satisfied by the Republican National Committee’s new “Pride Coalition.” Openly affirming Murray’s sexual orientation appears to be the only thing that will assuage his insecurities. This is no different than a transgender person petulantly demanding their pronouns be respected.
People like Murray sell themselves as more sensible than those to their left but also superior to those to their right, where their true enemies lurk. He sees the real threat as not the “woke,” but the reaction the woke may provoke from the right. So he punches to the right with the imprimatur of “respectable conservatism,” believing that we need him more than he needs us. Except we don’t.
Shortly after Murray published his tirade, journalist Christopher Caldwell noted in The New York Times that a “political earthquake” of “populist discontent” may be on the horizon, portended by a growing number of Americans shifting rightward. This must be horrifying to Murray, who concluded his most well-known book, The Strange Death of Europe, with this whimper. “Prisoners of the past and of the present, for Europeans there seem finally to be no decent answers to the future,” he wrote. “Which is how the fatal blow will finally land.” In America, we have not resigned ourselves to a submissive outlook as Murray has, nor are we interested in learning how to do so from him.
(Pedro Gonzalez / stock art from Canva)