The Conservative Search for Order

Thomas J. FlemingThe terms liberal and conservative (nearly always paired in that descending order) are now so confused as to be almost entirely useless.  Originally, liberal was used to denote the ideology that aimed at the liberation of human individuals from the restraints of Church establishments, aristocratic and monarchical privileges, and legal restrictions on business and international trade.  Radical leftists, Marx and his followers in particular, took the additional step of advocating revolutionary means to achieve their utopian ends: a communist society, created and enforced by terror, in which individuals would enjoy a fullness of life that transcended the individual himself.  Some of Marx’s followers eventually rejected the revolutionary path and advocated a gradualist and ameliorist approach that allowed them to participate in the political process.  They became known as socialists or social democrats.

Conservatives in the 19th century, to one degree or another, were opposed to some or most of the liberal aspirations and completely rejected red revolution.  Unlike the liberals, however, conservatives were never able to agree on a broad set of fundamental principles.  By the end of World War II, liberal was coming to mean, albeit only in the United States, what socialist and social democrat had meant, and conservative was now used to designate either those who blindly accepted the social order as it was or those who believed in the liberal ideology of the 19th century.

Liberalism is, however, an essentially corrosive ideology that undermined the social order.  Once its original task was finished (before World War I), people with liberal instincts quite naturally moved on to the next phase of the revolution.  In the 1950’s, unreflective conservatives just as naturally devoted themselves to defending the only social order they knew, the bourgeois liberal order established in the late 19th century, just as conservatives of the 1980’s and 90’s defended the society created by the socialist New Deal.

Speaking in the broadest terms, a major difference between liberals and conservatives of every type is that the former are working to destroy the inherited order and the latter would like to preserve or even restore some form of traditional society.  It is in this sense that die-hard Leninists in the 1990’s, unwilling to surrender the world of their childhood, were called conservative.  American conservatives complain about the unfairness, but it is not more unfair than their own misapplication of the term to their version of liberalism.

Every conservative, then, is an advocate of some social, cultural, religious, or moral order, either the one that currently exists or one whose memory has been preserved in tradition.  Conservative defenders of the social order come in two varieties.  The first have a principled notion of what a good society must be like, whether that notion is embodied in the bourgeois order of Middle America in the 1950’s; in the ancien régime that existed before the revolutions of 1787, 1917, and 1932; or in medieval Christendom.  The second are unprincipled (in a political sense) and interested only in preserving their own personal interests or those of their class.  While principled conservatives will always have to collaborate with their unprincipled brethren, who are far more numerous, they must always be on their guard because interests change, and conservative Republicans who once defended high tariffs and restricted immigration had little difficulty in changing sides once it was in their interest to do so, and, if they do not betray the cause, their children will.

These tectonic shifts on the right seem to take place about every half-generation as the old guard retires and is replaced by leaders (both intellectual and political) in their 30’s.  One important shift taking place in the opening years of this millennium is on social and moral questions.  Most conservatives, even in the Reagan years, paid at least lip service to what were then called “family values”—the premarital chastity of women, marital fidelity, the traditional family, the obligations of parents to children (including unborn children), the importance of religion (especially Christianity) in forming the moral character of children.  In terms of causes (which conservatives generally define in negative terms), they were opposed to fornication, adultery, no-fault divorce, homosexual rights, abortion, and the Supreme Court’s illegal banning of school prayer.

The junior conservatives for the new millennium were, in their early years, mostly quiet on these issues, but, one by one, they are coming out of their closets and advocating (sometimes cautiously) all of the above.  As early as the late 1980’s, the “third generation” was boasting of what swingers and “party animals” they were, and, more recently, the young ones have become confident enough to adopt the Clintons’ view of abortions—women killing their own babies is a regrettable situation, perhaps, but cannot be helped.

The current litmus test for leftists is support for homosexual marriage, and the conservatives at National Review and The Weekly Standard have passed with flying colors.

David Brooks, in many ways the most sensible of the neoconservatives, cannot escape their Marxist trap.  In the New York Times in November, he argued that, since marriage is good for many people (heterosexuals), it must be good for everyone, including homosexuals.  This is like saying that, because two or three glasses of wine a day is good for many people, it is good for everyone, including infants and alcoholics.  He uses words like “sacred” and “covenant” without having the slightest idea of what they mean, and he gives the impression that the marriage crisis can be solved if homosexuals can marry, which is equivalent to the neoconservative argument that there is no problem with the low American birthrate that looser immigration rules cannot solve.

Accepting the Marxist premise that man is not bound by his biological nature but makes himself, he insists that we are not animals whose lives are bounded by our flesh and by our gender.  We’re moral creatures with souls, endowed with the ability to make covenants, such as Ruth made to Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Brooks apparently wants to suggest that Ruth and Naomi were not merely daughter-in-law and mother-in-law but a scriptural model for an ideal marriage.  More frightening is the Marxist vision of human nature that has escaped the limitations of nature and history.

Brooks’ arguments are echoing across the empty canyons of the neoconservative brains at National Review, where David Frum has embraced homosexual unions with predictable alacrity.  These people represent a kind of conservative, but the kind that still makes pilgrimages to the Kremlin to adore the embalmed stiff who destroyed Russia.

Principled Christian conservatives, as naive and unreflective as the unprincipled, are bewildered by this tergiversation at National Review, a publication founded by a putative Catholic.  This is not surprising, however.  NR’s ideology—Frank Meyer’s so-called fusionism—was based on a fundamental denial of principle, a shotgun wedding between liberal individualists and Christian traditionalists.  The liberal groom had his fingers crossed during the ceremony and started cheating on his conservative spouse on their wedding night.  By 1980, the conservative social and cultural agenda served only as window-dressing for a shop whose real wares were the unlimited privileges of multinational businesses.  Conservatives who go back to that time should be forgiven for being instinctively loyal to the ideology they accepted in their youth, but there is no excuse for anyone under 60 who persists in thinking that this marriage between big money and old traditions can be saved.

The problem, from the beginning of the postwar conservative movement, was the incompatibility of conservative instincts not merely with liberal individualism but with liberalism’s failure to understand the nature of man (to say nothing of the nature of woman).  Liberals (including the radical liberals known as libertarians) can be quite good on specific political and economic policies, but they always founder on the rock of human nature.  Man is not, by nature, an isolated individual.  The human race depends on the dimorphism (that is, the differences in physical, intellectual, and emotional aptitudes) of the sexes that unite in marriage to produce the next generation of the human race.  In some species, the size and appearance of the two sexes vary greatly; for humans, the difference is only about ten percent, but that ten percent explains why women cannot play in the NFL, serve effectively in combat, compose great music, or, by and large, become great mathematicians or statesmen.  For the same reasons, men are not good at rearing children or caring for the sick.

Nature has assigned different tasks to males and females.  From a natural perspective, the greatest task is the bearing and rearing of children, in which men play a subordinate role.  The essential (albeit not the only) role of marriage is to provide a stable setting in which children can be born, nurtured, and educated.  Any stable society will discourage divorce and make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to work outside the home.
The feminists are quite correct in saying that women have always worked.  Quite apart from carrying their duties as wives and mothers, women have tended the garden, made useful objects to sell, and run family businesses.  It was only in modern times, however, that women were encouraged to sell their labor in the marketplace and to abandon their children to the care of strangers who watch them not out of love but for a living.  From the natural point of view, daycare is child neglect, and abortion is not only murder but the frustration of the natural end of human sexuality.  Same-sex “marriage” is a contradiction in terms, and homosexuals who adopt children (apart from cases of absolute necessity) are moral predators, no matter how honorable their intentions are.

Christians learn this lesson both from their traditions and from the scriptural reminder that “male and female created He them,” but secular conservatives have always known that (in the words of David Hume) “man born of woman is compelled to maintain society.”  Both Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet understood the limitation imposed on human ingenuity by our naturally defined sex roles, which rule out support for women in combat, no-fault divorce, or any of the other items on the leftist social agenda.  Kirk was a convert to Catholicism; Nisbet, a skeptic who had tried (and failed) to become a Christian.  Both, however, understood that, quite apart from the truth of Revelation, Christianity played a vital role, not merely as an agent of social stability but as the principal means by which men and women reach out to find a meaning beyond the necessities of ordinary life.
In Darwinian terms, religion has, as E.O. Wilson once put it, adaptive significance.  Man is, as we learned in logic, a rational animal; and he is, as Aristotle taught us, a political animal; but he is also a religious animal who, if deprived of his religion, lapses quickly into the despair of self-gratification.  All legitimate conservatives, therefore, support the social establishment of religion, whether they believe in it or not, just as George Washington, when President, refused to condemn a bill in the Virginia legislature authorizing payment of Christian clergymen’s salaries.  The Father of Our Country was far from being a Trinitarian Christian, but he knew the value of religion in undergirding a free and stable society.

Even Marxism was a religion of sorts, an unsatisfactory theory that offered an explanation of history and a social life organized around the cell.  But, in comparison with Greek paganism, which offered a cycle of festivals and rituals, Marxism was a complete failure.  It inspired no good music and little serious literature; it sucked the joy out of life and reduced human beings to automata and human society to a brutish nightmare; and yet it would be far better to be a real Marxist-Leninist than one of those sad children of disenchanted communist parents.  These red-diaper babies, who have pasted on unconvincing blue-and-white stickers in the hope of passing for Americans, want nothing better in life than to marry a blonde and to land a soft job in Washington.

Neoconservative is a highly misleading term.  The useful and relevant analogy is neo-Nazi.  What is a neo-Nazi if not a Nazi who disguises his real motives and identity with a different style of political rhetoric?  In purely objective terms, the proper term for neoconservatives is neoleftist—that is, someone who advocates a leftist agenda within a superficially conservative framework.  Today, they are in a power struggle with their brothers and cousins on the left, but both sides know who the real enemy is, and, my friends, it is us.  Even if we never raised a voice in protest against their lies and treason to the American nation, they would still be going after the last remnants of Christian America.  As I heard one Southern Baptist tell an audience, the light can stand the darkness, because the light knows it will win, but darkness cannot endure a single particle of light, which, if let in, will obliterate the dark.

This article originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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