This added section, which goes between the discussion of Machiavelli and the discussion of reason and tradition, is intended to sketch out a few operating rules for how conservatives should approach a question.

2B  Coherence and Casuistry

Most conservative movements and initiatives fail and fail badly…


Failure is often the result of betrayal, either by the self-declared leaders or by the rank-and-file who are generally so confused and illogical that they follow corrupt leaders over the cliff.  Eager for the conservative equivalent of “40 acres and a mule,” conservatives pursue phantoms like a right-to-live amendment or a constitutional limitation on terms of office, without stopping to wonder if such legal and political reforms are possible or even desirable.

In their confusion, conservatives often pursue contradictory dreams.  The same conservatives who say they long to restore the old republic turn into statist authoritarians when they think they have a chance to turn their dreams into reality.  Howie Philipps, founder of what became the Constitution Party, was once asked how, if he were elected president, he would make abortion illegal if Congress rejected his legislation.  He answered that he would impose a ban on abortion by executive fiat, a statement reminiscent of the ultra-left Shirley Chisolm who had earlier made an equally Quixotic bid for the White House.

It was almost amusing to listen to conservatives defending George W. Bush’s ruinous military adventures.  These people had spent their lives prating about balanced budgets and fiscal restraints, but, with “one of ours” in the White House, they threw all caution to the winds.  Amazingly, they blame Obama entirely for Bush’s gross malfeasance, without pausing a moment to look at the voting record of their heroes, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

If you accept a principle as fundamental, you also must accept the policies it entails.  “He who says A,” observed Lenin, “must say B.”  If, to take a very minor example, you regard the Department of Education as unconstitutional and pernicious, you cannot rejoice when a neoconservative bully is put in charge or when an uneducated Republican President wants to impose some new program such as No Child Left Behind.  Instead, most conservatives, when their candidate gets elected, turn out to be merely Republicans.

For decades, conservatives had argued that the Congress was constitutionally empowered to take a major part in foreign policy decisions.  This was a point relentlessly hammered by James Burnham, the most important conservative at NR.  With the election of Ronald Reagan we learned that Congress had no authority in questions of war and peace.  In the 1980’s Sam Francis and I were constantly running into old-guard conservative leaders who claimed not even to remember when they advocated any level of congressional responsibility in foreign policy.  It was about then that we began to hear the President referred to constantly as the “commander-in-chief,” as if he were a military dictator authorized to rule us all under martial law.

There are more basic principles that are far more significant than Congressional powers, but here too conservatives are typically confused and illogical.  They say marriage is an institution ordained by God, but then they push for governmental regulation of marriage; they say they believe that governments, like households, must balance their budgets, then in a panic vote for unlimited spending on the US war machine; they say they believe in states rights, but turn on a dime to support federal projects that deprive the states of the power to govern themselves.  He who says A must say B, and if he does not, he must be prepared to be defeated, constantly, by political enemies who can see beyond the end of their noses.  Let us call this the principle of coherence.

Principles must be distinguished from simplifying ideologies that reduce all the complex interactions of human life to a few clichés like “power to the people” or “free markets and free minds.” Ideologues, whether Marxist or libertarian,  think that all the problems of our society will be solved if only the principles of Karl Marx or Ludwig von Mises are enacted into law.  In fact, there is a vast and complex array of principles and assumptions that are mostly true most of the time, but reconciling conflict among these principles requires three other operating rules:  hierarchy, relevance, and casuistry.

For the sake of this discussion, it is not important whether we agree with any of the principles I am going to bring up.  Let us suppose, as most conservatives do, that freedom of religion is a basic principle guaranteed by the Constitution.  (It goes without saying that as a principle this is nonsense, though as a matter of prudence it is often useful.)  What about religions that practice cannibalism, human sacrifice, or the burning alive of a dead man’s wives?  Well, those things are obviously illegal and disgusting.  Take the offensiveness down a notch:  What about polygamous religions (Islam and traditional Judaism) or religions that require public sacrifice of animals, female circumcision, the use of psychotropic drugs, ritual prostitution, acts of terrorism.  At the lowest level, what about a religion that permits cows to wander the streets without being molested?

If there are aspects to most of “the world’s great religions” that so offend our sensibilities that we wish to ban them, religious freedom cannot be an absolute or ultimate principle. Then, you will ask, is religious freedom a bad thing?  Not necessarily, but even if it is a good thing, it is a lesser good than other principles, such as “Thou shalt do no murder.”  There is, thus, a hierarchy of principle.

Let me take a frivolous example.  I have a good Catholic friend whose car sports a bumper sticker, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”  But this same lady would probably drink pretty poor wine, if the only alternative were jumping on the water wagon.  My friend is rather elderly and lives on a limited budget.  She is as generous as she can be to her Church and her family.  If she really pushed the No Bad Wine principle to the limit, she would spend too much money at the wine store or, as I do, at  Obviously the importance of wine comes second to Church and family, but is it so far down on the list that she is sinful if she wastes money on a drinkable  bottle of Bogle cabernet?

The obvious answer is no, because we do not all devote all our resources to family and the Church.  We have to eat and dress ourselves, and part of being human is to like wine, music, and poetry.  The Church is superior to all these lesser goods, but it cannot monopolize all our energies and money.  In deciding this question, we have to consider relevance.  We used to have an ex-Moonie working for us in fund-raising and public relations.  When I asked him why, in describing our programs in a brochure, he put the most recent program, the Center on Religion and Society, first, he answered that religion trumps both the family and culture.  Ultimately, it does, but one can get carried away.  The Center, run by Richard John Neuhaus, was on the periphery of our interests and often at odds with the older, more significant programs.  The oldest program and the one that absorbed the largest share of the budget was and is Chronicles.

Religion may be the most important part of our lives, but it cannot teach us science or feed our family.  A farmer or shopkeeper who spends his time like a monk will surely fail, and a think tank that does not properly base its priorities on its stated purposes and the bottom line of budget, will end up very confused.

There is a tendency for many conservative Christians, when confronted with a problem, to ask, “What would Jesus do.”  Now, the Imitatio Christi is an important part of a religious life, but it is not always relevant.  For example, if by pious friend ran out of wine at a party and asked the “what would Jesus do” question, the answer would be “turn the water into wine.”  She would face similar problems if she applied the same question to a food shortage or the need to leave a ship.  We cannot all walk on water, and we cannot always go directly to God for solutions to life’s petty problems.

Jesus knew all this, of course, and it is easy to see in the Gospels that He was perfectly willing to rely on ordinary means when they were appropriate, such as picking grain on the Sabbath, kicking the bankers out of the temple, and advising his disciples to self a second garment and use the money to buy a sword for self-defense.  Sects and heresies have been founded on a refusal to read the Bible in toto, rather than picking out selected passages on which to base a new religion.

We can turn to more serious questions.  Obviously, Christians regard fornication and therefore prostitution as a bad thing, but is a Christian commonwealth therefore required to ban prostitution?  In the Christian Age (from Constantine to the Renaissance), for the most part, rulers were content to restrict or regulate commercial sex.

The most obvious counter-argument to moralistic rigor  is that of prudence:  Puritanical legislation encourages both contempt for law and the abuse of power by an ever-expanding government.  But there is another principle, one that I regard as deeper, and that was summed up by St. Thomas in his principle that the commonwealth does not exist to force people to be virtuous but to foster conditions that are propitious to the cultivation of virtue.  A giant state determined to crack down on erotic passion is probably the very opposite of a virtue-encouraging commonwealth.

In the Christian Age (otherwise known as the Middle Ages) a routine distinction was made between the authority of the Church and the authority of secular rulers.  It was deemed inappropriate for a king or emperor to have much to do with regulating morals, marriage, and family.  That was the job of the Church.  On the other hand, war and statecraft were the province of the ruler.  So, just as the bishop and his priests presided over marriage, they routinely acknowledged the secular ruler’s right to defend the kingdom and punish criminals.  Even heretics, once condemned by the Inquisition, were turned over to the secular power for punishment.

At the extremes, the division was clear, but there was a very fuzzy area at the center:  When bishops received secular wealth and authority from the emperor, surely he should play some part in their selection and elevation?  On the other side, the Pope was head of the Catholic Church but he was also the ruler of what became known as The Republic of St. Peter.  Long before Popes routinely donned armor and personally led armies into battle, they were the commanders-in-chief of armies, which they sent into battle.

Conflicts between the two swords, of Church and Empire, were frequent, but at lower levels we continue to face conflicts of principle.  Some may be easily settled by the principles of hierarchy and relevance, but some are far more complicated.  Suppose a young husband with a pregnant wife has enlisted in the army.  He now owes obedience to the King or country, but what if his home is threatened.  Is he justified in deserting in order to protect his wife and child?  At first glance, most of us would probably agree that the circumstances justify desertion.  But what if he is not only a soldier but a commander and that the fate of the kingdom rests on his shoulders.  Suppose the Turks are at the gates of Constantinople or Vienna.  What, then?  Remember, he has embraced the career and code of ethics of the professional soldier, sworn loyalty to his king.  It is not so easy, and I should never presume to make the disastrous error preached by Immanuel Kant, that there is always a higher duty that one is bound to follow.

In the older tradition, going back to St. Thomas, Cicero, and at least to Aristotle, these complications were more seriously evaluated, and it was understood that they had to be evaluated, case by case, taking account, first, of the general moral principles involved, and second, of the peculiar circumstances.  Because these dilemmas are special cases, the moral reasoning is known as casuistry.  While casuistry can be misused, it is an important and necessary corrective to the “terrible simplifiers” who would have us believe that a few ideals, such as liberty, equality, and fraternity, are sufficient to guide us in making moral, social, and political decisions.

We seem to have gone far afield from the subject at hand, but actually not.  While my friend Sam Francis would have sneered at the word casuistry, he was nothing if not a political casuist, weighing the consequences of legislation and policies in an effort to find pragmatic, least-bad alternatives.