In these troubled times of pandemics, racial conflict, and economic instability, disagreements over American conservatism may not sound particularly important. Yet, when “cancel culture” tactics are being applied to the right, the meaning of conservatism is no longer just an academic talking point. This hostile climate has rekindled robust debate on what exactly conservatism means.
One group that has never been shy about speaking for the entire conservative movement is the Claremont Institute, home of the political faction known as the West Coast Straussians. Its stated mission “is to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life,” and to “win public sentiment by teaching and promoting the philosophical reasoning that is the foundation of limited government.”
Prominent members of the Claremont Institute, including Charles Kesler and Michael Anton, supported the anti-mainstream President Donald Trump, whose populism, in their view, offered the best chance for fighting the left. Trump must have appreciated these efforts, given the fact that he awarded the National Humanities Medal to the Claremont Institute in 2019.
Although the Claremont has noteworthy scholars and Anton has made some attempts to bridge the divide between the Claremont Institute and the paleoconservatives, there is a problem at the core of Claremont conservatism that undermines its claim to be the preeminent voice of the intellectual right. This problem lies in the problematic nature of the radical equality taught by Claremont’s philosophical founder, Harry V. Jaffa. This egalitarian core means that Claremont’s vision of conservatism is unlikely to bring about a true counterrevolution.
And yet, Claremont’s scholars passionately argue for their vision of a reinvigorated and restored conservatism. In his recent essay, “Conservatism is no Longer Enough,” Claremont Senior Fellow Glenn Ellmers, a disciple of Jaffa, sounds the alarm about the irreconcilable division between those who love America and those who do not. In his view, “the United States has become two nations occupying the same country.” There is one nation that consists of those who:
do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.
The other nation consists of true Americans, Ellmers writes, namely:
the 75 million people who voted in the last election against the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism.
The true Americans whom Ellmers exalts face two other challenges. First, the Republican Party, or at least its established elite, “does not really care about them.” The MAGA voters consequently have been left in the dark over what it means to be a conservative. He writes:
But among these plumbers, insurance salesmen, gym owners, and factory workers there’s one question you can pretty much guarantee they never discuss with their family and friends: ‘What kind of conservative are you?’ This question has virtually no bearing on the problems that overshadow their lives.
Second, the right in America is too divided to answer this pivotal question coherently. “‘The conservative movement’ still matters,” Ellmers writes, “because if the defenders of America continue to squabble among themselves, the victory of progressive tyranny will be assured.”
Ellmers gives patriotic Americans who want to restore their beleaguered nation some reason for hope. What is truly needed is a “recovery, or even a refounding” of the republic consistent with its original principles. He believes the vehicle for accomplishing this is the Claremont Institute, whose position “transcends the conservative divisions by representing the true, nonpartisan understanding of America.”
Now it is simply untrue to claim that the Claremont Institute posesses a unique understanding of the problems facing the American right. Paleoconservatives like Chronicles Editor-in-Chief Paul Gottfried have been making the same points about the derailment of the right for the past three decades. Moreover, Ellmers’ call for a counterrevolution does not sound terribly original for those Americans who know about the history of the right’s failures.
Ellmers hopes to deal with these failures by rediscovering the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers. “This focus is not quite so odd when we reflect that the Founding Fathers read, and cited, quite a lot of political philosophy when they created a novus ordo seclorum and a ‘more perfect Union,’” he writes.
This Claremontian defense of constitutional government and protection of basic liberties sounds reasonable, and is rooted in the political philosophy of Jaffa, who lived from 1918 to 2015. William F. Buckley, Jr., apparently thought so as well, when he praised Jaffa as “just the teacher America needs right now, to assist our recovery not only from misguided practice but from misleading theories.”
Jaffa, a student of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, is most famous for composing a comprehensive two-volume study of Abraham Lincoln’s political philosophy as well as scores of writings on what Strauss called the philosophy of “natural right” and how it shapes the meaning of authentic American conservatism. Jaffa passionately defended what has come to be known as “West Coast Straussianism,” which teaches that the basis of the American founding is the synthesis of “Athens” and “Jerusalem,” the founding traditions of the West which represent, respectively, Greek political philosophy and biblical revelation.
Out of this ambitious intellectual framework springs Jaffa’s equally ambitious teaching on true American conservative tradition. Ellmers, who recently published a study of his teacher’s ideas, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America, quotes Jaffa on this principle:
The moral education of the whole community in the common natural rights of humanity, as the ground of the social compact, is a necessary condition of free society, of a polity in which majority rule may be combined with minority rights….
In this simple formulation, Jaffa’s argument sounds uncontroversial. What Ellmers omits here, however, is any discussion of Jaffa’s more radical views on natural rights. Jaffa argued in his extensive scholarship on President Abraham Lincoln that the true document of the American founding is the Declaration of Independence, particularly its famous affirmation of human equality as a “self-evident” truth. Although Jaffa is hardly the first scholar to emphasize how Lincoln employed this principle of equality in criticizing slavery, Jaffa also presents equality as the preeminent American conservative principle.
above: Harry V. Jaffa holding his book In the Name of the People in 1958 (Wikimedia Commons)
Jaffa does not have in mind simply equality before the law, a principle that conservatives have generally accepted. What is unique, revolutionary, and troubling about Jaffa’s political message is his determination to turn this principle of equality into a rationale for a political religion that demands the unconditional adherence of all Americans.
The term “political religion” has usually conjured up associations with radical, authoritarian politics. During the Cold War era, Raymond Aron associated “secular religions” like Nazism and communism with a “Manichean view” of the universe, whose flaws call for a “savior” to cleanse it. Russell Kirk warned that fanatics take advantage of mass deprivation by creating these lethal secularized faiths.
Yet Jaffa attributes a kinder, gentler meaning to “political religion,” one based on Lincoln’s onetime usage of the term. A 28-year-old Lincoln referred to this term in his famous speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in 1838. Horrified by the “increasing disregard for law” sweeping the republic, Lincoln equated this faith with “reverence for the laws” of the land. Jaffa contends, however, that there is more to “political religion” than just faithful obedience to the law. As he explains in his 1959 book, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, it is the basis of “Lincoln’s whole conception of political salvation” as well as “the role of statesmanship” in accord “with the purpose and methods of the divine teacher.” What does Jaffa mean by all this?
Jaffa insists that Lincoln later went on to elaborate the full political and theological implications of this “political religion” with dramatic effect. As Jaffa explains in his 1978 book, How to Think About the American Revolution, Lincoln clearly conveyed in his fateful speech at Independence Hall in 1861 the radical nature of the Declaration by noting that its gift of liberty was:
not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.
Jaffa interprets this speech in very radical terms:
In Lincoln’s speech, original sin becomes inequality, and the release of the world from the burden of inequality becomes the secular—and political—equivalent of the release of the world from sin. In Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s understanding of the American Revolution, the mission of the Revolution, in saving the world, was no less universalistic or messianic than that of Christianity.
It was this kind of talk that worried the traditional American right, particularly Jaffa’s comrade-in-arms Willmoore Kendall. What bothered Kendall was not the idea of equality per se. In a letter to Strauss in 1956, Kendall averred that any conservative position that rejected the limited equality that is a “first cousin” to Aristotle’s Ethics “will end up delivering itself into the enemies’ hands.” What did bother Kendall was how far Jaffa’s presentation of equality as the principle of the founding might go.
As Kendall warned in a review of Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa’s readers would be “well-advised to keep a sharp lookout for those limits” lest Jaffa launch the nation into a future “made up of an endless series of Abraham Lincolns…each prepared to insist that those who oppose this or that new application of the equality standard are denying the possibility of self-government.” He adds that “there are better ways of demonstrating the possibility of self-government than imposing one’s own views concerning natural right upon others.”
It is hard not to share Kendall’s misgivings about the unlimited nature of Jaffa’s project. In How to Think about the American Revolution, Jaffa associates this “secularized version of the old religious millenarianism” with “the idea of revolution.” Moreover, the “divine mission” to spread the ideals of the American Revolution is “given, not primarily by the God of the Old or New Testaments, but by the God of nature, who speaks through man’s unassisted reason.”
above: covers of Harry V. Jaffa’s books Crisis of the House Divided (University of Chicago Press) and How to Think About the American Revolution (The Claremont Institute)
How does Jaffa know that this “God of nature” exists? What would a philosophical proof of his existence look like?
From an orthodox biblical perspective, it is far from self-evident that the God of Creation would create another deity, namely the “God of nature” who is also the “supreme judge of the world.” Leaving aside the blasphemous implications of this thesis, the political implications of Jaffa’s political theology are equally troubling. Assuming for the sake of argument that this other god exists, how exactly does he judge “the rectitude of institutions” as well as Americans that fall short of acting “in accordance with the (natural) rights with which the Creator has endowed us?”
Jaffa’s answer to these questions, throughout his writings, is crystal clear: Americans are what Lincoln once called the “almost chosen people,” divinely sanctioned to spread American ideals. In contrast, in my book Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love, I argue that the 16th president always had in mind a Christian, mostly Protestant, audience, both Northern and Southern, who could be swayed by his moving appeals to the ethic of charity as a credo utterly incompatible with slavery.
But none of this rhetoric that Lincoln used entailed an ambitious plan for global promotion of democracy. The fact that Lincoln appealed to the “natural rights” of all human beings at the height of the Civil War does not contradict his assumption that people already schooled in biblical morality, as opposed to “unassisted reason,” are best able to understand moral duty. Not accidentally, Lincoln’s quotations from the Bible were far more common than his appeals to equality.
Jaffa would have none of this. In his view, the Declaration, as Lincoln interpreted it, enjoins “upon all governments the duty to secure the unalienable rights of all people.” In Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa insists that America’s freedom “depends upon the indoctrination of people everywhere in their natural, unalienable rights.” If Americans demonstrate “infidelity” to this mission, Jaffa wrote, then, like the Jews whom Moses led out of Egypt, they are “destined to sufferings, sufferings from which they would gain that purity of heart and tenacity of conviction which neither miracle nor reason, of itself, seems able to implant.”
In that book’s sequel, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (2000), Jaffa declares that “Republican government understands itself to be in accordance with a natural order that is itself in harmony with the divine government of the universe.”
The consequences of Jaffa’s political religion are clear: endless wars for democracy in order to manifest the true spirit of America, sanctioned by the gods of nature and creation.
Moreover, if the American people oppose these attempts to cleanse the world of the sin of inequality, then they are “not worthy of their mission.” The defenders of Jaffa’s “conservatism” would do well to recall Leo Strauss’s warning that “aversion to fanatical obscurantism must not lead us to embrace natural right in a spirit of fanatical obscurantism.” Failure to heed this wisdom will only exacerbate the divisions plaguing America today.
above: Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. (tanarch / Adobe Stock)