Conservatism, Good Order, and Protecting the Weak

In a long piece over at The American Conservative on the limits of consent as a guiding ethic for our sexual culture, Grace Olmstead has some very interesting things to say about culture, gender roles, and virtue — something a lot of conservatives have talked about in the last few decades:

The seeds of sexual assault are going to start young, Smith is right about that. But talking about consent to a kindergartener is not going to solve the problem—because a young man like Brock Turner doesn’t care whether or not a woman gives him consent. He’s already decided that his desires trump the needs or desires of anyone else around him. We need to reach beyond sexual politics, and seek to guide the hearts of our children: teaching them what is right, and stirring in them a desire to do what is good.

When I was a young girl, I remember reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Say what you will about the romantic, embellished prose or stereotypical characters—it taught me what it looks like to be a lady, and what it looks like to be a gentleman.

Take, first, the character Rebecca: noble, valiant, stubborn, virtuous. She has self-respect and nobility. When others treat her badly, it doesn’t upend her security or confidence. When she’s threatened by a man who wants to her to become his mistress, she firmly, resolutely tells him “no.” It doesn’t matter what the world thinks or what the consequences might be: she knows what is right. And she has the dignity and courage to pursue that unflinchingly.

Then there’s Ivanhoe: a valiant knight, caring son, loyal lover. He also does what is right, no matter the consequences. Near the end of the book, Ivanhoe seeks to rescue Rebecca from her tormenter and be her champion—even though he’s in love with someone else. This is what a gentleman is: someone who seeks the wellbeing and safety of vulnerable people around him, regardless of whether it’s in his own interests.

Words like “lady” and “gentleman” seem antiquated in today’s society; and it’s true, they’re derived from a time in which gender roles were less fluid and sexual mores were more strict. But I’d argue that ladylike and/or gentlemanly behavior needn’t be consigned to the history books, because these words capture what it means to have a virtuous balance of self-respect and deference, dignity and charity. Being a lady has nothing to do with acting “feminine” or wearing frilly clothing. Being a gentleman has nothing to do with lording one’s might or “manliness” over others—quite the opposite. These words describe a person who prizes their own self-worth and dignity, while also caring deeply for the wellbeing of those around them.

I’m deeply sympathetic to what Olmstead writes here. I do think virtue, especially a virtue which puts the well-being of the weak and the vulnerable above self-interest, is a noble aspiration, well worth having and cultivating. I’ve often thought some more old-fashioned notions that might govern bigotry, harassment, hate speech, and microagressions — that such expressions are simply rude and thus beyond the pale in civilized and polite company — would help considerably foster character and create spaces we can all live, work, and love in.

I want to live in this polite, respectful, and highly idealized world of gentlemen and ladies.

And I will even go so far as to note that I think a lot of conservative intellectuals believe that good social order — conservative, christian, traditional order — will do exactly that; it will foster the character of people who will put the well-being of the weak and vulnerable above their own.

As First Things editor R. R. Reno says in an interview about his most recent book, Resurrecting The Idea of a Christian Society,

Our paganism is soft and small, not hard and grandiose. We worship the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. But it’s a cruel paganism and in the book I detail the ways in which it’s especially hard on the poor and vulnerable. I want readers to see that a concern about traditional morality isn’t “moralistic.” It reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable—a crucial biblical imperative.

I believe he really believes this (because he’s right, especially the nature of American paganism), that traditional morality reflects a desire to defend the weak and vulnerable. It is a biblical imperative.

But here’s the rub — most conservative Christians are probably less conservative than they are authoritarian. Their faith in good social order, and that order itself, isn’t a means to an end — it is an end in and of itself.

Growing up in and around the military, on army bases across the country and then in a very far flung and conservative suburb of Los Angeles, social order was imposed and enforced rather brutally. Conformity was demanded, and non-conformity was rather brutally punished. Men and women who failed to adhere to the norms were beaten, bullied, marginalized, excluded. We weren’t safe. Now, some may say that in conformity is our well-being, but this way of arranging the world — of demanding sameness, compliance, conformity before considering anyone’s well-being — doesn’t put the needs of the weak and vulnerable first. Instead, it attempts to eradicate weakness and vulnerability, and failing to do that, it attemtps to make the weak and the vulnerable “disappear” altogether.

Social and cultural conservatives have only themselves to blame for the collapse of their ideals. Never in the 1980s and 1990s did I hear any social or cultural conservatives even hint they cared about the well-being of the weak and vulnerable beyond their shrill exhortations on behalf of the unborn — exhortations that always struck me as deeply hypocritical since most social and cultural conservatives didn’t much care about the predations of the market, accepted bullying in school, were always quick to support war, and seemed to believe in a harsh social darwinism when it came to the poor, people of color, or people who are queer.

Or simply people who could not or would not conform.

The weak and the vulnerable in America’s conservative authoritarian communities were at the mercy of society’s good order. An order built on bullying, violence, exclusion, and death. The experience of being on the receiving end of that order is, I think, something that holds a lot of the Democratic coalition together — we (because I am a blue state person culturally if not politically) have been the weak and the vulnerable and have found no protection. Indeed, that good order has brutalized, exploited, and marginalized us, and then it has demanded we accept our reduced and excluded status and the violence done to us as social goods and morally right.

As the way things should be.

The social order emerging from the left will, sadly, become just as brutal and authoritarian as the order it is replacing, especially when it comes to the sexual revolution and matters of imposing and enforcing ideas of gender and racial identity. That order will find its own to brutalize and marginalize. Because that’s what social order does.

But conservatives — especially conservative Christians — hold no moral high ground here. Reno is a day late and a fistful of dollars short. Because many of us experienced a conservative order that pretty well brutalized us. Conservatives wouldn’t be in this position if they hadn’t held so tight to a social order built on racism and segregation, absolute conformity to a certain kind of white, bourgeois ideal, formal and informal violence meted out harshly, and held love of neighbor to be some kind of secondary or even tertiary command from God — a nice idea to be thought of every now and again, but something that ignored the harsh reality of a world in which some people just needed a beating (or two, or three) in order to straighten up and fly right (or held down, or pushed out of the way).

In this, the Trump campaign is probably a far clearer and much more coherent expression of American “conservatism,” the kind of social order conservative Americans believe in and the way conservatives have envisioned and enforced order, than anything said or written by an editor at First Things.

Reverting to Type

I picked up a copy of Meg Jacobs’ Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s at the library (a book! A real book! In my hands! Words and ideas in my head!) and am finding it to be an interesting history.

Jacobs begins her telling of America’s energy story in the Permian Basis of West Texas immediately following the end of WWII by looking at the wildcatting career of George H. W. Bush. Along the way, she talks briefly about oil production in the US and elsewhere (all ground covered by Daniel Yergin in The Prize), as well as the regulatory environment in the United States for oil and natural gas.

Among the interesting things she notes, in passing, was the mess the Republican Party found itself in following the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the role George H. W. Bush played in attempting to reorganize at least a portion of the GOP in the 1960s:

Bush instantly became part of a group of Republicans whose principal concern was shifting economic policy to the right. He developed a close friendship with Wisconsin representative William Steiger, another freshman, who, along with his intern Richard Cheney, called for budget austerity and fiscal conservatism amid the growing deficits resulting from Vietnam. They joined Donald Rumsfeld, a young congressman from Illinois first elected in 1962, who had helped stage a coup, after the 1964 electoral disaster, to depose the House minority leader, Charles Halleck, and replace him with Michigan’s congressman Gerald Ford in 1965. For them, race relations, social policy, and red-baiting were not the main concerns. Economic deregulation was at the heart of their conservatism. Limiting the imprint of the federal government on economic relations was the key, Bush and his allies thought, to a robust American economy. While Bush fought hard to defend subsidies for the oil patch, he opposed Washington’s efforts to dictate managerial decisions about production. The Texan wanted to deregulate the economy in order to free oil and other types of markets. (21–22)

What’s interesting is that Jacobs suggests this path Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ford tried to forge was a midway between the popular conservatism of “the John Birch Society or the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade the propelled Ronald Reagan to the California governorship” and the Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller who “had accommodated himself to the work of big govenrment.” This deregulatory conservatism was the work of insiders, people who were comfortable in the corridors of power and knew how to make government work.

Nixon was the perfect embodiment of that “middle way” because he

… understood that for a Republican to survive in the 1960s, he had to work within the world of the New Deal and the Great Society, not around it. In 1968, even as he burnished his reputation as an anti-New Deal Republican, which he was, he knew better than most that he would be under pressure to continue with and even expand the regulatory apparatus of Washington. (24)

Granted, Jacobs is making Bush central to her story, noting that in 1968, “there was even some speculation that Nixon would pick Bush as a vice presidential running mate.” But I believe there is some truth to what she is doing — that this “less government better run” conservatism became the main force behind elite conservatism beginning in the late 1960s. It would live uneasily with much more populist conservatism, needing such energy as opposition to civil rights and militant, conspiratorial anti-communism (and later Christian conservatives, who arose at a nexus between the two) to mobilize constituencies for elections, but it would attempt as much as possible to keep such people as far away from government as they could.

Where I think the GOP is, and has been, floundering is that this elite economic conservatism was a spent force after 1992, when the alliance of the Bushes and the Bakers lost the presidency and control of the GOP started to slip out of their hands. In the mid–1990s, the populists began to slowly retake the party. Whatever George W. Bush may have owed James Baker for his election, he did not repay the long-time family ally by listening to him. The GOP governing consensus built around the Bush-Baker relationship and fostered in the Nixon-Ford administrations, was gone by the time W inherited the White House.

It may be that the GOP, in surrendering to the kind of populist energy focused on social policy, race relations, and what passes for red-baiting (Clinton-, foreigner-, and Muslim-hating) in the post-Soviet world (on the very far right, there are people convinced communism never went away, and is merely biding its time in Washington and Brussels as it waits to take over the world) as it has floundered about the last 20 years, the Republican Party is reverting to some kind of type. Paranoia and conspiracy theory was always close at hand, lurking in the shadows of the conservatism I remember growing up in the suburbs of Southern California. Absent a Great War hero with unbeatable administrative experience, or even a Nixon brilliant (and venal) enough to ride them all to victory, there is nothing to knit together the various inchoate strands that all call themselves conservatism.

And it may also be the GOP is struggling to figure out who it is in a world where it has won a great deal but has still not won enough to think it is victorious. This is what happens, I think, when political programs become theological or even eschatological in nature — and much of the paranoid right has lived in a world in which victory was absolutely necessary or else absolute evil would win. And with the victory of evil, our freedoms, lives, and even mortal souls were at risk. It’s easy to dismiss the paranoid right as the rantings of a tiny handful — whether with mimeograph machines or blog sites — but much of the story the populist right tells itself about who it is and what’s at stake is grounded in the kind of conspiratorial paranoia anti-communists (and later birthers) have spun and woven since the 1950s.

It may be that the GOP of Donald J. Trump is reverting to type — a party that rages at a world it doesn’t fully understand but desperately wants to subdue and control. That energy got some brilliant politicians elected, but it’s hard to see how Trump could be one of them. He isn’t a Reagan. Or a Nixon. Or even a Bush.

My Kind of Conservative

Daniel McCarthy over at The American Conservative has a review of Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and describes the author and former army officer this way:

Along with these qualifications comes a moral vision. Bacevich is a conservative and a Catholic, though not a “Catholic conservative” in the sense in which that term is usually meant. In drawing upon progressives like Beard and Williams for his critique of a republic that was corroding into empire, Bacevich made the connection between consumerism as a way of life and the foreign policy of liberal hegemony. His is an old American voice, warning not only against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy but also against the loss of civic virtue. He has given his readers cause to reconsider the ethics of accumulation and expansion, as well as to rediscover the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is worth stressing because of the nature of the war we are in—not this war or that war, in Afghanistan or Syria, but the ongoing war to tame the world for American ideals and markets. The spirit that drives Washington’s post-Cold War foreign policy—and drove much of our earlier foreign policy, too—arises from a view of history and a set of concepts that are compelling, flattering to ourselves, and wrong. To challenge this national orthodoxy, embedded as it is in our elite institutions and popular culture, takes courage and talent of an unusual kind. The task demands a historian with a feel for ethics and history as an organic whole, one who can tell the real story not just accurately but convincingly. That’s what Andrew Bacevich does.

Even his friends may not agree with him on every point. He favors a return to conscription to restore the citizen-soldier ideal—and to raise the cost of war high enough that more citizens will take it seriously. Whether that would be enough to dissuade their leaders from launching more wars like the one in Iraq is open to question. Other admirers of Bacevich are more sanguine than he is about global trade and consumer prosperity enduring—indeed flourishing—absent an imperial foreign policy. But even these optimists stand to learn something from the ethical restraint of Bacevich’s prescription. The lesson he imparts is one of self-discipline, not socialism.

This is the kind of conservative I could be, one that critiques both the market and state in favor of society and community. This is akin to the conservatism I grew up, and it often feels right to me even as it embraces a rhetoric that is frequently contradictory — anti-government and anti-state even as many of those who espouse such views are utterly dependent upon the state for careers and livelihoods. I am drawn to self-discipline, self-sacrifice, restraint, and solidarity — in a European context, I’m probably an old fashioned Christian Democrat. As both a Muslim and a Christian, I was and am drawn to social orders built upon cascading layers of mutual obligation, and that language speaks to me in ways the language of rights does not and never will. A confident assertion that I am responsible for my neighbor, and he is responsible for me. That is a politics build upon solidarity.

Sadly, I don’t see those things on offer much anymore, and have not for some time. All there seems to be is the angry language of rights. And fear. Lots and lots of fear.

The “Soviet” Church

Over at First ThingsSergei Chapnin describes how the hopeful revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990s has led to a “re-Sovietization” of the church, in part because the pernicious and debilitating debate between conservatives and progressives has made it way even to the vast expanses of Russia:

During the Soviet era, the persecuted Church had valued unity above all things. Church leaders maintained informal, often friendly, contacts with religious dissidents. By the mid–1990s, the situation changed. Conflict between liberals and conservatives became a defining feature of church life.

In the Communist Party, mainstream ideas were known as the “general line.” By demanding conformity with the general line, the Soviets suppressed dissent and maintained unity. Now, as the Church became a respected part of post-Soviet culture, many members turned their attention to managing and manipulating her influence. If the Church intended to set the spiritual and ideological agenda for the nation, these members thought, then she could not do without a general line. The “conservatives” were those who took it upon themselves to formulate this general line and determine who was in accord with it and who was not.

Thus the two camps solidified. The conservatives’ task, as they saw it, was to reestablish the social and political power of the Church. In liturgy and catechesis, they defended received practices. The “liberals,” by contrast, were those like Fr. Kochetkov, concerned with improving catechesis and promoting the role of liturgy in community life. To a degree that would have been unthinkable during the Soviet era, the two camps became mutually hostile. Church members who disagreed on theological or practical issues were now calling each other “enemies of the Church.” ­Designating themselves “defenders of the faith,” the conservatives ventured to criticize not only the laity and lower clergy, but the bishops themselves, charging them with “departures from Orthodoxy” and even, on occasion, heresy. Church Revival 1.0 fizzled.

According to Chapnin, the church has embraces a “Russian World” (Русский мир) which aims to unite all Orthodox Slavic people (Russians, Belursians, Ukrainians) under one great orthodox church and in one great state. In short, the church seeks a renewed Russian Empire.

In this 2.0 phase, the Church is circling back to Sovietism, promoting conformity and dreaming of imperial expansion. In one sense, these sympathies should be understood pragmatically, as a means of currying favor with state authorities. Nonetheless, there are genuine pro-Soviet sentiments within the Russian Church. Their presence is easily explained.

In its 1.0 phase, Church Revival failed to address its top priority: “churching” those who were attracted to Orthodoxy, which meant catechizing Russians and incorporating them into the Church. The mass baptisms of the 1990s left the newly baptized unprepared for life in the Church. The Church had welcomed the uncatechized, counting on a “natural” churching to take place later, as if Christian identity would come automatically. Bishop Panteleimon of Smolensk and Vyazma describes the result:

At the beginning of the 1990s, we saw a surge of people coming to the Church… . Not just coming, but swarming into it. Alas, not many stayed inside. The period of active attention to the life of the Church and so-called “churching” ended very quickly… . In my estimation, people who go to church every Sunday amount to one percent of the country’s population, or even less.

In most cases, the newly baptized Soviet people had no interest in metanoia, no desire to change. Of course, change did arrive. It was the new post-Soviet culture (which only too soon became neo-Soviet) that changed the Church, rather than the other way around. The result is a Sovietized Christianity.

It looks like the Orthodox church made an interesting mistake in relying to heavily on Russian culture — which had, at one time, been heavily Christian, but has become as secular and as modernist as any in the west — to do the work of Christianizing. Perhaps because they believed, mistakenly, that Christian is what someone would somehow automatically become if they lived in the right circumstances. It would be acquired from the air, or the water. Or somehow being a faithful Christian was merely in one’s genes, and once the restrictions of the Soviet state were removed, Christian living would simply and naturally appear.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. To become Christian requires a great deal of purposeful and deliberate work, something the church in Christendom has forgotten because it could assume that a Christian culture would form Christian people. Maybe it does, but conservatives especially need to note that Christendom produced and embraced modernity and enlightenment in all its forms. So the Christian culture of Christendom was no defense against the deeply attractive heresies and idolatries of modernity.

Chaplin also describes how conservatism within orthodoxy has become, as it has in America, a hollow ideology, and not an honest expression of faith:

Over the last generation, the appeal of the Church to individuals and ­society has come down to tradition—the need to preserve it, the danger of neglecting it. These are legitimate concerns. But the newly baptized ex-Soviets of the last two decades have a rigid and impoverished understanding of “tradition,” which they understand as a set of rules and regulations: when to pray and what set of prayers to read, what not to eat and what else not to do during Lent, what to wear to church, and so on. For them, tradition is not a living tradition, and an understanding of tradition as a common and personal experience of life in Christ comes under suspicion as too “liberal.”

Beyond liturgy and piety, other traditions were revived: respect for the family, opposition to abortion, the banning of homosexual practice and propaganda. These measures are seen as asserting traditional Russian mores in opposition to the decadence of the West. They seem to add up to a healthy Christian conservatism. But this is rhetoric, not living tradition. The actual statistics in Russia are disastrous: 640,000 divorces to 1.2 million marriages in 2010; sixty-three abortions per hundred live births in 2011. The supposed revival of Russian morality is propaganda, not a genuine effort of social renewal. It is a way of elevating Russia over the allegedly more corrupt cultures of Western Europe and North ­America—a way of talking once again about East versus West, us versus them. The West is constructed as not just a political and economic enemy, but a spiritual one as well. This sort of thinking is the general line.

I see a great many similarities in this to what is happening with the church in the West, particularly the United States (Chapnin talks about liberals, but this essay suggests they are a marginal force in the Russian church). Too many conservatives in America would, I think, embrace some form of Americanized “Soviet” church (hearkening back to the glory days of 1958!) if it meant renewed social prestige and power.

That very church, however, was the cause of the current church’s problem. It did not know how to form followers of Jesus absent a culture generally supportive of a generic and nationalistic Christianity. It could form them to be good, patriotic American (or Soviet) citizens, but if our concern is the kingdom of God, if our concern is loving God, walking in his ways, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then that good citizenship was irrelevant. In fact, good citizenship is worse than irrelevant — it is detrimental. We should take Paul seriously when he writes:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21 ESV)

If we are to be faithful followers of Christ, then, we have to look past the desire to be influential and meaningful, and instead do the hardest and most faithful work of all — teaching ourselves what it means to live as God’s people, and then living as God’s faithful called people, knowing which citizenship we hold really matters, in a world where virtually nothing will support or encourage us.