“Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique,” observes French essayist Charles Péguy. In other words, that which begins as a pure idea—mystic, even transcendent—devolves into profane politics, the slow grind of policy divorced from any sort of sanguine idealism. The politique politician is an automaton, swayed by the slightest breeze of public opinion and party leadership. Such a man considers himself to be “eminently practical.” If he is always choosing an evil, at least it is the lesser of two. He takes what he can get; he desires the possible and worries not over the good, the beautiful, the true. He scoffs at Plato, even Aristotle. His man is Hobbes—Machiavelli, if he is forthright. He esteems them not for their realism but their cynicism. Such humdrum pessimism is fit cover for this man without a chest.

The mystique politician is not the philosopher satirized in Aristophanes’ The Clouds: staring up absentmindedly into the starry night, falling into a well. He is instead the philosopher of The Federalist Papers, the man who, if he stares up into the starry night, does so not unto stumbling but because he will soon travel there upon Apollo 11. He articulates the natural rights of humanity and believes in them sufficiently to fight till liberty or death. His is a lusty romanticism that purges the will to power of Nietzschean materiality with the fires of Platonic idealism. He is a Kierkegaard and not a Foucault; a martyr and not a critic. Where is such a person today?

Despite my grandiloquent prose, my rapturous patriotism, I am no Don Quixote. I clearly recognize that myriad problems afflict American politics. Something must be done and as I see it there are several possible responses.

First, one can insist falsely that such problems are not inherent to the American political tradition, that they first emerge sometime in the 19th or 20th century as a result of one woefully misguided group or another. Such a diagnosis is followed by an attempt to make America 1791 again, jettisoning every historical development since then by the wayside: welfare, nationalized school systems, and judicial activism are three of the most common nominations for the chopping block. (Note: judicial activism is often a cipher for frustration with Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges—not Bush v. Gore, nor, any longer, Brown v. Board). Sentimentality may make for a potential Oscar winner but in politics it is vicious.

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Second, one can insist pessimistically that such problems are unavoidable due to various failures of the Founders. The most standard accusation, typically leveled by Alasdair MacIntyre and his followers, is that America’s founders were too liberal. Communities of virtue cannot emerge in the rocky and thorny conditions provided for by the atomizing forces of liberalism and capitalism, which dovetails in close company with liberalism. MacIntyre’s solution in After Virtue and other writings is to turn away from national politics and concentrate on local forms of association.

Rod Dreher, taking at least this last element of MacIntyre seriously, has advocated for the Benedict Option. I myself think that such an emphasis on community is crucial, yet can not stomach the implication that this turn towards the local necessitates an actual rejection of national forms of politics. After all, MacIntyre admits that the state is a necessary precondition, “without which none of our local communities could achieve our common goods” (Dependent Rational Animals 132).

There remains, then, a third option: hopeful realism. One can refuse the Scylla of false optimism and the Charybdis of pessimistic withdrawal. This would mean to embrace, warts and all, the American tradition. How can we attend to our politics in a way that recognizes their severe imperfections yet refuses to yield to despair?

As a Burkean, my belief is that we must do this in piecemeal fashion. Weber once quipped that politics is the slow boring of hard boards. We must then isolate the elements of our politics that have broken down and attend to their repair rather than their overhaul. As such, I intend in this essay not to offer some new theo-political revolution but rather a summons to reclaim an old theo-political virtue.

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Alasdair MacIntyre once suggested that Péguy could save us from our vicious politics. MacIntyre said that “a response to this political condition has to begin with a reflection not on politics itself, at least as we commonly understand it, but on a reflection of metaphysics …” While MacIntyre chose to turn away from national politics, Péguy, his proposed antidote to our interminable disputes, spoke to the heart of a national scandal that divided France for nearly a decade: the Dreyfus Affair. Péguy called on France to become political traitors, to abandon the utilitarian calculations that thrive in politics as only invasive species can; in other words, he called on France to return to the taproot of mystique.

In the American political tradition, two fonts of mystique and politique predominate: the liberal and the conservative—each a scion of the Western Christian tradition in its own right. The liberal mystique enunciates the eternal dignity of each individual, purposed for transformation and glorification; the conservative mystique praises the divine vocation of the church, the family, the nation, and other institutions, each tasked with preserving the moral order and transmitting knowledge of truth and human virtue.

That there are two major streams of mystique driving the American experiment, embedded in its constitution of rights and laws, is not insignificant. Were there only one, a solipsistic individualism would reign—or a fascist collectivism. That there are two streams is definitive of American politics and is necessary for its weal. This is why libertarianism is the death of politics just as much as authoritarianism. Rights must always be balanced with responsibilities; without a shared community, there can be no shared justice. And without justice, the experiment fails.

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At our country’s nascence, each ideology enjoyed its premiere articulator: for liberalism, Thomas Paine; for conservatism, Edmund Burke. Though neither was born in America, America was born in and to them. The interplay of their respective mystiques typified America at its most praiseworthy: it produced a stability bent towards equality and justice. Divorced of one another, each ideology begat the grossest moral abominations recorded in human history. Paine’s radical individualism charted the course for the French Revolution and bloodied Parisian streets. Burke’s conservatism winked the eye at monstrous social structures like the Atlantic Slave Trade. Yet only Paine was so bold as to declare the inalienable rights of all men over every government and institution. Only Burke was so bold as to declare the anarchy of French revolution and its political witch hunts a means that no end could justify.

The wisdom of the day reports that all of our problems arise because our nation is too ideological. But the wisdom of the day is no wisdom at all. Our conflicts arise, not because we are too ideological, but because we are insufficiently so. The wisdom of the day reports that there is no reconciling those who believe abortion is murder and those who believe a woman has the right to decide this for herself.

Though they may be right that the culture war between will never end, they are wrong to think this is a problem of ideology. The battle between pro-life and pro-choice lobbies is not a battle over mystique, it is a battle over politique. No doubt, these positions emerge from mystiques but they are not mystiques themselves. Rather, the conflict arises because politique has devoured the mystique from which it came. It is the loss of mystique in politics, not its presence, that has led to the trench warfare we have seen in Washington, DC.

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Péguy proclaims, “All parties live by their mystique and die by their politique.” For some long time now, the Republicans and the Democrats have both been dying of a politique shorn of mystique. The liberals are not liberal and the conservatives are not conservative! Inside of the Beltway this is painfully obvious.

Any liberalism worth its salt will not admit of a social structure violating the rights of an individual human person: not with respect to liberty and the pursuit of happiness but most of all, not with respect to life. The human being has an inviolable integrity. And yet, this has been lost in much of the Democratic politique.

The case for unqualified abortion rights is not a product of liberalism’s mystique. Instead, it is liberalism’s political abdication of the rights of the individual. The liberal politique seeks to achieve its mystique’s noble ends—in this case, female autonomy—through self-mutilation. There can be no doubt that women face systemic sexism, sexual aggression, and significant economic and vocational pressures—all of which conspire to induce women into having an abortion. But political liberals must not buy freedom for pregnant women by cutting the unborn off from the protections of personhood.

Nothing could demonstrate this reprehensible politique logic so clearly as Representative Carolyn Maloney’s refusal last year to sign into law a bill stating that it is murder to refuse medical attention to a baby born alive. She said she was disturbed that anyone would want to undermine the rights of a woman and her doctor to decide what is best. In fact, Maloney was not alone—more than two-fifths of the House (all Democrats) voted to reject the bill.

Maloney’s politique ‘liberalism’ is light-years from the liberalism of the Civil Rights movement. Maloney’s freedom is understood as a freedom over: A mother should have total authority over the baby that is inside her— she is the lord of life and death. Her ‘freedom’ is the unfreedom of another, much as a slavemaster’s ‘freedom’ signified the unfreedom of the slave. But, she maintains, no one should stand between a mother and her absolute ‘freedom’ over her child. Maloney allowed the privacy of the mother to eviscerate the right of the unborn (even newly born!) child. In this argument she betrays herself as a politique and not a mystique liberal. She has failed to be liberal enough.

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This is always the failure of liberalism: drawing the line of persons with rights too short. Once, a ‘person’ meant only white persons. Once, a ‘person’ meant only male persons. Now, a ‘person’ means only those who can vocalize their rights against their persecutors. Were Maloney and her friends truly more intersectional in their feminism, they would weep over the blood on their hands, as we all should for our complicity in Roe v. Wade. Yet if the liberals must abandon their diluted liberalism and return to its surging fountainhead, it remains for the conservatives to do the same with their own ideology.

Conservatives must become more, and not less, conservative. For many decades now the left has denounced the right, saying that its claims to “traditional values” was no more than demagoguery and power politics. There were many wide-eyed conservatives like myself who thought this no more than a nasty smear. When Republicans attempted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 over his sex scandal, they claimed that a political leader needed to be morally upright for the health and stability of the nation. This was not about “politics,” they maintained, but about truth, goodness, justice, and virtue. They said that Bill Clinton’s impeachment was about the integrity of the family. They lied. They lied and we all know them for liars because these same people now endorse a serial adulterer, a man who has destroyed the poor in his casinos, built a campaign off of racist and Islamophobic demagoguery, and profited off of slave labor to build his hotels in the Middle East.

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Still, many of these politicians and faith leaders have maintained that they are voting on the issues and not with reference to Trump. This might sound like an appeal to the mystique of issues over against the politique of candidates. But it is only a masquerade. Trump is in his very own person both a mystique and a politique of power. He is a charlatan, a womanizer, a sexual predator, and a bully. Even (in the unimaginable scenario) where Trump both won the election and kept all of his promises (for the first time) to defend the unborn, conservatives would still win the culture war in the American legal system only to completely lose the actual culture. A man who boasts of sexual assault and his adultery with married women will finally turn the sexual revolution of the 1960s into the new normal. He will instantiate a new mystique of limitless, twisted machismo; a politique of making every compromise to gain the throne of his desires. He would bring the moral relativism we have all feared to its perfect completion.

Péguy offered an alternative to the destructive politiques of his day: to betray the Machiavellian calculations of politics. We will be called ‘traitors’ for our refusal “to enter into the derivative, parasitical, devouring politique.” And yet we must be such ‘traitors’ so that we do not become true traitors: those who sell their faith, their souls, and give their very selves up. We must not betray our faith, our ideals, or our values for a political victory. We must discern the dividing line between mystique and politique and refuse to budge over it. We can go no further, for, as Péguy warns,

Continuing, persevering, in that sense, is all that is most dangerous to justice and to intelligence itself. To take one’s ticket departure in a party, in a faction, and never to bother where the train is rolling to, and above all, what it is rolling on, is to put oneself resolutely in the very best situation for becoming a criminal.

In our desperation to win the culture war, we must not follow the path of wicked Saul, who called upon the Witch of Endor to shore up his position. We cannot afford the disastrous, Pyrrhic victory that awaits us there. We must be better conservatives. We must be better liberals.

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Posted by John Shelton

John Schweiker Shelton is a congressional staffer with a master’s degree from Duke in theological ethics and political theory. He is also a proud Virginian and alumnus of Thomas Jefferson’s university. You can follow him on Twitter @jayshelt for odd musings about theology, philosophy, and fantasy literature.


  1. That was Required Reading. Thanks. You pointed me to Péguy, as well, someone I knew nothing about.

    “𝑾𝒂𝒊𝒕. 𝑰 𝒉𝒂𝒗𝒆𝒏’𝒕 𝒕𝒐𝒍𝒅 𝒚𝒐𝒖 𝒆𝒗𝒆𝒓𝒚𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒈. 𝑰’𝒗𝒆 𝒃𝒆𝒄𝒐𝒎𝒆 𝒂 𝑪𝒂𝒕𝒉𝒐𝒍𝒊𝒄.”

    [Source: http://www.crisismagazine.com/1996/the-mystery-of-the-passion-of-charles-peguy%5D


    1. Greg, thanks for the praise and for pointing me to that article in Crisis. I had no idea that Maritain worked for Péguy! We really need more of Péguy translated into English. Maybe I’ll learn French and try my hand at it.


      1. Your piece went “Straight to Facebook.” :)


  2. Thanks for the thoughtful piece. I wholeheartedly agree with the criticism of modern liberalism. But I do have the following concern, which focuses on the failures of modern conservatism and the turn away from doing the politique well. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding you. After all, as a lawyer, I tend to be somewhat skeptical concerning the value of ideals.

    I’m not sure that the passage from mystique to politique necessarily turns people into automatons. In fact, I’d make the opposite argument. It’s far easier to come up with an idea than it is to translate that idea into practical embodiments that shape how people live and act. In fact, I’d suggest that the failure of social conservatism lies precisely in the fact it is often long on ideals and short on practical solutions. To move the dial on questions of public policy, one generally has to develop and nurture institutions that embody one’s ideals in some practical sense. If social conservatives have failed, it is precisely because they lack the diligence to build institutions that embody their ideals. Instead, they focused on an ideologically-directed policy that eschewed institution-building in favor of trying to get “their people” elected to office. Liberals suffer from the same problem, but that’s been the historic burden of liberalism. It’s a newer burden for conservatism.

    The inability to sustain a kind of “big tent” evangelicalism is what will eventually kill social conservatism. One only needs to look at the ideological purge occurring within InterVarsity to get a sense of why evangelicals are ill-equipped to effect long-standing changes to the culture. Or look at the Gospel Coalition website, where a large portion of the articles are directed toward creating increasingly narrow definitions of what constitutes a “real evangelical.” Or look at the politicians that evangelicals favor, like Ted Cruz, who so focus on living up to the ideal of being a “true conservative” that they can’t actually get anything done.

    In many ways, navigating the world of social conservatism is no less treacherous than navigating the PC-laden world of the social justice warriors. Both camps are all about mystique and the concomitant purity tests that go with mystique-obsessed subcultures. During the 15 years that I was in the PCA, I became increasingly guarded concerning my views on theology, politics, etc. In many cases, I avoided disclosing my employer to people at church, as it was a law firm that was particularly known for its LGBTQ-friendliness.

    The problem with “conservatism” today isn’t that it’s too beholden to politique, but that it’s too beholden to mystique. It’s actually just become another variant of liberalism–another movement whose politique is overly beholden to its mystique. I agree that conservatism needs to become more conservative. But I see that as a conservatism that becomes more pragmatic (in a Pierce-Coase-Posner sense) and less ideological. I’m not sure that we do well with ideals. I’d suggest that we come closer to governing ourselves well when we dispense with the mystique and settle for the promoting that which maximizes transactional efficiency (a la Ronald Coase, Douglass North, and Oliver Williamson).


    1. I’m sympathetic to lots of your points. I think pointing to the Federalist Papers among other things was an attempt to say that idealism need not mean a rejection of wonky policy. Calling for idealism is NOT a call to embrace quixotic delusions. Compromise IS a political virtue, so long as it’s not desultory. I think of MLK Jr. as a prime example of a figure who was both an idealist and a man who made compromises. His idealism actually led him to take those compromises in order to get where he thought God was taking the country. But they were never (publicly) moral compromises. King spoke out against Vietnam and the problems he saw with capitalism. A more helpful word for what I mean might be “vision.” We need politicians with vision like King.

      When you mention transactional efficiency, do you mean addressing market breakdown (perhaps due to government regulations)? I will say this about pragmatism: yes, it’s important. But you can’t put the cart before the horse. We need to answer the question “pragmatism to what end?” Otherwise, there’s no telling what wastelands we’ll find ourselves in. Trump is the product of many things but one of those things is resentment politics and the desire to win no matter what. If that IS a mystique, well we’re in even more trouble than I realized.

      The GOP needs to do some serious soul-searching to discover what that vision will be. What I hope for, though, is that they’ll realize they need to win the hearts and minds of a new demographic reality. The GOP needs some fresh faces, people like Senator Tim Scott of SC who has the ability to call out his colleagues for ignoring race. I think the Democrats have done a much better job in their campaigning with telling the story of their mystique even if I have my qualms with how the policy actually hits the ground. The Republicans still have a lot to learn from them.


      1. We may be talking past each other a bit. After all, there’s always going to be mystique and politique as part of any political scheme; what matters, in my view, is which of the two is placed in the service of the other. Even so, I’m not sure that these categories are best able to capture the issue that’s probably weighing on both of our minds. Then, again, I’m a corporate lawyer, not a political scientist. So, maybe I’m trying too hard to make you think like a lawyer.

        I do wonder, however, if it may be better to think of these questions along the lines of epistemic idealism versus epistemic realism. A fixation on epistemic idealism has often been the curse of liberalism. Liberalism often becomes so fixated on ideals–and the establishment of purity tests to insulate those ideals from criticism–that its ideals rarely move beyond certain subcultural bubbles. The two most apparent exceptions to that were the New Deal era and the Civil Rights era. FDR and MLK succeeded precisely because they sacrificed ideological purity to account for political realities. To socialists, FDR was a sell-out, just as MLK was to post-1965 members of SNCC. But FDR and MLK succeeded in ways that socialists and SNCC never could. They were guided by ideals, but not ruled by them.

        Classical conservatism generally succeeded because it didn’t focus heavily on ideals. It was often more concerned about maintaining the integrity of the process by which decisions are made within a democratic republic than it was with the decisions themselves. One could view this as a defense of the status quo, but, at its best, it’s also a defense of intuition–the belief that we often come closer to the truth of things when we stop trying to cram everything into some grand theory of how the world ought to work. It focuses on the inculcation of wisdom at the expense of devotion to some alleged truth. It accepts that we can often know things to be true without knowing why we think they’re true. It recognizes that depravity does not afflict us so much as to prevent us from making wise judgments, and yet does afflict us enough to prevent us from ever being anything more than “probably right” (in C.S. Lewis’s words). Of course, such thinking must be guided by some measure of ideals (in an ontological sense, not an epistemic sense), but it’s not ruled by them. It recognizes that rapid change–even in the direction of greater justice–can cause dislocations that prevent that justice from being realized.

        Of course, it’s worth recognizing that liberal and conservative ideals (in an ontological sense) are not the same, and that neither set of ideals need be bound to any particular epistemic approach. Conservative ideals generally incline themselves to epistemic realism, while liberal ideals generally incline themselves to epistemic idealism. But, in the past 25 years, we’ve observed something of a flip in this historic pattern. With the rise of neoliberalism, we’ve seen a marriage of certain liberal ideals with epistemic realism. And it’s been wildly successful. This marriage of social progressivism and market capitalism has laid waste to more traditional social structures in two decades than Marxism did in more than a century. In many ways, it’s created its own social structure and social class: the global capitalist elite or the cognitive elite, of which both of us are de facto members (whether we want to be or not). After all, I’m guessing that, given a choice between grabbing BBQ at Q Shack or Bullock’s, you’d choose the former over the latter. I generally did when I lived in Durham. Why? Because we’d rather enjoy our BBQ in the company of other elites rather than in the company of the unwashed masses.

        Thus, neoliberalism presents a far more formidable opponent to conservatism than classical progressivism ever did. (Note that I’m generally using liberalism to refer to progressivism.) This meant that conservatives needed to step up their game. But they did just the opposite. Just as liberals were disabusing themselves of epistemic idealism, conservatives picked it up. Purity tests and rigid commitment to “conservative ideals” became central features of conservative life. When someone like Richard Lugar is insufficiently “conservative,” then I have to wonder what conservatism has become. And I’ve also seen this same spirit take hold of conservative strands of Protestantism. I fled the moral collapse of mainline Protestantism in the 1990s, and ended up in evangelicalism at a time when it looked like evangelicalism may well become the next mainline. But it was not to be. By the early 2000s, evangelicalism had stepped back from that opportunity, and entered upon several decades of in-fighting and constant efforts to purge the movement of anyone except for the truest of “true evangelicals.” The spiritual generosity of Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga gave way to the spiritual stinginess of guys like Al Mohler and Wayne Grudem. Conservative ideals had always succeeded precisely because they were married to epistemic realism. This success was probably two-fold in nature. First, this meant that conservatives had better strategies, as realists will always out-stragegize idealists (barring some cataclysmic revolution such as what happened in Russia in 1917). Second, there’s a natural fit between conservative ideals and epistemic realism, so a commitment to epistemic realism inherently favors conservative ideals. But the linchpin of conservatism’s success had always been its eschewing of epistemic idealism. Its departure from that path in recent decades has been fatal, especially when conservatism’s opponents have suddenly discovered the utility of epistemic realism.

        Neoliberalism is here to stay, much to the dismay of the progressives whose economic convictions made them casualties of its rise. Even so, there’s no reason why its chief opponent must be an ideologically rigid and ineffectual conservatism. We have to revive a pre-1990s “big tent” conservatism that’s more focused on the exercise of pragmatic wisdom than it is with ideological purges and purity tests. And I think that that also means that we have to revive something akin to the mainline Protestant consensus that sustained and nurtured conservatism for much of the past century. Given that the mainline church has failed, this means that evangelicalism will have to grow up and serve that role. This also means that evangelicalism will need to be prepared to absorb orthodox ex-mainliners and become comfortable engaging with conservative Catholics. Something akin to Peter Leithart’s Reformed catholicity probably makes the most sense (although Leithart and I probably disagree about a number of things). This means letting go of the evangelical tendency to make Christian fellowship contingent on agreement on various secondary and tertiary issues. And it means having the judgment to realize that some things are sufficiently recondite that they’re just not worth our efforts to oppose them. In my view, same-sex marriage falls into this category. I believe that it’s a deeply unwise institution. But opposing foolishness with foolishness rarely leads to wisdom. It’s better to ignore it, focus on building a culture that inculcates wisdom, and let unwise things die under their own weight. But this kind of thinking requires us to exercise the kind of wisdom that one simply cannot exercise within the context of ideological purges and purity tests. That goes for the conservative political movement and with conservative forms of Christianity. In that sense, conservatism’s losses in recent decades are largely its own fault.

        This is what I mean by saying that politique (i.e., the exercise of political wisdom) does not make one an automaton. In fact, it’s the complete eschewing of politique, such as what we saw in the ill-fated campaigns of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, that makes one into an automaton.

        So, as for the elephant in the room…. What do we make of the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump? After all, I recognize that that’s probably the question that you too are trying to answer. Your thesis, it seems to me, is that guys like Rusty Reno and Eric Metaxas sacrificed the mystique for the politique. I don’t disagree. But I wonder whether their head-scratching support for Trump is really worthy of being denominated as a kind of politique. It looks more like a scorched-earth retreat to me. I’m sure that they’ve convinced themselves that their support for Trump has good intentions. But we’re often effective at deluding ourselves, especially when we’re losing. Thus, I do wonder whether, for these guys, Trump isn’t anything more than an atomic bomb to be detonated over the terrain that neoliberalism is set to capture in the coming years. Sure, they’ll capture it, but they’ll get radiation poisoning as they do it.

        Because political movements that revolve around epistemic idealism are usually ineffective, they often resort to violence as their failure becomes increasingly manifest. We see that with ISIS in the past six months. We saw it with the radical left-wing groups in the 1960s. We saw it with the socialists in the early decades of the 20th century. And, whenever epistemic idealists do secure power, the resulting regimes are marred by violence and oppression. This is true whether such regimes have right-ring objectives or left-wing objectives. There’s a disquieting willingness to resort to violence among epistemic idealists. Time and again, such movements betray their idealism and devolve into a kind of violent authoritarianism. I’d argue that that’s because God has not fashioned us to live as epistemic idealists; He’s fashioned us to live as sober-minded realists who acknowledge our frailty, recognize our dependence on His grace, and set ourselves to the arduous (and often unpleasant) task of acquiring wisdom. Political schemes that rely on epistemic idealism–whether they pursue conservative or liberal ends–invariably fall in on themselves. That’s not merely because their leaders abandon the the mystique for the politique (although that’s a symptom). Rather, it’s because such schemes offend God and run afoul of the internal wiring of His universe. Their implosion, which is often accompanied by violence, is unavoidable, and is part and parcel of God’s grace in reminding us of our dependence on Him.

        That’s not to say that Donald Trump would rule as a violent authoritarian. But I fear that, for many conservative Christians, the promotion of a Trump Presidency is a violence-tinged effort to create enough political disarray to punish neoliberalism’s advancing foot-soldiers. It’s merely a vain effort to force neoliberals to pay a higher toll to claim the victory that’s probably already theirs (at least in the short term). As a Christian, I cannot resort to that kind of thinking because I know that all political victories are ephemeral, and that our ultimate victory was secured for us and vested on our behalf in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We don’t need to throw a Trump-shaped Molotov cocktail at the advancing forces of neoliberalism because we know that, regardless of what happens, Jesus reigns. As certain conservative Christians remain steadfast in their support for Trump, it doesn’t make me wonder whether they’ve forsaken their ideals: It makes me wonder whether they indeed know the grace of God to us in Christ.

        Thanks. This engagement helped me to think through some things that have weighed on my mind for a while. I travel to the Triangle for work periodically. I’ll connect with you via LinkedIn. Maybe we can grab a drink or dinner at one of Durham’s new SWPL-friendly culinary options. /sarcasm_off (but not entirely)


        1. Thanks for taking the time to write an 11-paragraph, nearly 2000-word response. Seriously! You deserve an equally well-written response but I’m going to shortchange you with some bullet points.

          – I think you’re right that we’re talking past one another.
          – I’d be interested to hear more about why you think this is a matter of epistemology. But for the record, I’m what some call a “critical realist” and others call a “epistemological constructivist who believes in ontic reality/truth.” I don’t think that my skepticism towards a naive realism has much to do with what I’m talking about here though. How we know things is a different matter than how our beliefs inform our actions.
          – Ideas *are* important and quite difficult to distinguish from actions, especially if you’re a critical realist like me. So we have to be attentive to the ways that ideas are shaping our actions and actions are shaping our ideas. We are creaturely becomings.
          – I like your use of the phrase “guided by ideals.” Those ideals have to be conditioned by reality (a very conservative idea) but even that notion is an idea. That is, to be “guided by ideas but not in a disembodied sense” still qualifies as a mystique by my lights. It’s a very important mystique that we ought to reclaim.
          – As to classical conservatism, it depends what you mean. John Stuart Mill or Edmund Burke? A commitment to the process can be an idea, a mystique. I would say Burke’s method, his commitment to process, is a mystique. It’s an idea that takes reality seriously. This is still different than utilitarianism, I would argue. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution In France was his attempt to catch England up into the mystique of conservatism, that is, a deep faith in the wisdom of tradition and intuition. This seems to be our biggest disagreement/misunderstanding.
          – I love Bullock’s but generally eat at Q Shack because it’s closer to me and cheaper for more food. Great example though!
          – Cruz is an interesting example to bring up. He’s certainly an ideologue. However, I think his support for Trump was a bad political calculation. I disagree with his obstructionism and brinkmanship and think they are actually un-conservative, even if they’re aimed at socially conservative ends. We’re definitely using mystique and politique differently than one another. Politique, as I’m using it and as Péguy meant it, is not prudence or political wisdom but an abandonment of the mystique. So, before you said King was guided by ideals but not ruled by them. The politique is a step beyond that. If King were a politique politician by Péguy’s definition, he would not only not be ruled by those ideals but in fact *betray* them. Voting for an egregiously immoral candidate to bring about moral ends is politique and not mystique. Likewise, Péguy would say that Marco Rubio abandoned mystique for politique when he stooped down to Trump’s level and began to make comments about Trump’s genitals in order to win. And it backfired entirely.
          – I agree that supporting Trump is a scorched-earth tactic. It’s an abandonment of the conservative mystique though. It’s a victory by any means approach.
          – Hard to overstate how much I love this sentence: “We don’t need to throw a Trump-shaped Molotov cocktail at the advancing forces of neoliberalism because we know that, regardless of what happens, Jesus reigns.”
          – I’d love to meet up next time you’re in town. Thanks for the offer.


          1. Here’s another way of thinking about what I think we both agree on:

            “Cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good” — James Madison, Federalist Papers #41

            MLK Jr didn’t capitulate to the lesser of two evils but he often took political compromises that didn’t fully match the vision of the promised land he spoke of in his “I Have A Dream” speech. He took the greater good when he could, even though he would have preferred the perfect good, which was nowhere to be found as a political option. Those political compromises, though, were made with the perfect good in mind. They were steps toward that mountaintop vision, the struggling he talks about in the following passage:

            “This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the mount with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the genuine discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, pray together; to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom forever, knowing that we will be free one day.”

          2. I’m not sure that we have much disagreement, and I acknowledge that I moved the discussion in a somewhat different direction. I sensed that you were a realist of some sort, and decided to probe. FWIW, I largely agree with your thesis, and enjoyed reading the article.

          3. John,

            Some element of what I’m rambling about was set forth well in Ross Douthat’s column yesterday. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/opinion/campaign-stops/what-the-rights-intellectuals-did-wrong.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0

            For some time now, there has been a tendency for conservatives to assume that the managerial class is inherently left-leaning. As one who’s a member of that class, I see no reason why that is necessarily so. In fact, I’d suggest that most of my colleagues are actually Burkeans, whether they want to be or not. They work in professions where the rubber meets the road every day and where failures to account properly for facts on the ground can be costly–to your clients and to your career. But center-right, middle-brow conservatism has largely disappeared. Nearly all centrist publications and news sources are center-left in nature. So, if managerial class types are bombarded each day with ten times more news snippets from a center-left perspective than from a center-right perspective, their views are bound to trend in that way after a while. And conservative elites aren’t really doing anything to fix that. They’re much more interested in churning out low-brow, populist muck that titillates the denizens of “real America.” For the most part, we conservative denizens of the managerial class are left to figure out on our own what conservatism looks like in our context.

    2. “””It’s far easier to come up with an idea than it is to translate that
      idea into practical embodiments that shape how people live and act.”””

      +1. As a friend of mine says: The architect is an architect, not an engineer, because he is too lazy to actually build the bridge.

      I see much evidence of mystique untempered/inexperienced by/of politique as a terribly corrosive thing. It burns with the flame of purity right through the floor and into the basement.

      “”” If social conservatives have failed, it is precisely because they lack
      the diligence to build institutions that embody their ideals”””

      +1. It is in large part the oddity of having a political bent of anti-institutionalism [often while criticizing anything with hints of utopianism].

      “””Both camps are all about mystique and the concomitant purity tests”””

      Absolutely true; although I would quibble that it is “PC”. The moral police on The Left are far more about assenting to the Sacred Narrative, than what “conservatives” call “PC”. As someone who exists with The Left, it is maddening [and stupid]. You are correct that the Left and Right often sound much like the other – thick with Virtual Signalling and Moral Vanity, heavy on the mystique, lite on the politique. As above, I primarily believe this is because Purity is simple, and Results are difficult.


      1. Check out my responses to Bob below. I don’t think we’re using mystique/politique the same way. Anti-institutionalism in Republican politicians is not a conservative mystique and its presence among so-called conservatives is clear evidence of the mystique dissolving into politique.


  3. Great article, a very interesting persepective. One of my best morning-coffee-time readings in awhile.

    > The liberals are not liberal and the conservatives are not conservative!

    So true! As someone on what I suppose is the Left I have enormous common ground with Conservatives. But they seem a rare species these days. I hope they make a resurgence.

    > Nothing could demonstrate this reprehensible politique logic so clearly

    I know the axis of this post is the issue of abortion – but something we very often forget on sites like MO – is that the vast majority of the functions of government are not issues such as abortion, marriage, etc… it is much more banal. Being disgusted with government or civic engagement because of these issues is insane. Government is clean water, working septic systems, bridges, plowing the roads, electrical grids, transportation systems, libraries, parks, … the great bulk of government work and decisions is the myriad systems we all use every day – many of which work so well we never think about them. When we abandon civil civic engagement we abandon all those things as well; to our peril.

    IMNSHO, it is from this vast expanse of common ground that we need to repair the fabric of our republic; where the factions can learn to dialogue and to some degree, trust, one another.

    It is notable how little the screaching heads on each ‘side’ attend to these issues.

    > And yet we must be such ‘traitors’ so that we do not become true traitors

    “Do you want a Result, to help someone, or do you want to be Right[eous]?” — unknown.


    1. I couldn’t agree more (and where you think we disagree, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this is only a matter of miscommunication). I’ve been disturbed to see all of the people so disgusted with their options for president that they have abandoned down-ballot questions, the kind of questions that determine whether we will have public parks, libraries, new roads, etc. I think public libraries are one of the most under-appreciated public amenities.

      I suppose the implicit thesis of this whole article is that we shouldn’t do what we think is evil. God can turn evil into good but human beings dare not do evil that good may come. The goods available to us will always be human, finite goods. We might have to settle for things that are less than perfect. But we ought not be complicit with evil. The distinction is a difficult one to discern but the world turns on it.

      Thanks for reading, whitemice.


  4. […] they are not moderate enough, they are too liberal or too conservative.  In an article titled Betraying Politics: The Mystique of Public Life John Schweiker Shelton […]


  5. A number of thoughts come to mind when reading this. The first thought questions why the only criticism of the Founding Fathers that could be mentioned here was that they were too liberal. We should first ask which set of founding fathers are being referred to here. Was it the founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence or was it those who participated in the debates and the writing of The Constitution? This is fair question despite the fact that the two sets of people are not disjoint because while the former document was written in protest against the rule of foreign elites, the latter was written to secure the dominant place of domestic elites in society. For while the Declaration of Independence was written to justify a rebellion, The Constitution was written so that the government would be better enabled to suppress new rebellions. Here we should remember that The Constitution was written in response to widespread debate and Shays Rebellion.

    The second though this article provokes is that the writer’s ‘piecemeal’ realistic approach to our current problems seems to parallel the ‘stagist’ approach of Menshoviks from the Russian Revolution. Of course, we don’t know about them because the Bolsheviks won the argument and the day and thus became, inaccurately so, known as Communists or Socialists, or Marxists–one can choose one’s preferred pejorative.

    Third, the division between liberalism’s emphasis on individualism vs conservatism’s emphasis on collective rule doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill. That isn’t because there isn’t such a division or that we have no need of both approaches. It doesn’t fit the bill because conservatism’s collective rule is not monolithic. It isn’t monolithic because not conservatism joins Church and nation in that collective rule. Likewise, like individual interests, group and national interests sometimes have conflicts with tradition. In addition, there is some conservatism being served by the emphasis on individualism and some liberalism being served by the emphasis on collective rule. So the use of the terms liberalism and conservatism in the above article can be problematic.

    I would also add that it is too much emphasis on individualism can yield fascism because such an overemphasis allows for the consolidation of wealth and power in a few elites. This example provides another reason why the model thought used in this article, though helpful, is incomplete.

    Finally, if we are going to try to create and maintain a balance between liberalism’s individualism and Conservatism’s collective rule, why are we fighting a culture war? Wars are simply instruments of conquest. And for the most part, they are meant to establish an authoritarianism. So wouldn’t any Christian effort to fight a culture war a rejection of any recognition of the need to balance conservatism with liberalism?


    1. Hahaha if you want me to write my thoughts on the Declaration versus the Articles of Confederation vs the Constitution I can but if I were to address all of that in a single article then it would be far too long for most folk to read. I’ll be the first to admit that neither mystique matches either party perfectly. Neither party is monolithic, as you say. However, these modes of thinking are ones that I think are fair types for a general emphasis within each party and each party would do better to serve these ends, even if left to themselves, liberalism and conservatism can be deadly.

      What I was gesturing to in this article is not that this disparity between the two mystiques can be resolved into some third thing but that if each party were to attend to their own mystique, perhaps we could overcome certain theaters of combat within the culture war.


      1. John,
        There is no ‘hahaha’ here. There are significant differences between the contents and contexts of these documents which indicate that the summary given to the founding fathers is just too different from that which we get if we combine all of the documents to see the general direction in which they take us. It is the general direction in which I am pointing to, not an itemized list of specific points.

        And please note that I acknowledged that your model of thought expressed is helpful and needed. I also drew a bit of an analogy between your general approach and the stagist approach taken by the Menshovicks from Russian Revolutionary times.

        That you are pointing to a synthesis is not what is being challenged here. In fact, I appreciate the call fo reaching a synthesis. That we would both create a realistic synthesis while fighting a culture war is being questioned. This is where we should note that there are a number of different kinds of conservative approaches to collective rule and thus a number of different syntheses we could reach which do not see the need for a culture war at all. Though I appreciate you wanting to correct the present abuses that exist in the current culture war. Shouldn’t we be striving for culture coexistence instead?


        1. Sorry I think I misunderstood your comment. I was laughing not at the real differences between the Declaration and the Constitution but at the idea of writing anything more at this time with my calendar full as it is. It would be interesting to set the two up as a tension at the heart of American politics. I like the idea of a tension more than a synthesis because synthesis implies resolution and politics is always incomplete until the eschatology (and maybe even then too…).

          As for whether or not it’s proper to call the founders of the Constitution liberals or not, it depends which part of the constitution you are talking about. Burke might call it liberal even though, if you’re right, it was about giving the state authority to suppress rebellions. Burke was methodologically conservative: because the Constitution enacted a new thing out of the blue (totally jettisoning the Articles) he might not have been comfortable with it; he was all about incremental change.

          MacIntyre’s critique of the American political tradition as liberal has more to do with his concern that politics must be communal and local. As Aristotle said, friendship is one of the only relationships in which we give the other what is owed to them. A federal government as provider of common goods undermines (MacIntyre’s view) the local community, which is one of the only places where he is optimistic that political disputes (like the culture war, for example) can be resolved. And actually, if you look at even traditionalist local churches’ ministries to LGBT folk, it seems he is right. The abstraction that takes place at the national level prevents the opportunity for practices of hospitality afforded by the local. Whatever you think of Burke or MacIntyre’s concerns, that was just prolegomena to my piece. I don’t think it ultimately affects my claims.


          1. John,
            No need to apologize. I for one like explicit statements against the culture war. I also like precise statements regarding collective authority. I happen not to equate size of government with either authoritarianism or the pejorative use of socialism. I think of gov’t as being like love, size doesn’t matter, fidelity does.

            And being a reader of Martin Luther King Jr., I prefer to think in terms of synthesis rather than conflict.

            One of your points was that through synthesis/conflict, we should be kinder and gentler advocates of our values. My reading of King supports that view. Being that I am Christian Fundamentalist religiously speaking and a kind of Socialist, I approached your article with mixed feelings. BTW, I always welcome the thought of any group, especially my own, using reflection and thought to become more self-aware and improved.

            How is studying theology at Duke? Personally, I have an AMAR (almost masters in arts in religion) from attending WTS almost 40 years ago.

          2. Sorry to only get back to you now, Curt. Duke’s wonderful for an Evangelical like me. Evangelicalism is in certain ways overly-concerned with the individual and hasn’t thought as much about institutions, tradition, and formation. Duke’s balanced me out in those ways but also given me renewed confidence in Evangelicalism’s unique contributions to the larger Christian body. I think the conflict/synthesis of my own background with Duke’s specific identity has been a good one!

          3. John,
            No apology is needed. I appreciate the answer. Some of hat you found at Duke I had to find on my own well after my seminary years. So I can relate with what you are saying except for confidence in Evangelicalism. The lack of confidence is not in what is taught but in the baggage that too many people attach to it. Thank you for sharing.

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