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What's Conservative about "Non-Culture War Conservatism"?

June 6th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

That's the question my friend Greg Forster put to me after I listed four "moves" that I think conservative folks should make to avoid getting caught up by the culture wars.

It's probably safer for me simply to agree with Greg and then move on, a course that I'm strongly tempted to take.  But the pleasant disagreements are often the most fruitful sort, so it's worth pushing forward a step to see what we find.

A note up front, however:  I take it that Greg seems to think that I've tried to specify the nature of conservatism in my post and as such it fails.  That he thought I would attempt such a thing is indicative of my lack of clarity (and perhaps a reputation of biting off more than I can chew).

My point wasn't to specify the nature of conservatism per se, but only to outline what those culture-warriors who happen to be conservative should do in order to reframe how they think about things.  The difference is subtle, but important:  there are other principles that conservatism needs, as Greg's post clearly highlights.  Which is why I even suggested up front that I'd gone with a "misnomer," and that my goal was to highlight the differences with the excesses of the Christian right rather than what I have in common.  Non-culture war conservatism, as it were, rather than non-culture war conservatism. 

That said, Greg points out that that a robust doctrine of creation "gives us an external standard against which to judge the social order as we find it – a standard toward which we should presumably wish the social order to make progress."  That is doubtlessly true, which is why we shouldn't be so hardened in our conservatism that it becomes the sort of ideology that Greg doesn't want us to become enmeshed in.  I've sometimes appealed to Chesterton's famous quip that, "The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."   I've no interest in an "ideological dispute" if by that we mean the sort of blinkered, reactionary adherence to a position simply for the sake of keeping the opposing spirit alive.  And while "conservative" and "progressive" (or these days, "liberal") are often ideological terms they do not need to be.

A picture of Russel Kirk A picture of Russel Kirk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But for whatever it's worth, rejecting the suggestion that conservatism as an ideology is a distinctly conservative thing to do.

Second, Greg wants to know what differentiates my affirmation of the moral imagination from that of, say, Romanticism.  Not much, except that we'll take our poetry with a bit of moral order too.  Keep moves one and two together rather than breaking them apart and you'll stay firmly lodged within a traditional understanding of morality without being subject to the reactionary resentment that drives so much of our politics.  Greg's critique seems to suggest a burden for the moral imagination of avoiding Romanticism all on its own:  it cannot, which is why we must get the doctrine of creation right.

Third, Greg raises the prospect that the counter-polis move is most often associated with revolutionaries, even those (like Alasdair MacIntyre) of the crypto-Marxist sort.  That may all be true, but O'Donovan is not swimming in the same stream that MacIntyre is, nor am I.  Simply because the move shows up in a variety of places does not entail that it is distinctively non-conservative.  Affirming that the church is its own culture does not mean we ought all go become localists or sign up for Benedictine communities, and if MacIntyre's route seems the most plausible that is only because O'Donovan's path still has not been studied enough.

Finally, I'll leave the decision to others about whether it is "conservative" to affirm exceptionalism based on America's responsibilities rather than its virtues. If it is not, as Greg suggests, then so much the worse for the term and the movement that claims it.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.