2016 has been a bad year in general for principled conservatives, but this article on the divide between “ideological conservatives” and “civilizational conservatives” brings up a big, ugly fracture point that may be far wider than just their affinity for Islam or Russia.
Ideological conservatives loathe Putin because he represents an authoritarian challenge to the American-backed order in Europe and the Middle East. But many civilizational conservatives, who once opposed the Soviet Union because of its atheism, now view Putin’s Russia as Christianity’s front line against the new civilizational enemy: Islam. Among the alt-right, Putin is a very popular man. He’s popular because he resists the liberal, cosmopolitan values that Muslims supposedly exploit to undermine the West. Richard Spencer, who was until recently married to a pro-Putin Russian writer, has called Russia the “sole white power in the world.” Matthew Heimbach, another prominent figure in the alt-right, recently told Business Insider that “Russia is the leader of the free world.” In 2013, Pat Buchanan penned a column entitled, “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative? In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?”
I strongly suspect that this same fracture point maps pretty well onto American debates about immigration and refugees and willingness to put up with Trump. “Civilizational conservatives” think that mass immigration and/or substantial refugee resettlement pose a threat to our civilizational values and “ideological conservatives” are, well, a lot more ideological and are far more willing to compromise and work towards comprehensive immigration reform. Since their ideology isn’t as tied to nationalism, the ideological conservatives are more flexible about who is living out their ideologies. The more rigorously conservative among them see the general economic benefits that immigration poses to the labor force and the less rigorously conservative are just sympathetic to their plight.
As the article discusses, Trump’s pseudo-populist nationalism (and Putin’s authoritarian nationalism) plays well with the civilizational conservatives because they see globalism as a crisis severe enough to justify all sorts of illiberal measures: massive state interference in business, severe immigration restriction (including religious tests!) high tariffs, and perhaps even hostility towards the free press. Putin is obviously much further down this road and I think most Americans would rather avoid his outright abuses of power, but they are willing to give Trump some leeway to stop the runaway globalism train.
Quite frankly, for religious conservatives who lean towards the “civilizational”, I find this nonsensical. If globalism and liquid modernity are the problem, then immigration restriction is cutting off one of the few sources of new citizens who might possible share your views on the priority of faith and family and the importance of religion in providing some moral undercurrent (or restraint) for the state’s actions. Both Putin and Trump appear to be happy to throw a bone to religious conservatives in order for their loyal support, but neither has any respect for human life in the eyes of the state and would happily preside over a fiefdom full of people lost in drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex as long as they stay in power. There won’t be much civilization left to defend because modernity will continue its corrosive destruction through the institutions we love and believe in– the individualistic atomism that is hollowing out our civilization is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped by an authoritarian state and closed borders.
Refugees and immigrants overwhelmingly hail from cultures that prioritize communal values over individual expression, understand the preeminent value of marriage and family, and see religious devotion as a key process that helps to form virtuous and capable citizens. There are some legitimate differences in politics, theology, or culture, but those values tend to be more superficial when considered in light of the overwhelming overlap in social vision they have with religious conservatives.The conflicts that we might encounter in dealing with Islamic political theology and other foreign ideas might even help sharpen our particular viewpoints and force us to actually describe how we imagine religion informing politics doing rather than shrieking about Supreme Court justices ad nauseum.
Furthermore, any concessions religious conservatives might get under an authoritarian regime would be Oholibah’s jewels. The recent discussions around Russell Moore’s actions jeopardizing his compatriots’ “access” to the Trump administration suggests that the naked ambition for power over principle remains the same for the people of God as it was 2500 years ago. Given how much has been compromised so far in the lust for “access”, it won’t be long before Franklin Graham gets his picture taken sitting next to Richard Spencer in the waiting room of the Oval Office.
I don’t think we have to let everyone in or scuttle a rigorous process for admitting refugees or creating a path to citizenship. There are real security concerns that have to be weighed and real limits to any country’s ability to assimilate refugees and immigrants. Islamic terrorism– itself a reaction to modernity– is a real threat that has to be named plainly, addressed forthrightly, and fought judiciously.
However, I do think that resisting the corrosive and disenchanting forces of modernity is going to require solidarity across ethnic, national, and religious lines because there is a large bundle of assumptions about the self, the world, and God that we share. What’s more, intentionally assimilating people into otherwise racially and religiously homogeneous communities might be one of our best chances at building that solidarity and preventing these newcomers from becoming balkanized (or, God help us, Democrats). Whether you want real civilization that is communal instead of individualistic or genuine ideology that governs according to principle rather than power-grabbing, immigrants and refugees are conservatives’ allies.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org