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The Political and the Cultural

May 29th, 2008 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The difference between them is crucial, yet few conservatives seem to understand the difference.  And therein lies the problem, argues James Polous:

I am no great defender of Rick Santorum, and I am inclined to think about 'community' the way Thatcher thought about 'society', but it's obvious that what falls through the cracks in the easy contrast between Reagan's and Santorum's comments is the difference between cultural libertarianism and political libertarianism. Reagan is clearly talking about the latter; Santorum is talking about the former. There are obvious problems: Reagan says 'less centralized authority', not 'less centralized power', and Santorum says 'succeeds as a culture' but also talks openly of 'government' getting 'involved in the bedroom.' So I don't want to be too glib in the other direction and suggest it's easy in today's climate for conservatives or anyone else to neatly separate out political from cultural issues.

But I do think it's easier as a rule than it is now, and this is so because the basic general (as opposed to central) authority governing our cultural conduct has more or less unraveled, and we are trying to fill that gap through politics and, specifically, through law. This won't work, but it's a stopgap measure until the culture reconstitutes itself authoritatively. But since cultural libertarianism holds, when it comes to cultural authority, that the only rule is there are no rules, this is something of a pipe dream. And this is the main point Santorum is trying to make, even though he is the wrong messenger because he wants to put central (i.e. Federal) power to work in institutionalizing a cultural authority that can no longer stand on its own two feet. Reagan, on the other hand, is clearly speaking in political terms, speaking of conservatism as a political disposition that carries, viewed from the national level, a bias against checking cultural libertarianism with centralized political power.

If I am reading Polous right, he is suggesting that Santorum's conservatism turns toward political machinery to solve what are cultural problems, problems which we lack resources to solve because culture lacks the authority to solve problems on its own.

Perhaps I misunderstand Polous, but it seems odd to say there are no authorities outside politics to which culture turns.  I think primarily of science, which is increasingly the only ground on which cultural libertarianism is checked.  Even the law is increasingly written only on the basis of evidence that is properly "scientific."  The questions of homosexuality and homosexual marriage are indicative of this trend, as the question of legality is here determined by the conclusions of the social sciences.

The unchecked union of law and science is a dangerous one for cultural conservatives, and for cultural libertarians.  As the law is increasingly subordinated to the deliverances of the lab, the temptation to build a utopian society will become significantly stronger, as will the means of accomplishing it.  Within such a union lay the seeds of a scientific totalitarianism of the kind that C.S. Lewis describes in That Hideous Strength.

Cultural conservatives would do well, then, to cease attempting to strengthen the State to further their own cultural agenda.  Such a strategy is short-sighted, unless we are simultaneously working to bring about an authority beyond science upon which the laws can be based (and here I speak of ethics, which is inextricably tied to metaphysics).  Whether, and how, such an authority can be recovered in a pluralist, empiricist society such as ours are difficult questions.  I leave them for another day.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.