Matthew Milliner’s recent article for Public Discourse is a triumph that had me shouting ‘yes’ all the way through. As a young conservative who remains hopeful that conservatism offers something deeper than tax cuts or strong defense, I found Milliner’s piece to be gratifyingly refreshing. His is a conservatism that ends—or rather, starts—with culture, which he argues contemporary conservatism has largely ignored. Writes Milliner:
To familiarize oneself with contemporary conservative ideas and publications often means choosing culture wars over culture. Conservatives are practiced in lionizing the classics and lamenting the decline of Western culture, but should one wish to fully engage the culture of our time, a Leftward drift is difficult to resist. For example, the editor of a successful journal devoted to religion and the arts, Image, recently announced his need to “walk away from the conservative movement,” for he found the “imposed abstractions” of contemporary conservatism less than conducive to the sponsorship of poetry, art and fiction. While I take issue with his decision, I admit it is understandable, for the arts and contemporary conservatism don’t quite go hand in hand.
Milliner argues that conservatives’ lack of attention they pay to culture stems from dividing culture and politics. Again, Milliner:
Should conservatism wish to become a cultural force it will require consciously resisting the natural tendency to bifurcate culture and politics. Culture captures hearts and minds often so much more successfully than does an argument—something the Left knows well. Like some sort of artistic arms race, the side of our undeniable political gulf that first develops a winning strategy for the future cultivation of culture may very well win. Conservatism has the principles, dispositions, roots and resources to emerge as a powerful sponsor of the arts, but in comparison to the Left, it often seems to lack the will.
Two small quibbles: first, Milliner’s point that conservatives have bifurcated culture and politics strikes me as bordering on inaccurately charitable. The stronger thesis that conservatives have surrendered to an understanding of politics that is totalizing could just as easily have been defended, and probably would have been more accurate.
Second, the relationship between culture and politics presents a particularly tricky one for those who wish to make their social lives truly evangelical. It is a bifurcation that is, I suspect, not natural (as Milliner puts it) but rather grounded in the long tradition that is “Christendom.” To make the point, I lean on Oliver O’Donovan in The Desire of the Nations:
We distinguish two frontiers within the Gentile mission: the church addressed society, and it addressed rulers. Its success with the first was the basis of its great confidence in confronting the second. The logic of this distinction is given in the very idea of God’s rule in Christ. Society and rulers have different destinies: the former is to be transformed, shaped in conformity to God’s purpose; the latter are to disappear, renouncing their sovereignty in the face of his. The distinction must, then, be reflected in our systematic thinking about the political content of the Gospel. Political theology must have something to say about society and something to say about rule, and the two must be coordinated.
If O’Donovan is right, and the bifurcation rests upon different ends for society and politics, then it must not be resisted, but embraced.
But this is where Milliner’s example (Byzantium) is interesting, as it was precisely the rejection of the two cities hypothesis as articulated by Augustine that allowed it to flourish those thousand years (or so goes my understanding). Contrast that with Augustine, who wrote City of God while Rome fell.
Milliner’s suggestion that conservatives need to forgo the culture wars in favor of culture is exactly right. But articulating the principles and dispositions to ground such a project without establishing a secularized divinity or establishing art as a project to be pursued outside of a broader metaphysical framework (as, it seems, the left so often has done) is a difficult chore. I remain confident, though, that if anyone can do it, Matthew Milliner will.