I’ve been following Matt’s recent posts on the culture wars with quiet interest.* He’s already pointed to ambiguities in the term “culture wars”. But in light of his latest post on the culture wars and conservatism, I feel inclined to twist the screws a bit more. Almost as big as “What is a culture warrior?” is “What is a conservative?” Both terms have such varied meaning even in serious conversation, it is hard for the same writer to use the terms consistently.

The term “conservative”** is an umbrella historically and philosophically. More like a tarp. More like Bilbo’s party tent, filled with Bagginses, Bolgers, and Proudfeet. It has one important negative meaning, and several competing positive ones.

In one sense, “conservative” means simply “not liberal.” I don’t mean that conservatism is inherently reactive, never pausing from standing athwart and shouting “stop” to give directions of its own. But one major way that a movement gets identified as conservative is through opposition to some nonconservative trend, idea, or movement. (It’s often the same with “liberal”, by the way. The two terms are constantly played off each other, and their respective referents vary by decade and/or issue.)

At the same time, the term is also rightly claimed by a variety of positive projects. Very few movements are purely driven by what’s wrong with the world. Conservatism is no exception; it’s just that different conservatives have different ideas of, as Chesterton put it, what is right with it. All but the most reactive movements orient on how the world should be, even when staid enough not to be utopian.

So some conservatives are defined by one or another cultural ideology (not just the “Religious Right”), some primarily by an economic theory, some by a vision of American greatness. There is a conservative political movement in America, but it is itself a coalition of conservative movements, of varying mutual compatibility. They have more in common than an opposition to modern progressivism, but that “more” can be tricky to pin down.

Different threads also arise in response to different trends. Some are still resisting the rise of the progressive administrative state and its broadening regulatory grasp. Others are essentially New Deal progressives, but insisted on being first anti-Communist and later anti-hippie. (See Nixon, Richard.) Some organized against the New Left of the 60’s and 70’s. That includes Scoop Jackson Democrats gone Republican, fans of Schaeffer who abandoned cultural isolationism and rethought the spirituality of the church, and those who mainly feared loss of their tax exempt status or their ability to transmit their values to their children without governmental or cultural interference.

And of course, these different threads, and more, have cross-pollinated, overlapped, and clashed. Which makes it hard to either praise or criticize conservatism in one sweep. And which is part of why even social conservatives have the kind of internal tensions that Matt has been exploring lately.

Even social conservatism is a cluster of movements. Some are single-issue, others take on a thicker portfolio of concerns. Some threads have a positive vision, and others are reactive and based on resentment. Some care deeply about the proper role of each level of government, others see that array of governments as a jumble of available tools. Some loved Falwell, other social cons struggle still to distinguish him from Mephistopheles-minus-the-style.

So perhaps the question is not how to find a “non-culture-war conservatism”, but how to be a thinking, winsome social con who can self-present and be received as those things. And let me be clear, I think that’s a good goal, with two provisos: First, we must remember that we can’t control how others will respond. We should seek to be winsome and civil because it is the right thing to do, not because it is guaranteed to give you a better reputation than the nasty ones. Because it isn’t guaranteed. Jesus wasn’t a drunkard, a glutton, or a blasphemer, but He was sure called one.

That’s also where I think David French got part of a bad rap—one of his main points was that, in the current climate, you can’t be an active social con without being labeled a resentment-driven culture warrior. On the retail, interpersonal level, I would disagree. On the wholesale level, I think he’s on to something.

Secondly, we must flee hypocrisy. And I have a very specific hypocrisy in mind. Those who seek civility must speak civilly; there is no opt-out clause for confronting an alleged jerkface. Especially when the critique is in-house, and the substantial similarities are greater than the differences. Doubly so when the opponent to be engaged civilly is more similar temperamentally or sociologically than the “ally” to be silenced or reformed. I must try laughing when I see a conservative lob a nastygram-for-civility against another conservative, because neither weeping nor pulling out my hair seem to help.


*Is it breaking my personal “don’t post politics” rule if I babble a bit on the history of politics?

** I’m sticking to political conservatism for this post. As for how “conservative” gets used theologically, that is a whole other post. I may even write it someday!

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Posted by Kevin White


  1. Thanks for this post. It really helps sharpen the terms of debate by introducing the one-on-one/mass communication distinction. While I think that Matt’s “moves” were aimed at improving the mass communication reputation of conservatives, I agree that it is only in the interpersonal context where there is much hope for reputational improvement.


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