The New Republic has posted a long article by Sam Tanenhaus that purports to be an autopsy of the conservative movement in America, but a good hunk of the corpse lies unexamined. Not to get all Mattingly on you, but there’s barely a mention of religion in the entire piece, which seems like an odd omission given that religiosified politics has been the sustaining force in the conservative movement for the past generation. What’s Tanenhaus’ problem?
The burden of his argument is the old lament that America has never been able to create a real Edmund Burke-style conservativism:
The story of postwar American conservatism is best understood as a continual replay of a single long-standing debate. On one side are those who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions. On the other are those committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America’s pre-welfare state ancien regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare.
Fair enough, but what about the central role Burke ascribed to religion as the ungirding of civil society? Surely any “Burkean” history of postwar conservatism ought to wrestle with that. For while it may be the case, as Tanenhaus notes, that when push came to shove, Russell Kirk et al. abandoned their fine talk of the organic nature of society in favor old-time laissez faire capitalism, still, the continuing kulturkampf over abortion, gay rights, Darwin, stem cell research, etc. have been far from an inconsequential dimension of our national politics. How does all that relate to the tale Tanenhaus tells?
Closest to Burkean conservatism is the conservative Catholic intelligentsia, with its natural law argumentation and its high culture sensibilities. But as a force in the world, it has been far less consequential than neoconservatism, the other intellectual power on the right. It’s the evangelicals who really need to be placed in the story–and they’re the tertium quid that doesn’t fit. For on the one hand, they do carry with them a sense that society requires fixed and eternal moral values in order to function properly. But on the other, their permanent sense of beleagueredness combined with their proselytizing imperative ill suits them to play the establishmentarian role Burke envisaged for religion in society (cf. Rick Warren at the Inaugural). Social Stability, for them, always comes in second to Revival. Bottom line: The Burkean schema cannot reckon with the ebb and flow and evangelicalism in American conservatism.