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The Right After Fusionism, Part 3: Whittaker Chambers and the Nostalgic Temptation

After the decline of conservative fusionism—combining social conservatism with economic liberalism—the three most obvious choices for the Right are nationalism, economic reductionism or a more radical reaction against the modern world. The last of these takes a variety of forms, often in sharp conflict with one another, such as Catholic integralism and movements inspired by monasticism such as Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option.

Whittaker Chambers’ critique of fusionism not only helps us understand fusionism’s decline, but the limits of these alternatives. Having looked at the first two alternatives in previous articles, we now turn to the third: romantic nostalgia for the lost world of moral coherence before economic liberalism.

Why Romantic Nostalgia Is So Tempting

As we have seen, the essential problem Chambers saw in fusionism was its failure to appreciate what he called “the crisis of history.” Fusionism assumed religious and community institutions would handle the job of moral formation, producing virtuous citizens for the polity, if only Big Government would get out of their way. But economic and technological progress have remade our social worlds, and continue to remake them anew at an ever-greater speed. Religious and community institutions have not yet figured out how to carry out the task of moral formation in this environment of continual social upheaval.

This same failure, in different forms, is also a fatal flaw in both nationalism and economic reductionism. Love of country and a sense of national community are essential to national life, especially if that life is to be democratic and liberal. But giving national institutions the power to veto people’s life choices for the sake of national preservation assumes a level of moral formation among the leaders of such institutions that is not in evidence, and is not likely to be so soon. Economic reductionism at least does not intend to give unaccountable power to institutions. But liberalism is unsustainable without moral commitment, which ultimately demands a religious anthropology. Start by giving yourself permission to act as if there were no God, and you will end by treating people as if they had no souls.

It is not surprising, then, that some have set out to put the problem of moral formation at the center of the Right’s future. Whatever else we are, these movements say, we must be morally serious first. And, having thought carefully about the problem, they appreciate that sustainable morality presupposes a religious anthropology.

Those who assume that such movements as integralism or the Benedict Option only attract those who are already deeply religious for other reasons err gravely. These movements owe much of their attraction to the fact that as moral chaos in the polity increases, with no solutions in sight, growing numbers of people gain their first real interest in religion through the search for a source of moral stability.  (I empathize.) The already-religious also find that the challenge of building public moral stability deepens their own personal faith. This explains the sense of religious loyalty and fervor many adherents obviously feel toward these movements—for many, such movements are the only, or the most serious, real religion they have been part of.

These movements are more informal and internally diverse than nationalism or economic reductionism, which can make it a challenge to generalize. An extended analysis of, say, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed would not necessarily prove a useful guide to R.R. Reno’s critique of liberalism. There are analogous diversities in Rod Dreher’s intellectual neighborhood.

For all their differences, however, what these movements share is a desire to rebuild—obviously in a new form—something like the morally coherent social world that prevailed before the crisis of history. This involves a firm rejection of the modern, liberal social order. Those who view politics as a primary expression of core moral impulses look to undo religious freedom (though not, they solemnly promise, religious toleration) by restoring a deeply formative church-state partnership in ruling the polity. Those for whom politics is less central to their moral anthropology focus on building formative ecclesial and local communities. This is essentially an invitation to de-politicize social conservatism. This need not mean “withdrawal” of believers from politics; on the contrary, it implies an ongoing political fight to protect formative localism. But it decisively means believers withdrawing from a sense of primary membership in, and responsibility for, the national community (often derided resentfully with such terms as “the imperium”).

Fusionism’s Blind Spot: The Dark Suit

Fusionism lacks a convincing response to radical reaction because its commitment to religious freedom, while real and serious, is philosophically shallow. It assumes a simple binary between religion (good) and secularism (bad). It believes with firm conviction that religious freedom is good, both because it respects natural rights and because detaching the church from the state increases religious belief and participation in local church life. In all this it is largely correct. But fusionists had not thought through whether the kind of religion incentivized by an environment of free religious choice creates new political problems that political leaders must think about.

Here we draw on another Chambers idea we have already discussed—the “Division Point.” Personal and social crises inevitably develop to the point where equivocation and compromise are no longer possible. From whether I charge more to my credit card than I can pay to whether I vote for politicians who blame my problems on brown and yellow people, the liberal polity demands citizens disciplined for self-control and self-sacrifice. In the long run, the cultivation of a virtuous citizenry involves people becoming humble and obedient before the power that transcends them. And none of that has any obvious tendency to bring in parishioners. As C.S. Lewis memorably put it: “Repentance is no fun at all.”

Chambers’ own experiences on the margins of American Christianity illustrate the point. His strict Quaker beliefs and practices were one of the first major excuses for the nation’s media and political leadership to ridicule him as a weirdo when his testimony against Hiss emerged. Later, lies spread by the Hiss forces among the elite class, of which Hiss was a member in such good standing, would reinforce the impression that the weirdo Quaker could not be trustworthy.

At first, Chambers wore dark suits to the hearings, in obedience to the Quaker witness of “plain dress.” He stopped when the suits became a focal point for press mockery of his Quakerism.

This is not to say that strict religion is always implausible. As morals decline, people looking for stability are attracted to stricter religious communities. But then, as those communities grow—taking in more and more marginally attached members—they face powerful incentives to start watering down and loosening up. Sociologist Rodney Stark has done a great service in giving precise description to this easily observable life cycle of religious institutions.

The real point here is the cycle itself. In the environment of choice created by religious freedom, we seem doomed to lurch back and forth between overly permissive and overly restrictive religion, each overcorrecting the other in response to shifting consumer tastes. The underlying problem is that religious institutions must be responsive to consumer tastes. I’m as firmly in favor of religious freedom as anyone, but it doesn’t help to deny that it does create this problem.

Why Romantic Nostalgia Doesn’t Work

Chambers’ first attempt to become a Quaker, however, was not a success. This part of the story helps explain why the various methods now on offer for rebuilding the lost world of moral cohesion are unpromising.

As a young atheist, when he was just starting to get involved with the Communist Party, Chambers attended a Quaker meeting. He was powerfully affected by the deep peace he experienced—the peace was not merely internal, but a presence he palpably felt. But when the Quakers discovered that Chambers was the author of atheistic publications, they cruelly ostracized him from their meeting.

Chambers writes in Witness that if even one of the Quakers had taken him aside and asked him, “what is in your heart?” he would never have become a communist. Instead, he was left bitterly asking: “Where in Christendom is the Christian?”

We, too, must ask this pointed question. Do we have religious and community institutions morally capable of playing the role these movements demand? If not, is the quest for moral reform of these institutions helped or hindered if we join it at the hip to a catastrophic revolutionary overthrow of the last 700 years of political development? As Michael Brendan Dougherty has observed, if the church must hide behind the scepter of a friendly king before it can achieve even basic standards of moral decency, it isn’t much of a church. A movement for religious reform that did not require throwing away all our society’s shared public moral vocabulary and institutions would find more takers.

Chambers’ early experience with the Quakers illustrates how efforts at building strict moral community become dysfunctional when those of different beliefs are viewed as threats to the community’s integrity. The community becomes a tribe, with a tribalistic suspicion of outsiders. This is a case of the “paradox of intentionality”—formative communities that exist for the purpose of moral formation tend to descend quickly into tribalism and self-righteousness, precisely because formation has become an end in itself. Moral formation ought always to be formation for a mission, and where that mission is authentic it will cultivate a lively sense of common humanity and civic solidarity with our neighbors of other beliefs.

Chambers’ analysis of the “crisis of history” points to another key problem: The radical rejection of modernity is typically justified with lousy history. The core ideas of modern social order are depicted as alien invaders that disrupted a previously stable and harmonious Christian social world. There was, of course, a rise of secular thought in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the secularism of that time did not appeal to human rights. Its founding fathers were men like Machiavelli and Hobbes.

Nostalgia and the Right

It was Tertullian who had argued as early as 212 that every individual, as an individual, had a subjective human right (humani juris) to worship in whatever way seemed right to them—whether Christian or otherwise. Although religious freedom was shelved after Constantine, the Christian idea of subjective human rights developed organically throughout the medieval period, playing a pivotal role in the reemergence of religious freedom in modernity.

The idea of a hard discontinuity between medieval and modern life is romantic nostalgia. The border between the past and the present is made into a high, thick wall by those who dream of leaping back over the wall and sheltering behind it. This ignores that in fact, it was the Christian past that made the liberal present.

The medieval social order was brought down not by an invasion of secular thought (although that also played a role) but by moral questions it raised for itself and could not answer. Chief among them was: “How can we justify ordering public communities as if they were exclusively for Christians, when the basis of public communities is our common humanity and our common history as peoples?” Rewind the clock as far as you like, but you will still have to face that question. None of our romantic nostalgists is any closer to a convincing answer than Charles V or Pius IX was.

There is no hope for moral reformation without learning from our past. But the first thing we learn from our past is that it made our present; that is what makes it our past. While the modern liberal order does reflect the influence of a secular strain of thought from early modernity, it also centers on core commitments regarding justice and virtue inherited from our morally coherent past.

Those historic commitments, if we take them seriously, forbid our religious and community institutions from seeking moral restoration through either church-state partnership or a de-politicized right-wing cultural tribalism. The former fails to respect with adequate gravity the natural human rights of those with other beliefs, and the latter fails to respect with adequate gravity our common humanity and civic solidarity with those of other beliefs.

Quo Vadis?

This implies the restoration of religious and community institutions will not primarily be carried out by political leaders and movements. Yet there will be no space for restoring these institutions if political leaders and movements are determined either to impose militant secularism (the dominant tendency on the Left, but also a danger from the economically reductionist Right) or to co-opt them for political purposes (as the Right’s nationalists and nostalgists both seek to do). We must fight militant secularism and defend laws and public policies that permit people to live out their religious beliefs, while resisting with equal fervor all attempts to use religion for political or tribal purposes.

We can protect our nations without nationalism, protect our markets without economic reductionism, and protect our religious and community institutions without romantic nostalgia. We must call people back to patriotism and national solidarity, but in ways that reject the nationalist temptation to surrender power over our lives to political or religious institutions. We must call people back to market arrangements grounded in the rule of law and individual rights to property and contract, but in ways that reject the reductionist temptation to set up economic institutions against claims to larger moral coherence. And we must call people back to voluntary investment in the religious and community institutions that provide moral formation, but in ways that reject the nostalgic temptation to set these institutions up (politically or tribally) against our neighbors, as ends in themselves.

Above all, we must take the crisis of history seriously. Moral formation will not happen automatically on its own, if only we just defeat the bad guys who are preventing it. The crisis of history is a crisis because the bad guys are not some outside group we could fight and defeat—ethnic and religious minorities, Big Government, secular rights theorists. We are the bad guys in this movie. As another great anti-communist hero remarked, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. If America defies Chambers’ predictions and builds a future for itself that is not morally repugnant, that future will belong to whoever learns to put that insight at the center of the new politics.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on December 05, 2018 at 08:28:00 am

I'm a Christian, blessed by nature's God and god's Grace to aspire to the virtue of charitability.
I'm also a lover of the ideas of history, politics, law and literature and of smart insights and fine writing about all of them.

This pretentious commentary challenges me on the former because it pains me on the latter.
It would take hours to unravel his nearly-incoherent tangle of thought in an attempt to grasp what the writer is trying to say and decide whether there is any insight worthy of reply.

"Had we but world enough and time,
This (jumble, writer,) were no crime."

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on December 05, 2018 at 11:58:34 am

[…] series on seeing the Right after fusionism through the lens of Whittaker Chambers concludes at Law & Liberty with a consideration of the temptation to renounce modern life […]

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Image of Whittaker Chambers and the Right, Part 3: Nostalgia – Hang Together
Whittaker Chambers and the Right, Part 3: Nostalgia – Hang Together
on December 05, 2018 at 13:23:24 pm

This is not a bad essay. I think it reflects what many of us are thinking: where do we go now that it's clear we've gone too far?

I can recommend two books I've recently read:

"The Hebrew Republic" by Eric Nelson (2010). Nelson addresses the 16th-17th C. English and Dutch Calvinist innovations in republicanism; redistribution in derogation of the broad late medieval definition of property; and arminianism (state supervision of churches) as the gateway to broad religious toleration that assumes liberty of conscience but stops well short of attempting to make gauzy platitudes about the separation of church and state and complete freedom of religion the law of the land.

I found it surprising how much low church bible republicanism is derived from the rabbinical glosses on the Old Testament.

"Godly Republicanism" by Michael Winship (2012). Winship focuses closely on the development of the English Reformation after the death of Queen Mary in 1558 and the evolution of presbyterianism and independency in the context of the question: What is a true church and what is its role in a secular state? After 1630 in England, the answer that question was "revolution."

The bottom line seems to be that moral reform - like political reform - is something that has been successfully accomplished in the past in a bottom up, not top down, manner. Foster seems to think it can be imposed from above; but that was the mistake Charles I and William laud made. It cost both of them their heads.

I think both Nelson and Winship would agree that the foundation of any successful civil state and successful religious community is a common language, culture and system of moral values. Regimes that make denying all three a matter of public policy have no future.

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EK
on December 05, 2018 at 13:43:36 pm

I don' think the Christian figures that Eric Nelson discusses in his book are best categorized as "Calvinists." John Milton was not a Calvinist. I don't think Harrington was either. And Calvinists prior to the time of the Enlightenment were quite illiberal on religious liberty (though they were good on the right to resist tyrants under the law).

The notion that the Ancient Hebrews in fact had a "republic" with a redistributive agrarian law (what they argued) is an interesting notion. However, I question the soundness of the interpretation. It looks like Whig revisionism to me.

As Nelson notes many of the later republicans of the 18th Century who championed such notions like Thomas Paine and Rousseau were hardly sincere "biblical" believers.

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Jonathan Rowe
on December 05, 2018 at 13:57:04 pm

"Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,
From yon blue heavens above us bent
The gardener Adam and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood."

"Lady Clara Vere de Vere" by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1842)

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EK
on December 05, 2018 at 14:16:58 pm

[…] The final part of this series can be found here. […]

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Image of The Right after Fusionism, Part 2: Whittaker Chambers and the Economic Temptation
The Right after Fusionism, Part 2: Whittaker Chambers and the Economic Temptation
on December 05, 2018 at 14:27:32 pm

I was too quick to judge and too harsh in judgement.
You're right, it's not a bad essay.
But it's not a good essay, and it suffers from overreaching for Chambers credits.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on December 05, 2018 at 15:37:35 pm

Greg Forster understandably overlooks civic integrity in “After the decline of conservative fusionism—combining social conservatism with economic liberalism—the three most obvious choices for the Right are nationalism, economic reductionism or a more radical reaction against the modern world.”

However, he seems to share this forum’s reluctance to address the-objective-truth. There seems to be a widespread impression that if a group decides to collaborate to discover the-objective-truth they will thereby forego the dominance they seek through opinion, even a collective of opinions dubbed either a fusion or an integralism. What’s wrong with integrity? It seems to me even ethics retards the development of integrity. If God the problem?

“Fusionism assumed religious and community institutions would handle the job of moral formation, producing virtuous citizens for the polity, if only Big Government would get out of their way. Religious and community institutions have not yet figured out how to carry out the task of moral formation in this environment of continual social upheaval. [L]iberalism is unsustainable without moral commitment, which ultimately demands a religious anthropology. Start by giving yourself permission to act as if there were no God, and you will end by treating people as if they had no souls.”

The-objective-truth is discovered by studying the laws of physics. For example, if a person or institution lies, the lie will be disclosed by physical evidence. Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” begged his death when accepted the role of a god and the women of the village bled him. The pope is currently defending the Church of child molesters. Albert Einstein informed us, in 1941, “The Laws of Science and the Laws of Ethics,” that when people employ discovery to pursue the-objective-truth there is no need for ethics. His only example was that aware people do not lie so as to lessen misery and loss.

Today, responding to another effort, I remarked to MWW of five decades, that I today articulated: during my entire life I have benefited from the humility to reject metaphysical influences that reject the-objective-truth. Also, I reject thoughts, both modern and ancient, whose authors would impose mysterious fear and their plan for relief.

In civic integrity, there is no church-state partnership. Fellow citizens collaborate to discover and benefit from the-objective-truth, leaving motivation and inspiration to the adult individual. Spirituality is an adult pursuit of individual choice. Citizens who collaborate for equal justice under law recognize that some fellow citizens dissent from justice and therefore employ the-objective-truth to develop statutory justice.

Fellow citizens are free to overlook civic integrity, but, borrowing from Abraham Lincoln, ultimate justice comes from the people.

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Phil Beaver
on December 05, 2018 at 15:44:43 pm

The short reply is that if Milton and Harrington were not Calvinists (at this point I, too, am uncertain about the capital "C") what were they? The current answer is simply Reformed, non-conforming or perhaps "low church" but in the early 21st C., Reformed, Evangelical, Low Church and Calvinist are usually taken as cognates by the general public. On this point, Calvin's model of low church government and the practice he shared with Luther of re-deriving christian theology from primary sources are his unifying contribution. Calvin went much further than Luther.

John Robinson's (1576-1625) position that the Presbyterians, Independents and Separatists were in the tradition of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Beza, Cranmer, Cartwright, Barrow and many others because their "light" was something to be honored and respected is convincing to me. Robinson was comfortable with "Calvinist."

On the point of Arminianism, I questioned that myself but it does seem that the Noachide principles that Nelson describes were the foundation of the latitudinarianism of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, which seems to have been worked out by Henry Vane, Roger Williams and Cromwell's own experience with the low church religious heterodoxy that defined the New Model Army. The republican radical and serial Anglican, Independent, Anabaptist and Quaker John Lilburne was happy with this settlement and so am I.

This kind of latitudinarianism was sporadically continued after the Restoration by Charles II (see the Rhode Island Charter of 1662) but chiefly as a device to annoy the Presbyterians in Parliament.

Paine came from a Quaker/Anglican family and I've read that he got his republicanism from rummaging around in old Leveller tracts. His comments on religion are rather conventional nonconformist observations by someone who was as much inconvenienced by the Test Acts as were Catholics and Jews. There are no contradictions there. Rousseau was from a Huguenot family in Geneva and was enchanted by the secular Enlightenment of the 18th C., more than that I can not say.

It does seem to be a matter of finding the correct balance.

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EK
on December 05, 2018 at 16:08:22 pm

"And Calvinists prior to the time of the Enlightenment were quite illiberal on religious liberty (though they were good on the right to resist tyrants under the law)."

"Right you are which causes me to seriously question Forster's claim that "The medieval social order was brought down not by an invasion of secular thought (although that also played a role) but by moral questions it raised for itself and could not answer. Chief among them was: “How can we justify ordering public communities as if they were exclusively for Christians, when the basis of public communities is our common humanity and our common history as peoples?” Rewind the clock...."

Rather than "ordering exclusively for Christians", had Forster asserted "ordering for Roman Catholicism", his claim would have had more validity and more import.

Let us rewind the clock.....
We find a re-ordering of the polity such that the influence of Rome is diminished without a corresponding enhancement of the social / political opportunities for non-Christians.

What we also find, and Forster does get THIS right, is a nascent sense of national comity based upon "common history as peoples", i.e., the formation of a National people, a national State.

Interesting claim that the Israelites formed a "Republic"? - a nation, yes but a Republic???? I had not heard such a claim prior to this.

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gabe
on December 05, 2018 at 18:12:37 pm

You might find this outline by Paul Eidelberg helpful:

http://britam.org/eidelberg.html

I add only that it is well known that the puritans consciously modeled their congregations on the Old Testament and the Acts of the Apostles and that in New England that model was extended to town and colony-wide government.

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EK
on December 05, 2018 at 19:29:54 pm

EK:

Thanks. Interesting and there does appear to be some "continuity" in both structure and principle. A bit strained perhaps BUT...

If only we were able to follow the guidelines suggested by the Israelites regarding the quality, character and behavior of our own "Elect." It is also true that the Founders imagined that our Representatives would be more "aristocratic" than our electoral history has provided.

Recently read Yarom Hazony, "The Virtue of Nationalism" in which he asserts that Israel was the first true nation state and had been meaning to follow up on his Biblical cites. This has helped. Hazony also indicates that Israel at its founding was determined to NOT aspire to empire, i.e., would allow other nations / tribes to live in peace.
If only, the USA had followed this prescription of ancient Israel as well.
Then again, it would be most satisfying if current American tribes also followed that injunction but what the heck....

Again, thanks
gabe

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gabe
on December 05, 2018 at 23:39:29 pm

That should be "begged his death when he accepted"

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Image of Phil Beaver
Phil Beaver
on December 06, 2018 at 08:07:12 am

"Interesting claim that the Israelites formed a “Republic”? – a nation, yes but a Republic???? I had not heard such a claim prior to this."

Yes there were some notable figures first in Europe and then in America influencing its founding arguing such. I'm no theologian; but it doesn't seem like sound theology. Rather something opportunistic.

Eric Nelson focuses more on Western Civilization as a whole, instead of America in particular. The stuff on re-distribution is interesting. Agrarian laws never really took off in America. But they were more popular in Europe. And Nelson seems to connect the modern nations' redistribution to this. (i.e., progressive income taxes, estate taxes, safety nets).

Agrarian laws were originally a Greco-Roman thing. But here we see a grafting of that concept onto the way in which God divided the land in Ancient Israel. And then suggesting that such model could have applicability to the present. Whether it's a present in the 17th or 18th Century. Or today.

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Jonathan Rowe
on December 09, 2018 at 19:53:55 pm

Professor Forster, I'm very grateful for your enlightening "after fusionism" essays. I read them with keen interest. - Gage McKinney, Grass Valley, California

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Gage McKinney

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