To be a conservative is to value the places and traditions we have inherited from the past, to hold them in trust: this includes the environment.
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.
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.