Marie Antoinette must be ghostwriting editorials and judicial opinions now, because all we hear from the bench or on the internet these days is let them eat cake. Yes, today’s pundits and jurists can think of no more dangerous threat to democracy than a few confectioners who don’t want to provide same-sex couples with the flavorless monument to conspicuous consumption that is every American couple’s dream. Continue reading Would Jesus turn water into wine at a same-sex wedding?
We’re repulsive, arrogant snobs and everyone hates us!
But really, there’s a great analogy between the hipster approach to “stuff” culture and the conservative approach to “ideas” culture. First, some background. In this video, Mike Rugnetta of PBS Idea Factory explains how hipsters appropriate the cultural capital of other subcultures and eras.
So you see how, unlike a “pure” subculture, hipsters build their culture by taking the interesting bits from everywhere and leaving what they don’t like. Conservatives do the same thing with political ideologies. Conservatism, unlike libertarianism or Marxism, isn’t really an “-ism.” It’s a disposition; almost, like hipsterism, a posture. It’s an attitude about how more than a rigid system of what. That doesn’t mean conservatives don’t believe in the “what” of things. But this belief is tinged with some degree of irony or caution. This enables conservatives to evaluate and appreciate, yea, appropriate elements of other political systems without actually entering into those subcultures.
Conservatives can identify:
. . . with the liberal concern for democratic openness and inalienable rights . . .
. . . the socialist concern for human welfare . . .
. . . the Lockean appreciation of labor value . . .
. . . the Marxian critique of exploitation and commodification . . .
. . . the capitalistic appreciation of currency and credit . . .
. . . the libertarian concern for individual liberty and skepticism of big government . . .
. . . the Green skepticism of corporate bigness and technocentrism . . .
. . . the technologist‘s concern for solutions that work . . .
. . . the humanist‘s love of truth and free inquiry . . .
. . . the open-minded, scientific curiosity of sociology . . .
. . . the religious openness to divine wisdom . . .
. . . the moralist‘s certainty . . .
. . . and the philosopher‘s skepticism.
Conservatism is able to bring elements of all of these otherwise opposing ideologies together in a remarkable unity, because the conservative disposition is one of caution and integration. It is open to everything and at the same time careful not to get drawn too far in one narrow ideological direction.
The strength of conservatism—that it is not an ideology—is also its weakness. Ideological thought tends to be more passionate, partake of more certitude, and have more devoted followers. It is also more likely to be wrong and produce negative unintended effects, often undermining its own ideals through impatience. Conservatism is more reticent, less concerned with action, more interested in maintaining the good things that already exist than bringing forth new ones. It is not very cohesive as a “movement.”
And certainly every conservative you meet will tend to lean toward some of the above ideologies more than to others. That’s normal human diversity. But by the same token, adherents of these different groups may find that becoming more “conservative” may help them to appreciate and build connections with other groups working toward common ends.
The idea of a “divine mission” excites adherents and worries skeptics, and, like any religious belief, becomes more controversial the more people understand it to be other than a mere private conviction. In the recent inaugural issue of the journal American Political Thought, James Ceaser examines a uniquely American species of political thought which is, if not explicitly religious in all its manifestations, is at least tinctured with religious excitement. The idea of “American exceptionalism” has agitated American political discourse on the left and right–but unlike other American ideals, it appeared only recently and is very difficult to define.
One way to describe American exceptionalism is to observe the many ways in which the United States differs from other nations in its origins, institutions, and national character. It is, arguably, unique among liberal democracies in that it was actually self-consciously founded as a new political entity where none had existed before, at least on the national level. Most revolutions change regimes but retain old geographies and ethnic identities; America assumed its geography and national identity gradually and subsequent to its founding. America is both more liberal and more conservative than other Western nations. Its institutions more perfectly reflect a purely liberal republican structure, retaining no vestigial monarchy, hereditary ranks, or established church. At the same time it is among the most religious of Western republics and the most suspicious of socialism. Capitalism finds the fewest restraints in the United States–although we also have the world’s highest corporate income tax. These are only a few of the objective measures by which America is an exception among world powers. Continue reading Exceptionalism Symposium: The elusive American mission
James Ceaser tries to flex some historical muscle in “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism.” Like most modern scholars, he goes about as an intellectual iconoclast, assailing the solely religious roots of American exceptionalism. Only a shrewd or sarcastic mind can write, “A few in the realist camp lament this result, regarding it as a loss for America and for the world, but many applaud it, although usually concealing their glee beneath a veil of detached analysis. Realism is a cover for ‘triumphalist declinism’: blessed is the nation that is declining, it shall disinherit the earth.” Nevertheless, I still think he is wrong when he tries to downplay the study of religion in the exceptionalism debate (despite his many qualifiers). I grant that Hegel, Darwin, Descartes, Bacon, and Schleiermacher have all had their day in court, providing the European seeds to yield the fruits of Bancroft, Strong, Paine, Jefferson, and the Social Gospel in American soil. As a conservative and orthodox Christian, I rather like how he delineates traditional Christianity from the religious movements that encouraged American exceptionalism (especially since the former existed a good 1600 years before the latter). I agree that nonreligious elements contributed to the formation of the concept in question.
Ceaser does have vision. He foresees the question of exceptionalism as an expansive field of inquiry. I think the rate of articles addressing the subject will increase in the coming days as historians, theorists, and political thinkers wrestle over American identity and its meaning for policy. I agree with him that students of the past must explore all avenues, not simply religion, when researching exceptionalism. Nevertheless, I think the issue finds roots in matters theological, not simply scientific, historical, and philosophical. Continue reading Exceptionalism Symposium: Religion holds a central place