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5.11.04

Conservative Angst

Without addressing "why we lost, and how we can win next time," let me offer a few preliminary thoughts on the larger issue of the cultural conservative renaissance that's become big news in the wake of wins by George Bush, a bunch of Republican congresspeople, and 11 anti-marriage ballot measures. Let's start with a statement of the issue from Timothy Burke (via someone, but I forget who):

From the perspective of social and religious conservatives, their campaign to capture the government is a defensive response to attacks from the late 1960s through to the 1980s on the central mechanisms of their own social and cultural reproduction. Abortion rights, feminism, the expansion of free speech, the increased legal rigidity in interpreting church-state separation, and so on: these are hot-button issues not just for and of themselves, but because of them has symbolically come to stand in for a perception of a larger and more pervasive attempt to make religious and social conservatism a historical rather than continuing phenomenon.


As I see it, it's not that secularists* are determined to keep pushing until they eradicate conservative Christianity, or (just) that conservatives think that's the case. It's that conservatives doubt the ability of their own culture to survive alongside a more secular one within a liberal (in the broad sense) political framework. The essence of political liberalism is to expand the range of choice. Liberalism says that conservative culture is fine so long as participants choose it from a menu that contains other reasonable options, such as secularism.

Within this liberal choice framework, a secular materialist culture is seductive. It has helped to undermine other cultures -- from fundamentalist Islam to traditional Native American cultures.

Cultural conservatives recognize that this seduction is not simply an expression of the inherent preferrability of secularism (as the extreme libertarian view would have it). Rather, it's in part a result of the liberal individual choice framework -- indeed, how could a fairly hedonistic culture not have a lot of success when the principle of choice is individual preference? That framework undermines the kind of solidarity mechanisms that conservative culture needs to function. So they -- like the pre-Lenin Marxists who saw a simultaneous worldwide revolution as necessary to make Communism work -- hope that they can impose their vision nationwide. Traditional marriage must be safeguarded by taking away from everyone the options of serial monogamy or same-sex marriage, for example.

I happen to believe that the liberal choice framework and some form of secularist culture are the better options. I'm cautiously optimistic that secularism is too widespread for any move toward Falwelltopia to ultimately succeed. But the cultural revivals among Native American tribes suggest that all may not be lost for cultural conservatives. What's necessary is for them to focus on a reconstructed conservative culture that is compatible with and appealing under the liberal framework, rather than seeking to reverse that framework or forcibly eliminate their competitors under it. To to that would require offering an alternative to the weaknesses of secularism (such as the alienation created by consumerism) rather than attempting to imitate secularism's successes (such as with self-consciously "trendy" pop evangelicalism).

*Here, as before, defined very broadly, to include even many mainline Protestants.

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