Not your Father's Conservatism
Why We Must Move Past Your Father’s Conservatism
At this moment in our never-ending election cycle, it is not looking particularly good for Democrats. Joe Biden’s approval ratings are very low due to his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal and Kamala Harris’ approval rating is even lower than Biden’s. The GOP has every reason to be optimistic regarding the 2022 midterms, and the Democrats are rightfully concerned over their prospects. However, what many Christian conservatives are realizing, especially among younger Millennials and Generation Z, is that a win for the GOP does not always equal a win for theologically and politically conservative Protestants. This does not mean that Democrat victories are preferrable or even suggests that “both sides are just as bad.” Instead, it is a recognition that the current manifestation of political conservatism is an ineffective driver of cultural change and incapable of moving the Overton Window of what are socially acceptable ideas. Many have realized that today’s conservative politicians are in many ways just ten or fifteen years behind the democratic platforms on many issues. If one considers the RNC Pride Coalition, it might seem that Republicans are taking leftward leaning stances that Democrats even fifteen years ago would not have taken. This type of Conservatism is always playing defense. Now, part of that is built into the nature of the beast as to be Conservative means to conserve what we have, but of course this itself is an oversimplistic caricature that needs to be reexamined. But the problem with always playing defense is that even the best defenses eventually get scored on. Defense alone cannot change the cultural direction. This is one reason why the GOP is capable of winning skirmishes and even large temporary political battles but is incapable of winning any sort of multigenerational contest. To be the type of political movement that is able to shift the cultural tide would require corrections on a systematic level. The Republican party of our fathers’ generation must be abandoned in favor of a political movement with much more ideologically pointed goals and defenses. But before a cure can be prescribed, we must first look at the ugly conditions as they are.
The Republican Party is Theologically Anemic
All of politics is, at its core, theological. Every viewpoint has its fundamental assumptions regarding anthropology, evil, the basic makeup of reality, and justice. And every person is at a basic level a theologian; the only question is whether our theological views and assumptions are true or false, deeply grounded, or based on passing and arbitrary cultural trends. Unfortunately for the GOP, most of its modern commitments and ideas fall under the latter categories. Many who are conservative are so by personality or taste, not by any sort of commitment to ideological or theological truths that run deeper. These taste and personality commitments, though ideologically shallow, are still powerful. The human aversion to change is deeply rooted and can slow the tide of many progressive goals, but it is not a sufficient long-term strategy. Aversion to change by itself is what keeps conservatism on the defensive and its adherents becoming apologists for what should not be defended such as Confederate Statues commemorating sin and treachery. This sort of conservatism looks towards the past itself instead of a set of ideals, many of which happen to be from the past. Indeed, if many forms of progressivism seek to establish a utopian pipedream that can never be, this type of conservatism idealizes a golden era past that never was.
As a child before the Obergefell decision, I remember the shallowness of conservative commentary demonstrated in the gay marriage debates. Instead of rigorous defenses of traditional marriage, I witnessed slippery slope fallacies and repeated talking points about the “sanctity of marriage.” Absent from these discussions were any sort of appeals to natural law arguments related to the teleology of the human person and their aims. Instead, we were presented with statements about the sanctity of marriage to a nation with a fifty percent divorce rate. We were lectured to about covenantal bonds and oaths when the nation long ago abandoned any sort of covenant theology or the necessary categories to realize the importance of oaths and vows. I knew as a child watching these discussions that the battle was over years before the Obergefell decision came. The fundamental axioms and categories necessary to give the debate a proper hearing were abandoned long before I was even born. I was in many ways watching the remnants of a Cultural Christianity’s influence trying to defend historic orthodoxy by grasping at straws.
If modern conservatism is to win battles with long term goals, we must familiarize ourselves with ideas that predate the iPhone. There lies a wealth of defenses for our cultural ideas in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas to name but a few. Spending time at a left leaning university has taught me that few things are more disarming to progressives, both fellow students and teachers, than a conservative Evangelical with a working knowledge of the Western Canon. And when it comes to dialogues on the ground, knowledge of these ideas would prove to be invaluable. The average progressive, outside of a university professor, does not have anything resembling a rigid defense of their political values. At best they have sentiment and emotivism driven by cultural winds- powerful tools in their own right, but ones that can be defeated with the right skillset.
We Have an Inadequate Philosophy of Education
“The university should be a place for the free exchange of ideas. We shouldn’t teach kids what to think; we should teach them how to think.” I myself have said similar statements to these in the past and many conservatives still parrot them. Unfortunately, statements such as these are both naïve and ahistorical. Education has never in its history been value-neutral. College has never brought every idea to the table as equally valid and worthy of consideration. Many on the left realize this, as seen by the many legal battles fought over teaching Intelligent Design. Education has always been about indoctrination.
Today the word indoctrination has negative connotations, which is partly justified, as words change their nuance and meaning slightly over time. A similar example would be with the word ‘discriminate,’ which has been replaced by ‘discern’ or other similar words. But truthfully a child’s education should be about indoctrinating them with truth and discriminating against what is false when it comes to their curriculum. My wife homeschools our four children, and I make small contributions to their education by teaching them both theology, through the form of the Westminster Smaller Catechism, and languages, by way of teaching them Koine (biblical) Greek. When I teach them about the truth of Christianity, I do not also teach them Islam or secularism and let them decide for themselves what is true. I teach them the truth and how to answer falsehoods. Education has always had a goal in mind when teaching its students. In Plato’s Academy, Platonism was taught as truth. In Aristotle’s Lyceum, Aristotelianism was taught. And for students to be taught how to think, they first must be taught what to think. When teaching history or math, before students can apply critical thinking skills or how to achieve the highest form of knowledge, which is creativity, they must learn many basic facts about history, mathematics, and the world around them. Less controversial aspects of being taught what to think are things such as basic mathematical truths, but just as important are philosophical and theological truths about the world around us.
This semester, I was standing outside of a classroom waiting for the start time as two girls beside me were having a discussion over politics when one of them made a very candid confession: “I was actually very conservative in high school; since attending Belmont and studying Philosophy I have become much more left leaning. And I also am not a Christian anymore.” Many defenders of the “free marketplace of ideas” mantra would say that it is simply the exposure to these ancient thinkers that got her thinking and made her reevaluate her commitments. However, I do not think that is the case. If she were attending a conservative Christian school that taught an explicitly Christian Philosophy, would it have ended in the same result? Exceptions happen of course, but in general, liberal leaning universities result in students leaving more liberal, and conservative seminaries and colleges result in conservative students staying conservative. This is not a bug but a feature of the system. A liberal philosophy department and a conservative philosophy department both read Plato and Aristotle, but who guides students through these texts and how they are taught matters as much as the texts themselves. The education I received in Belmont’s philosophy department was not neutral regarding traditional Christian orthodoxy. I had three main professors and none of them came from a conservative evangelical perspective. Instead of Thomism, the perspectives prioritized were Nietzschean, Hegelian, and Physicalism.
If conservatives are going to influence the culture in the long term, they must prioritize education and the building of conservative colleges and universities. Instead of Marco Rubio’s statement that “America needs more plumbers and less philosophers,” conservatives must realize that we need more conservative philosophers to answer the bad progressive philosophies. Instead of hedging our bets with modest goals such as “Critical race theory can be taught in colleges but not high schools,” we should instead discriminate against falsehood and maintain that it should not be taught anywhere. While not denying the reality of systematic racism, we should also acknowledge that systematic leftism is a very real concern that is pumping ideologues out of our universities. Education has never been value-neutral, and conservatives must take advantage of the institutes of higher education.
We Have a Naïve View of Culture and Free Speech
If you want to rile up modern conservatives and rally the base, it is no longer about economic issues or tax rates or even jobs. It is the culture war. And near the top of the rally cries stands the issue of “cancel culture.” However, the current conservative critiques of cancel culture oversimplify the real issues, and because of this, they miss out on an important lesson about culture and human nature. Every culture cancels something.
Should a conservative college allow a convicted pedophile to come and lecture on sexual ethics? Of course not. But to listen to many of the more libertarian minded conservatives on this issue today would have you believe that anyone should be allowed to speak on a college campus. This is of course an overreaction towards liberal universities continually canceling conservative speakers, but the answer to this phenomenon is not to hold to some ahistorical view of unfiltered free speech where every viewpoint is allowed to be shared. The truth is that a culture is partly defined by its boundaries of what is allowed to be discussed and who is allowed to discuss it. And conservatives should not respond with a philosophy that allows any ideas to be brought forth, but one that is ideologically aimed at creating a certain type of society.
Instead of conservative theologians who are being canceled, we should cancel those who teach children that they are inherently oppressors because of their skin color or gender at birth. Instead of commentators who stand for basic orthodoxy when it comes to sexual ethics, we should cancel abortion doctors and then follow up that cancellation with legal prosecution. Unfortunately, progressives have consistently beaten us at activism and for rallying support for social causes, but this is beginning to shift. Many conservative states and employers have begun hiring fellow conservatives who have been fired from liberal companies or universities for their views. This is a first step that will accelerate the self-sorting that is already happening with progressives and conservatives moving into their own ideological echo chambers. That itself is a topic worthy of its own paper and cannot be a long-term stable solution, but it can work as a temporary band aid instead of granting the progressive side of the aisle all the powers of cultural and societal pressure and cancellation.
Pluralism is a Myth
Whether the separation of church and state was a step towards true liberty or another failure of the experiment of Liberalism I will leave to another time. For this paper I am focusing on working within the bounds of our founding ideals and documents and not some utopian pipedream that we can make from scratch. However, whatever is meant by the separation of church and state, what we cannot escape from is the brute fact that religious neutrality does not exist. Unfortunately, conservative Protestants have continually been duped into accepting the premise that freedom from Christian ideals must be constantly protected but that leftist secularism is somehow a religiously neutral ideology. A perfect example of this mindset was recently demonstrated in the oral arguments related to abortion before the Supreme Court. During the arguments, Liberal Judge Sonia Sotomayor questioned one of the prolife defenders on how his view of the fetus’ personhood was “anything more than a religious viewpoint?” Missing from the esteemed Judge’s perspective was exactly how her own view of the personhood of a fetus was anything more than a theological or philosophical position at its core.
Ultimately, even in a pluralistic society such as ours, there is a hierarchy of ideas and values. If we make pains to ensure that Christianity and its historic values and ethics are not the governing ideology behind our current cultural and societal moment, then something else will take its place. Nature abhors a vacuum and progressive secularism is happy to inhabit every sphere that Christian thought used to inhabit and to gleefully pretend that it is not a “religious viewpoint.” Therefore, whatever our viewpoints on religious liberty, and whether the state should condone a particular religion or not, we must make sure that these rules equally apply to the secularism of our age. It is my view that this sort of neutrality is ultimately impossible, therefore our ideology must be one grounded in metaphysical truth, and we should vote and argue accordingly in the public sphere.
The Path Forward
Readers that have gotten this far will undoubtedly realize the issues I have set forth for change in the conservative movement leave us with an irretractable problem. This type of conservatism cannot win. Therefore, we are faced with the reality that the type of conservatism that can win is constantly playing defense and is incapable of winning long term ideological goals, and the type of conservatism that can achieve those goals is unelectable at this current political moment. Does this mean we abandon the GOP since its current manifestation is not driving towards a shared view of the future? Absolutely not. Part of building a winning political coalition is allying with people who do not share your exact goals. But this does not mean that the status quo and direction of the GOP should not and cannot be altered towards a more profitable path.
The younger generation of conservatives is hungry for the type of change within the GOP towards a more “traditional conservatism” that is grounded in ancient ideas contained within Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Thomism. However, we must accept that the type of change we need cannot be reasonably attained by looking forward to the next candidate. This is a multigenerational battle. The left did not attain power over the cultural institutions in a moment, but it took generations for the influence of Conservative confessional Protestantism to wane. It will take at least as many more generations to change the cultural tide to a more acceptable direction.
Part of this is happening already with the splintering of our society into its echo chambers. The left’s hold over college age minds is dwindling as studies are showing less and less are choosing college as their path. I must admit that this is a good direction. If the only options are no college or a liberal university, many are choosing to educate themselves at home through various outlets. However, our goal cannot be anti-intellectualism. We must establish conservative universities that teach or indoctrinate their students into a worldview where the true, the good, and the beautiful are what is valued. We must not concede to the left’s cancellations nor aim towards a free-for-all of ideas, but instead fight to cancel what is ugly and false and to promote what is noble and true. We cannot concede to the left’s ideas of freedom of religion and abandon society to paganism. And at the heart of this cultural moment, we must realize that the battle is not ultimately left versus right, but barbarism vs civilization. Paganism versus a society that allows for human flourishing.