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Conservatism in four parts

Politics | Can libertarians, traditionalists, neoconservatives, and Christian conservatives put the pieces together?

James Bruce, assistant professor of philosophy at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark., posts thoughtful articles from a biblical perspective on a libertarian website, Library of Law and Liberty. Here are two we’ve combined two—one from last year and another from earlier this week—that apply insights from University of Virginia politics professor James W. Ceaser.

Bruce, with degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of Oxford, and Baylor University, is the author of Rights in the Law: The Importance of God’s Free Choices in the Thought of Francis Turretin. —Marvin Olasky

Four heads and one heart

James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has an excellent essay called “Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement,” in his recently published Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice. I read it for this year’s Miller Summer Institute, sponsored by the Jack Miller Center, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy.

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It’s an eye-opening piece: Ceaser helped me understand both the unity and the disunity of the right, its agreements and its squabbles. First, the agreement: It’s found in conservatism’s one heart, a heart that hates liberalism. A common “antipathy to liberalism” unites conservatives, not shared intellectual principles. He writes:

“It has been said in jest that the conservative movement in America today is held together today by two self-evident truths: Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Like many such comments, this one contains a kernel of truth. Much of the unity that exists among conservatives stems from their shared antipathy to liberalism. It serves as the common heart that beats in the breast of the conservative movement’s diverse and often fractious components. If by some strange dispensation liberalism were to cease to exist tomorrow, conservatism would begin to break apart on the next day.”

The left is different, according to Ceaser; they march under the same banner, touting the same ideals. They get angry with dissenters in their midst because heretics abandon shared liberal principles. Conservatives, by contrast, “have never operated under the illusion of ultimate agreement.”

That’s because, though conservatives have one heart, animated against liberalism, they have four heads, each favoring its own first principle or foundational concept. The heads can be distinguished by these different foundations, which they use to determine what is right or good; they are also known, as we shall see, by what they most deplore in liberalism.

The four heads are (1) traditionalism; (2) neoconservatism; (3) libertarianism, and (4) the religious right. For traditionalists, America’s original culture is to be cherished and guarded. Culture or history decides what is right or good. The foundational concept for neoconservatives, by contrast, is natural right, discerned by human reason, even if it is also established by divine law. Libertarians have a different foundational principle: spontaneous order, that is, letting things work out for themselves without trying to impose a plan. And, finally, Ceaser says, biblical faith animates the religious right.

With different foundations, it should be no surprise that each head hates a different feature of liberalism. Traditionalists find the rejection of the American Founding and our civic identity deplorable; neoconservatives lament liberalism’s relativism; libertarians object to market intervention, government planning, and big government, and members of the religious right decry liberalism’s secularism.

I’m persuaded by Ceaser’s analysis, and it’s interesting how our think tanks, foundations, and journals rarely embrace more than one or two heads. I’m not trying to be provocative or difficult—and I’m certainly open to counterexamples—but (I imagine) foundations, magazines, etc. are established because philanthropists have particular visions for the work that they want to do, and, being conservatives, they set out general guiding principles for the work, or, being conservatives, they have specific things about liberalism they want to criticize. There are places, e.g., the Philadelphia Society, where the four heads try to come together, but, for the most part, different institutions will speak (or read) differently than others, because they speak with the voice of one or two heads, but not all four.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But Ceaser’s piece is instructive because it reminds us that there are real differences within the conservative coalition. If you think that conservatism is monolithic, you’ll be surprised at how different conservative events feel (a vacuous word, perhaps, but I can’t think of a better one). If you’re at a traditionalist or religious right affair, expect a public prayer before lunch. If you’re at a libertarian lunch, don’t expect one. And don’t think that the libertarians who aren’t praying together publicly don’t pray privately (they may, they may not); it’s just not what brought them together.

Reprinted with permission of James E. Bruce. © 2013. All rights reserved.

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