Saturday, December 01, 2007

Throne, Altar, and Uniquely American Conservatism

I honestly didn't expect, when I first read this article, to digg and blog off it. David Gordon's review of Paul Gottfried's "Conservatism in America" initially came across as dry, long, and moderately interesting... worth a read, but probably not worth adding my digg to maybe ten others. Then I got up to start cleaning my kitchen, and all kinds of thoughts started sparking off. You can read, and digg, the article that has inspired me by following the links below.

read more | digg story

I have, for the past few months, been very perplexed as to what, exactly, Conservatism is. I understood that, in the REALLY old days, Conservatism in America would have meant loyalty to the English king, and opposition to the American Revolution. In a way, I've seen today's Conservatism meaning a leaning toward enthusiastic assumption of Britain's former imperial glory. How does that square with the longstanding rhetoric Conservatives have given in favor of the Constitution, and reverence of the Founding Fathers, most of whom were, in their day, quite liberal?

Paul Gottfried's Conservatism in America (or rather, what I gleaned from David Gordon's review) points out that European Conservatism has always referred to "an all-encompassing reverence for 'Throne-and-Altar,' for whatever divinely sanctioned State apparatus happened to be in existence." Thus, French Conservatism was distinguished by loyalty to the French King, the feudal order, and the Catholic Church. German Conservatism was distinguished by loyalty to the Kaiser, the feudal order, and the Lutheran (or possibly the Catholic) Church. British Conservatism was distinguished by loyalty to the British Monarchy, the slightly less feudal order, and the Anglican Church. And so it would go for any European country.

The American Conservative would appear to be in a bind. Without a feudal order, without a state-sanctioned church, and with liberalism (in the old European sense, not in today's socialistic sense) firmly ingrained in the American character, what is a would-be Conservative to do? Where is their "throne-and-altar?" The answer that came to me (as I placed dishes in the dishwasher) suddenly became a startling argument in favor of American Exceptionalism, a doctrine I normally reject. For the American Conservative, the only throne they can look to is the Constitution, and the only Altar they can look to is the melchisian high priesthood of Jesus himself!

At its best, this produces an uneasy unity between Conservative and Liberal that was absent in Europe. The Conservative can be devoted to liberty, limited government, religious tolerance and similar ideas due to their enshrinement in the Constitution. The Liberal shares a similar devotion on principle alone. A Conservative with a view of scripture that prohibits warfare on the grounds that warfare is as far from "love thy enemy, and pray for him that persecutes you" as it can get, can ally with a Liberal that opposes warfare on humanistic grounds. Constitutionalist Conservatives and Liberals can rally together in defense of the freedom of speech, assembly, and worship.

Of course, this doesn't make America into some kind of land without conflict. In addition to the disagreements and dislikes that naturally arise between the two temperaments, there is another conflict that is, I believe, uniquely American (today, at least): that between those who favor the limited government spelled out in the Constitution (for whatever reason), and those who favor a much more active, authoritarian government (for whatever reason). This is a conflict that transcends "Conservative" and "Liberal", for both sides can rally behind one, or the other.

For the Conservative, I suppose it is the underwhelming nature of Constitution and Jesus as their "throne-and-altar" that produces this schism. From the very beginning of the Republic, there have been those who hungered for a much more down-to-earth hierarchy to revere, which I identify with Alexander Hamilton's advocacy of a government headed by a congressionally elected president with a lifelong term (a king, basically), which would pursue "imperial glory" (his words). Being a Puritan, he likely also favored the idea of a state-sanctioned church (as the Puritan Church was in his day). Today, we see this idea coming to full fruition: a staunch Conservative alliance lining up behind an Imperial Presidency, with interchurch associations bragging about their closeness to and influence over various politicians, even as the influence flows the other way as well, and various church leaderships actively support one candidate or another.

For the Liberal, I suppose it is the disappointment in the failure of the Liberal political program to achieve Liberal results. Egalitarianism is a prime goal of Liberalism, and the fact is, even if you extend the vote to every last man and woman in the country, the State will continue to be largely the playground of the rich and the politically connected. The belief that this can be dealt with by the forceful application of the power of the state, at the behest of a popular majority, to the distribution of property, is yet strong in this country. Thus, while Liberalism in continental Europe continues to refer to what we call Libertarianism in this country, in America Liberalism became, in the minds of many, synonymous with Socialism. Thus, from another angle, we see Liberals advocating a government every bit as powerful as that aimed at by conservatives dissatisfied with the Constitution as written.

To big government Liberals, I pose a question: how is it then that an institution that is incorrigibly under the influence of wealth and power is expected to supply a remedy to the problem of the misuse of wealth and power?

To big government, religious Conservatives, I pose a warning: you seek to bring throne-and-altar down from heaven onto earth. Understand, however, that what you will get is not throne-and-altar, but usurper-and-idol. In particular, America has long been blessed by a Church which is lead, at the top level, not by Man or Men, but by God. Will you overturn this, and place your image of God in His stead?

1 comment:

bleong said...

You have written an excellent essay.

Conservatism is a hard word to pin a definition to. To me, saying that conservatism must always include the reverence to "throne and alter" seems too bold of an extrapolation. It is perhaps simpler, with less need of American exceptions, to think of Conservatism being based on a reverence of the status quo or even a previous time (even if it's imagined).

The throne and alter seem more like icons of and tools to preserve the status quo rather than necessary qualifications to make something conservative. I can imagine a time in Chinese history where Conservatism could exist with absolutely no reverence towards religion.

Great to hear your thoughts.

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