The Corner


On Secularism and Conservatism

Dennis Prager at CPAC 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

I just have a couple thoughts to add to Robert’s thoughtful post on my friend Dennis Prager’s column.

William F. Buckley wrestled with these same issues. He did not believe that one had to be a “believer” to be a conservative. He did believe that one had to have respect for “transcendence” and the role it plays institutionally, culturally, and historically. Transcendence covers a lot of territory, not entirely contained by the formal borders of organized religion, but it most certainly includes organized religion. The secular conservative — whether merely operationally secular (devoted to the division of Church and State, committed to the Enlightenment principles of reason, etc.) or fully atheist should have an appreciation of the role religion plays in decent society and in the Western tradition generally. Hostility to, or hatred for, organized religion is decidedly un-conservative.

Moreover, the secular conservative should also be wary of secular faiths that seek to do the work of religion, both because secular faiths cannot do what religion does and because most attempts to replace formal religion with a “scientific” faith lead to one kind of oppression or tyranny.

This point was at the heart of the excommunication of Ayn Rand from the Buckleyite Right. Whitaker Chambers, I’ve long argued, was overly harsh to Rand when he “read her out” of the conservative movement. But the thrust of his complaint was correct. “Religion is the first enemy of the objectivist, and after religion, the state-respectively, ‘the mysticism of the mind’ and ‘the mysticism of the muscle.’” “Randian Man,” Chambers declared, “like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.”

In Buckley’s “Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism,” he wrote:

Her exclusion from the conservative community was, I am sure, in part the result of her desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with the conservative’s emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral; but also there is the incongruity of tone, that hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism that is in itself intrinsically objectionable, whether it comes from the mouth of Ehrenburg, or Savonarola-or Ayn Rand. Chambers knew that specific ideologies come and go, but that rhetorical totalism is always in the air, searching for the lightning rod of the ideologue-on-the-make; and so he said things about Miss Rand’s tone of voice which, I would hazard a guess, were it the tone of anyone else’s voice, would tend to make it, eo ipso, unacceptable for the conservative.

I don’t want to put words in Buckley’s mouth, so I will make the following point on my own. His point about the rhetorical totalism of Objectivism points to a kind of transcendence that is not necessarily religious in nature. In religion, transcendence speaks to the divine, the external and eternal unknowable forces that are independent of the world we know — or can know. Again, in religious terms, this kind of transcendence inspires humility because we are small pieces of God’s unknowable plan.

But in non-religious terms, there’s another kind of humility that comes from an appreciation of the unknowable complexity of society and history. This appreciation is what unites self-described Old Whigs such as the devout Edmund Burke and the agnostic Friedrich Hayek. As Burke put it, “The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.” (I’m not wholly convinced this is correct empirically, but I agree with the spirit of this in the Anglo-American tradition.)

The wholly secular, even atheist, conservative differs from many (though certainly not all) on the left by virtue of the fact that he or she rejects the idea that any ideology or secular faith can answer the question: How should all people live?

The secular conservative can — and should — have an unshakable faith in some procedural rules about how people should interact (the non-harm principle, the golden rule, whatever). The secular conservative (in America at least) should almost have firm opinions about the importance of limited government, the sovereignty of the individual, etc., but should not have monistic or totalistic ideas about what every individual should do with their freedom. The pursuit of happiness and meaning, whether religiously informed or not, is an individual right and cannot be imposed on all. As Russell Kirk put it, “In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.”

The transcendence here is not divine, but it is informed by the mysteries of history, spontaneous order, the wisdom of the ancients, and the embedded knowledge found in tradition that can only be accumulated over time.

And that brings me to my second and, thankfully, much briefer point. I found Dennis’s column to be an interesting follow-on to the column that preceded it. Last week, Dennis argued that the moral character of a president paled in importance, to the point of triviality, when compared to the morality of his or her policies. Whatever the merits of that claim, which are certainly debatable, I find it hard not to see the thrust of that argument as remarkably secular. It is utterly instrumentalist and consequentialist in its claim that we should judge politicians purely by the desirability of their policy program. Arguing that it’s ultimately okay (or at least irrelevant) for public role models to flout religious norms — and sacraments! — so long as they get tax and regulatory policy right strikes me as something very close to the “secular indoctrination” that Dennis condemns in his most recent column.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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