What’s not to like about Ross’s treatment of Gerson? Let me reproduce a quote of Gerson’s that Ross sampled and then a quote from Ross himself.
Gerson: The Christian faith teaches that our common humanity is more important than our nationality. That all of us, ultimately, are strangers in this world and brothers to the bone; and all in need of amnesty.
Ross: This “here comes everybody” quality has been the American Right’s great strength over the past three decades, and a Republican Party that aspires to govern America can ill afford to read the Gersons of the world—social conservatives with moderate-to-liberal sympathies on economics—out of its coalition. Particularly since Gerson’s central argument is basically correct: American conservatism needs to stand for something besides government-cutting if it hopes to regain the majority that George W. Bush won (and quickly lost).
Despite this passage, Ross gestures later in a contrary direction that I would want to make explicit: Gerson is not a social conservative. For a more truly socially conservative but politically and economically liberal perspective, go read Christopher Lasch, who, to my mind, decisively dismissed helpy heroism in his posthumous 1994 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. There he made still-relevant observations like these:
we are content to institutionalize competence in the caring class, which arrogates to itself the job of looking out for everybody else.
populism is to be preferred to communitarianism, which is too quick to compromise with the welfare state and to endorse its ideology of compassion.
civic life…depends not so much on compassion as on mutual respect.
The bottom line of Gerson’s pitch is that I, American citizen, must infuse my politics with love for people I do not respect because they and I alike share a human nature as fragile and interdependent brothers and sisters ‘to the bone’ in Christ. Whatever you think of this — and however you might, like Gerson, actually want to extend it beyond Christianity ‘in partnership’ with other doctrines of universal love — you have to admire, in light of those Lasch quotes above, Gerson’s democratic approach. It seems to be much less a matter of setting up a Caring Class than actualizing Goethe’s dystopia:
Speaking for myself, I too believe that humanity will win in the long run [remarked Goethe in 1787]. I am only afraid that at the same time the world will have turned into one huge hospital where everyone is everybody else’s humane nurse.
Indeed, this is the risk communitarianism poses, even its MacIntyrean strain. But the obvious problem here is that all this decentralized humane ad-hoccery is woefully inefficient. Would that there were some organ which could legitimate the centralization of administrative power so as to further the extent and expertise of helpy heroism! Ah, but there is: ‘government.’ As I have just alleged there is no such thing as ‘government’: this word is a rhetorical device to make us forget that there are not just different types of government but different layers and scales of it, as well, the most important of which to political liberty in the United States are those that make ours a federalist system. Under federalism, the burdens of governing are centralized while the burdens of administration are localized. Only in such an arrangement can America maintain the active citizenship of the many. That active citizenship in turn sustains the foundations of friendship and respect which pull us out of abstract universal love and into daily interactions as equals. Unfortunately, the authority of science pulls, for once, in the same direction as the growing authority of love. As Lasch puts it, we increasingly think that
the time [has] come for a new departure, at once more scientific and more humane.
The cost is equality in active citizenship. Without it, no amount of brotherhood to the bone — quasi-Christian, quasi-socialist, or both — can prevent the ideologies of government compassion and universal love from working diligently against political liberty in the name of something higher. This is at least certainly true in the United States today.
What the Republican Party needs to do to have a hope over the course of the next generation is to bring Lasch’s version of “here comes everybody” back into the center of politics. This involves being unafraid to affirmatively challenge the ideology of love and compassion. Whether or not any national candidate can do this without resorting to the ideologies of paranoia and security is a question Republicans would do well to ponder in depth. On the answer may hinge a determination that only a recapture of political power at the sub-national level can offer a path toward a truly worthwhile politics. If this is so, then even Lasch is too much of a national populist and not enough of a platoon populist. The resistance to nationalized vanguard politics — whether Marxist, Gersonian, or whatever — probably cannot quite function right as the politics of a similarly nationalized counter-vanguard. This is the true conservative dilemma, and may well be the reason why, as Kirk wanted to put it before his editors stopped him, the history of true conservatism in modern times has largely been the history of a rout.