Christian Libertarians, Cultural Conservatives, and the Dilemma of Political Power

In reference to a Ross-Daniel back-and-forth, John Schwenkler says the following:

while I am similarly sympathetic to the corresponding Douthatian skepticism of the idea that a conservatism centered solely on apolitical calls for social and cultural reform – yes, even of the culinary sort – is going to be the thing to save America, that doesn’t mean that the conservative agenda can proceed forward in the absence of such elements, either. The relevant institutions and societal mores are in quite bad shape, and if all parties to the debate agree that they’re neither going to be recreated simply through creative economic and social policies nor spring up magically when the rug is pulled out from under the welfare state, then there ought to be a strong consensus that deliberate and concentrated “grassroots” attempts at bottom-up reforms should constitute an important part of the conservative project, too. I’m quite confident that Ross thinks this as well, and so that the disagreement here is primarily one of emphasis rather than substance – but it’s important to be clear that this can be a both/and, and not a simple either/or.

What follows is a meditation on the dilemmas this situation raises for conservatives and libertarians, especially Christian ones, and especially with regard to the strange third leg of the Revolutionary Stool — not liberty or equality but fraternity, AKA solidarity.

In an unpopular recent column, Thomas Frank alleged that DC libertarians were conspicuously unable to strike the kind of balance John is reaching for — because the business of libertarian politics inside the beltway makes the ‘libertarian lifestyle’, in practice, an unattractive absurdity. The result: an ideal cultural condition is politicized in such a way that it can never obtain. A similar charge can be leveled against Republicans, too — crusading conservative comes to Washington and starts racking up divorces — but this is essentially a question of personal, not structural, corruption (unless you think people really are powerless to withstand the attractions of power). There would be a serious problem with the structure of national/federal politics if it really were impossible to achieve policy success without both paying lip service to a way of life and actively undermining it…or at least letting it die of criminal neglect.

And indeed this is a charge that’s been leveled against the Bush administration, which has given cultural conservatives what they wanted on judges and perhaps taxes and nothing more. Yet if the stronger/structural argument that I just mentioned is true, the Bush administration merits less contempt, because in order to get the traction on policy it got it had to sail cultural conservatives down the river.

Obviously, that argument sounds awful. A more serious argument, following John, is that ‘grassroots’ attempts at ‘bottom-up’ cultural reforms are incompatible with the practice of national politics. Not that different groups of conservatives can’t do two different things; just that going to Washington has turned out to be the conservative version of the impatience that led liberals to abandon the slow work of passing legislation and go straight to the highest courts they could find. (Can’t convince people to stop having abortions? Pass a Constitutional amendment!) The whole logic of ‘cultural reform’ is different at the grassroots — versus the national — level. Nationalizing cultural issues, and then politicizing them, turns out to undermine and supersede grassroots cultural reform itself. In part, this may be a product of despair. What if the country really is doomed unless the government orders its decadent citizens to become dutiful, soberminded family members? But it may also be a practical attempt to fight fire with fire. So cultural conservatives saw the left use the law to anti-democratically enact social change, and resolved that they had no choice but to respond in kind. And of course despair and practicality can merge.

But another possibility is that nationalizing cultural issues stems from a conviction that failing to do so unacceptably allows fellow Americans (and/or humans) to suffer. The trouble for Christian libertarians, I think, is mapped by the limits of their missionary work. My inclination in moral matters is toward reliance on the missionary value of lived example (and philosophical blog posts), and away from both national lawmaking and assertive traveling ministry. The question of who exactly is the neighbor plagues the Christian libertarian, and not just he or she. And the problem with Gersonism is that it uses the political power of the State to pressure us as much as possible — not just into acting as if we took all human beings to be our Christian neighbors, but into acting thus on account of a sincerely felt compassion — or perhaps the word is misericordia, Christian pity — for them. So whereas Alasdair MacIntyre, for instance, endorses the virtue of pity in regard to strangers who come to us, Gerson wants to inspire a quest for strangers to embrace in the bonds of solidarity.

And here is the dilemma of politics on the right: culturally, conservatives incline naturally toward solidarity; politically, they inherently distrust it. Politically, conservatives doubt and suspect appeals to fraternity. They are far more at home with maintaining and improving the political liberty of equal citizens. To the extent that politically active conservatives come to see politics as the means to solidarity, I submit, they diminish their conservatism. The common bonds of citizenship are serious; they ought to endure; they clearly delineate who is a member of one’s sovereign regime and who is not. But they are not more serious or deeper than the bonds of common culture. So, at least, true conservatives, I think, are predisposed to argue. (This is not incompatible with a libertarian perspective, either.) Least of all, in the conservative view, should political solidarity be activated by a call to create, expand, or strengthen some form of fraternity that trumps existing cultural and political solidarity alike — a brotherhood of man, for instance. For conservatives, such a move is an abuse of political power sure to bring on yet greater misuses and usurpations.

The challenge to this view, posed by Christianity, is that both politics and culture are parochial, incomplete, and even profane sources of allegiance to people unrelated by blood. The question that has faced Christians thinking about political philosophy since the fall of the Roman Empire has been in what regime Christians can be free, or absolved, of the guilt of not making neighbors of strangers. “Pierre Manent:“ makes an intriguing, and idiosyncratic, case that the nation-state — as opposed both to the city-state and the empire — comes closest. But even this formula requires a nation — a nationalized culture — and the love of localism prominent among conservatives, especially American ones, militates strongly against the consolidation of a Heideggerean Volk. (As it should.) Americans, in short, appear to be stuck between the illusion of cultural solidarity and political solidarity, with each unattainable and inappropriate yet impossible to ever fully repudiate. True conservatives, as I see it (or am I projecting a little postmodern conservatism?) tend to insist that this awkwardness is an indelible feature of modern American life, one through which all our ambitions, fears, and hopes are filtered. And they tend to resist those who think and act otherwise. The question then for (these) conservatives is whether to remain in the hinterland or converge on the capital. And ultimately, to finally come back around to John’s point, that question can only be answered in the particulars of the individuals who face it.