Good government or creeping totalitarianism?
Some Christian commentators have become quite concerned with Christian participation in the broad coalition that comes under the heading of National Conservatism. The fear, more or less, is that National Conservatism is a repudiation of the system of fundamental American rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, and that it is a dangerous, revolutionary ideology. Admittedly, there is a pretty strong libertarian undercurrent to this critique: if you’re not Ayn Rand, or at least Milton Friedman, you’re Hitler, etc.
I, like many on the right, was very impressed with the libertarianism of Ron Paul when I first discovered him over twenty years ago. Although I do not follow him closely these days I still respect many of the instincts that guided him. The basic impulse toward limiting the scope of government still seems right to me. The closer you get to the real problems and needs Americans face, the better, and the federal government as it currently exists in all of its bloated, ham-fisted, and increasingly totalitarian swampiness is rarely the solution to the challenges average Americans face, and is rapidly becoming a threat to the very things they rightly hold dear. This is not to say, however that the State never is the solution: natural disasters (although state and local efforts still often remain better able to respond to real needs), interstate infrastructure, foreign affairs, the military, and so on are obvious areas where radical localism or libertarianism as an unbending philosophy is incorrect.
Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas independence, got it right: “To govern well is a great science, but no country is ever improved by too much governing. Govern wisely and as little as possible.”1 Houston memorably captures two truths that shouldn’t be placed in opposition (by National Conservatives or anyone else). First, statesmen must be capable of good and just governance. The State is a necessary and good thing if ruled rightly. There is much that cannot be done without it. But secondly, and just as importantly, the State, especially the Federal State, should seek to intervene in the lives of Americans only when absolutely necessary, because it is often not the institution best suited to the task.
National Conservatism is admittedly a very broad coalition. What could perhaps be seen as the single unifying factor is that it urges the proper use of State power in forming and fashioning a just and healthy nation in a way that is anathema to libertarians. This might not seem like a particularly novel distinctive, but many (if not most) in leadership positions in American conservatism have for some time not seen fit to even try to ensure that genuinely conservative policies are implemented via laws and regulations. They’ve become convinced that strict neutrality is the only option, which means in practice that they merely pave the way for leftists to implement their vision for America. However, there are signs that the momentum is shifting at the highest levels, perhaps exemplified most clearly in the new direction taken by the Heritage Foundation, such a major shaper of conservative opinion and policy.
Actually working toward putting into place genuinely conservative policies for the national welfare is an approach that animates the whole movement of National Conservatism, although it takes quite diverse forms in the ideas of its many cobelligerents. It is an idea that is thoroughly Christian as well, as can be seen in Romans 13:1–7, which indicates that the State is a divine institution, created to be a terror to evil-doers, and an approver of what is good.2 That is to say, the State exists to administer strict justice, and in so doing to turn its citizens away from evil and toward the good. It even exists to fulfill a “ministerial” function (to the bane of libertarians) in the raising of revenue for the common good, that is, to provide for “the common Defence and general Welfare” of the State, to borrow from Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. (For the sake of argument I’m assuming the U.S. Constitution was not a charter of fascist totalitarianism).
One of the main fears of Christian commentators on National Conservatism I’ve seen is that it is an abandonment of the foundational rights at the heart of the American founding. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all that. This is a strange claim. It could perhaps be said of some figures loosely associated with National Conservatism, such as Patrick Deneen, that they genuinely believe that America’s founding ideas, as exemplified in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers, and even at times the U.S. Constitution, are irremediably infected with the rationalistic and individualistic poison of Enlightenment philosophy. However, this is by no means a view held by most in the National Conservative orbit. In fact, Catholic Integralists such as Deneen seem to be increasingly distancing themselves from the National Conservative coalition.3
But Yoram Hazony, founder and intellectual guru of the NatCons, clearly and explicitly affirms America’s founding principles. He does so, it is true, by showing that America’s founding was not aligned unreservedly, or even primarily, with the political philosophy of the Enlightenment (classical liberalism). Hazony, in his book Conservatism, shows in detail how the liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution were instead nothing other than a restatement of the basic (yes, inalienable) liberties of Englishmen that had developed over the many centuries leading up to the American Revolution:
In the Petition of Right [a 1628 act of the English Parliament], then, we find the famous principle of ‘no taxation without representation,’ as well as versions of the rights that would eventually be enumerated in the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments of the American Bill of Rights—all declared to be ancient constitutional English freedoms and unanimously approved by Parliament. Although not mentioned in the Petition explicitly, freedom of speech had likewise been reaffirmed by [seventeenth century English jurist Edward] Coke as ‘an ancient custom of Parliament’ in the 1590s and was subject of the so-called Protestation of 1621 that landed Coke, then seventy years old, in the Tower of London for nine months.4
In this he is quite similar to Russell Kirk, who in The Roots of American Order, argues:
‘Liberty!’ was a rallying cry on the eve of the American Revolution precisely because the people of the Thirteen Colonies always had known a high degree of political freedom. They were not demanding new rights, but were protesting in defense of political customs long established and sanctioned. The Patriots turned to theorists’ books only for philosophical confirmation of practices they had enjoyed in America from the beginning.5
A comparison of those many documents and events of English political history that form the background for America’s political experience—from the Magna Carta to the Petition of Right to the Glorious Revolution to the English Bill of Rights—make it clear that the American founding by no means entailed a whole-hearted adoption of Enlightenment (classically liberal) political theories. As Kirk puts it: “Their developing forms of civil government could be discerned well before John Locke published his Treatises.”6
The American revolution was primarily a reassertion of the “traditional liberties of Englishmen,” liberties that significantly predate the American Revolution. It is true that the American founders occasionally drew from contemporary political sources such as John Locke (although figures like Montesquieu, with his idea of the separation of powers, were significantly more influential), they by no means adopted such thought wholeheartedly or uncritically. Kirk once more:
When educated Americans of that century approved a writer, commonly it was because his books confirmed well their American experience, justified their American institutions, appealed to convictions they had held already: with few exceptions, the Americans were not fond of intellectual novelties.7
This becomes blindingly obvious, as Kirk highlights, when one compares the American and French Revolutions. The American Revolution did not seek to overturn the basic social order that already existed in the America colonies, and which had been developing for a century and a half. Once the Revolution was successful it was back to business as usual, their traditional English rights having been successfully defended. How different the French Revolution: by means of a devastating and brutal civil war the revolutionaries sought to form an entirely new world ex nihilo, indeed a wholly new social and political order, based solely on abstract principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, principles wholly alien to the American social and political order.8
Edmund Burke famously wrote of England’s Glorious Revolution (1688) that is was a “revolution not made, but prevented” in the sense that is put a stop to King James II’s truly revolutionary attempt to rule as an unlimited autocrat. And the American Revolution, along with the Bill of Rights and rest of the U.S. Constitution, could be described as “the fruition of English constitutional development during the four preceding centuries,” stretching back to that (Glorious) revolution not made, but prevented, and much further.9
National Conservatism, a broad and diverse coalition, seeks the same thing. It seeks to harness the power of the state to “govern wisely;” to punish evil and promote the good of one’s nation. It seeks to do so as a return to the very principles of the American founding, not as their rejection, an attempt that fits squarely within the basic parameters of statecraft laid out in the Bible (as in Romans 13), although at odds with full-fledged libertarianism.
The challenges currently facing our nation and society—chief among them, the fanatical, totalitarian, leftist revolution currently in progress—require decisive State action. If successful, the ideas of National Conservatism, as implemented in concrete governmental actions, will themselves prove to be the means of a revolution not made, but prevented; a return to American’s founding ideals, not their abandonment.
*Image Credit: Wikipedia
- Sam Houston, The Autobiography of Sam Houston (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), 254. ↩
- As the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 1:8–9: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…” ↩
- That said, there will always be individual and idiosyncratic voices one could latch on to in order to discredit the whole movement. ↩
- Yoram Hazony, Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2022), 14. Hazony is admittedly less sanguine about the philosophical influences on the specific wording of the Declaration of Independence, but many who would otherwise agree with Hazony, recognize even the language of the Declaration to have roots in traditional English liberties. ↩
- Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (4th edition; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute), 323. ↩
- Kirk, Roots, 331-32. Fascinatingly, John Locke actually created from scratch what he deemed to be an ideal constitution for the American colony of Carolina (what would become North and South Carolina), called “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.” “But,” as Kirk notes, “this fantastic constitution never took effect. . . . the Carolina settlers rejected the Fundamental Constitutions, even when the document was modified. . . . From the first, the colonists were suspicious of political abstractions. They governed themselves, instead, according to the practical circumstances in which they found themselves. . . . This should be a chastening thought for those historians who argue that John Locke’s writings formed the American political mind; for when colonists were confronted with Locke’s one practical proposal for the colonies, they rejected it root and branch” (Kirk, Roots, 316-17). ↩
- Kirk, Roots, 347. ↩
- The French revolutionaries kept using that word “liberty.” I do not think it means what they thought it means. ↩
- Kirk, Roots, 296. This whole paragraph is dependent on Kirk. ↩