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The Return of Politics

No enemies to the right (NETTR). Reward friends and punish enemies. The friend-enemy distinction. Know what time it is. These are all new mantras on the new right. They simultaneously mark the return of illiberal political relations and the consideration of substantive goods, the moral orientation of the polity—an ends-based politics. In other words, the return of politics qua politics.

That is, the end of liberalism which marked a brief interlude in human history wherein conflict mitigation served as the chief political goal which, in turn, required the dismissal or demolition of what Rusty Reno calls “strong loves” or “strong gods” given their tendency to instigate conflict. The rub is that the strong gods also produce indispensable societal glue. Paradoxically to the liberal mind, a well-ordered society is impossible without the presence of these contestations rooted in human anthropology.

A political posture—true political action—foreign to the post-war liberal mind is found here. Initiative dedicated to more than feminine passivity (conflict avoidance), but that also recognizes the brutal necessities presented by real politics. For those conditioned by liberalism, divergent political goals that extend beyond endurance of the status quo or the preservation of preexistent institutions will be offensive, nonsensical even. Liberals fear reassessment of the basics, so to speak, because they dread, rightly or wrongly, both the path toward and outcome of said reassessment. To them, the ends are abhorrent and the means are questionable.

The aforementioned mantras will be castigated as “Machiavellian,” a moniker that is expected to make the hearer shudder as he imports the worst things—probably popularly known crimes of the twentieth century—he can mentally conjure into it.

And yet, the posture sketched above is not cynical. Politics, to be legitimate and worthy of the name, must have in view higher ends extending beyond procedures of adjudication; it must first and foremost prize the maintenance and longevity of the political unit in view.

This political logic and mode of action is classically known as reason of state. In our present moment, the right would do well to readopt this outlook if it seeks to preserve its way of life—its preferred and true symbiosis. None of this is historically foreign to Christians generally nor Protestants in particular. Indeed, Christians should exercise political power and engage political conflict—an inevitable fact of fallen life—in the most realistic way possible; and traditionally they did just that. (For our purposes as well, the “reason of state” posture must be adapted to more granular forms of political conflict.)  

Before we move on, we should note a recent thread from Josh Daws explaining quite well different camps of response to NETTR with each camp being defined and motivated by diverse ends. This taxonomy has explanatory power. What follows is intended for normative consumption and assumes that the primary political goal of the right—necessarily including the Christian right—is the preservation of a certain way of life. That is the American way of life as historically conceived. The extent to which this goal as articulated differs from Charles Haywood’s (NETTR) aim of defeating the left is largely superficial since preservation requires maintenance which, in turn, requires repelling threats to said maintenance.

The left, broadly conceived, represents the single greatest threat to the way of life in view. Long past is the liberal façade of electoral contests between equally (on balance) oppositional parties—in view was some kind of elusive equilibrium. If that ever existed in earnest, it was brief and long gone. The stakes, the threat to a certain way of life, long eroded but now under threat of a kill shot, are too high. We do not now speak of rudimentary if annoying quibbles. In play are society-ending, oppressive moral overhauls—assaults on reality itself, the dictates of all God’s revelation in both modes of epistemological delivery.  

The acknowledgment of this fact is not intended to induce despair but rather urgency, not abandonment of current political forms per se, but rather creative engagement therein with a new posture, a new sensibility, more awareness that can reinvigorate the right given undeniable political realities. A reinvestigation of seventeenth-century political reasoning, adjusted for our present context and status, is in order. Granted, what follows is, in the original texts in view, fixated on kings, rulers, and magistrates. But the political import of the insights is apt for any context or station. The public-private distinction, the fate of the commonwealth, et cetera applies to the republican citizen as much as the feudal lord. Those who insist on pietistic privatization of American political existence must confront the heavy burden placed upon enjoyers of great privileges and immunities. A private, un-political life is unavailable to that citizen.

George Mosse, in his learned but forgotten little book, The Holy Pretence (1968), aptly defines the reason of state doctrine, which Giovanni Botero said originated not with Machiavelli but with Tacitus:

“Reason of state… is the maxim of political action which tells the statesman what he must do in order to maintain the health and the power of the state. As such it orients statesmanship towards the realities of political life, and judges the ruler by his success in the adroit handling of political power.”

Reason of state as realist political heuristic provides not only for a distinction between public and private morality in statesmen because of the distinction between public and private ends, but also for the difference between public and private relations—that friend-enemy distinction you’ve heard so much about.

Mosse unveils something that may surprise readers, viz., that Protestants embraced and employed this tradition of political reasoning, what is now not incorrectly referred to as Machiavellian. A political Protestant casuistry emerged in the seventeenth century, some manifestations more casuist, which is to say religious, than others. The Atheisticall Polititian (1642), attributed to the Huguenot-English lawyer and merchant, James Bovey (or “Boevey”) (1622-1696), and alternatively titled Vindication of the Hero of Political Learning (1692), was the first vindication of Machiavelli in English. Even as he scolded Machiavelli for his suspected atheism, he did not accuse him of cynicism for, as Bovey recognized, the Florentine was predominately taken up with realist observation of political necessity in a fallen world. But the most important insight lifted from Machiavelli by Bovey was his distinction between public and private morality. “Policy,” writes Mosse, “was something for those who ruled and not for private men.”

Richard Becon (or “Beacon”), an Elizabethan Irish lawyer, had made the same distinction earlier in his Solon his follie, or a politique discourse, touching the reformation of common-weales conquered, declined or corrupted (1594). This work, inter alia, complicates the received narrative that the reception of Machiavelli in Tudor England was purely negative. (Becon’s use of Machiavellian themes in his dialogue was evidently intended to urge the English government to adopt a more muscular posture toward Ireland.)

To be clear, reason of state is a “policy” or preservation and restoration, not eradication or revolution. Becon: “A Reformation of a declined common-weal, is nothing else but an happy restitution unto his first perfection.” In our case, all on the right should agree, what Becon terms a “thorough reformation,” as opposed to a “reformation of particular mischiefs,” is needed. That is, a restitution of the “whole body,” of its “ancient laws, customs, governments and manners of the people.” In this way, for a debased polity, complete reformation is “nothing else, but a thorough and absolute mutation and change… unto a better form of government,” by which Becon means law, custom, and manners (i.e., all things that govern a populace).

In our context, such overhaul does not preclude recovery of an original form, a form now so obscured and diluted that it is basically alien to the extent that any restoration thereof would constitute something of the complete reformation Becon describes. A counter-reformation, if you like, to combat the adulteration and bastardization of our polity. Becon illustrates through the example of Salamina (Salmis)—think Aias from The Iliad—wherein ancient customs and privileges once conducive to flourishing were “turned by a general corruption in the subject, to the ruin of themselves and the land.” The only path forward, Becon says, necessitates a change in the ancient customs and privileges, not in their essence, but in their corruption. For the good Salaminian laws had devolved into mere pretense, were not properly obeyed, and justice was not administered “for the quieting and good ordering of the subject.”

Disclaimer for the faint of heart: this needn’t require violence, unless you accept, as Giovanni Botero did, that any change to law and custom is a form of violence, political violence. Botero’s framing is not meant to be inflammatory but to encourage prudence since the longevity and health of the commonwealth is at all times paramount.

An obvious prerequisite here is that the original foundations of the commonwealth in question are venerable and, therefore, worth restoration—which itself must always consider new conditions previously unaccounted for; the goal is renewal in continuity with the foundations, not mechanical reproduction.

In any case, Becon, notes that “in a public magistrate, the same is rightly termed policy, but in private persons, the same is not unjustly condemned by the name of deceite.” When dealing with threats to reformation, in this case, the “insolence of the multitude,” such public policy was permissible unto the higher end, the interest of a rightly ordered, lawful, and peaceable commonwealth. For Becon, the application of private morality to public exigencies is childish. He illustrates with brief verse.

“Each one of you o men in private acts,

Can play the fox for sly and subtle craft;

But when you come fore in all your facts,

Then you are blind, dull-witted and be daft.”

As Mosse identifies, reason of state reasoning (i.e., policy) did not preclude but rather depended on religion (“A statesman’s endeavors must be chiefly exercised in such actions as may conduce to the glory of God”); it was not conceived as amoral but rather realist. The emphasis was on preservation, not expansion, of the commonwealth, at least in the first instance. And the just goals of any policy could not be separated, at least for a Christian polity, from religion, indeed, they were to be defined by it even as the means of achievement required a realist political frame. Summarizing Botero, Mosse concludes that “Religious doctrine is to be adhered to because without it there can be no successful reason of state.” The positive relationship between religion and “policy” was essential and unavoidable for a Christian polity this side of the eschaton.

(For our purposes, we can equate the commonwealth with people and place, with traditions and law, with a way of life.)

Impiety and barbarism need not—indeed, should not—follow from reason of state, from political realism. If the political goal is restoration or reformation of the polity, then immorality and lies cannot be part of the equation. (As Mosse points out, writers like Francis Osborne (1593-1659) championed providentialist realist approaches backed by scriptural precedent.)

Nor does policy provide a blank check in terms of means. The common good can never be pursued through tyrannical means; that’s an oxymoron of sorts. Yet, it does represent a call to reality, to the recognition of politics qua politics, to the warlike necessities inherent in our political context.

In the Upright Mans Vindication (1653), the radical John Lilburn (1614-1657), typically beloved by liberals, called for “the excellency and usefulness in corrupt times & places for [Machiavelli’s] works sake.” Albeit reviled by some as “pernicious to all Christian States,” Machiavelli, for Lilburn, his books were “esteemed for real usefulness in my straits to help me clearly to see through all the disguised deceits of my potent, politick, and powerful adversaries,” a means to confront predator, arbitrary power.

Moreover, nor does reason of state conflict with the rule of charity. If, under a proper understanding, the new Christian right seeks the good of the commonwealth, of their inherited but embattled way of life, it cannot be detached from the promotion of true religion, the highest good of all men and all nations. Indeed, as John Winthrop made clear, the use of discretion as to means is legitimized by its pursuit, viz., the common good, which cannot be detached from the highest good of man nor the immediate interests of a godly society. Scripture and true doctrine always bind this discretion but do not, as some would assume, inordinately limit discretion vis-a-vis necessity. Preservation of society, of a way of life, requires significant wiggle room in a fallen world.

Mosse summarizing Winthrop’s position: “Usefulness and expediency were two principles underlying the kind of correct actions for the common good which the Magistrate must take. If an action is useful, it must not be pushed aside because it seems fraught with temptations.”

The expropriation of private property for the public good, for example, was acceptable if lamentable since within a hierarchy of goods and judgment, the public good is higher than the private and the private estate cannot endure within a dilapidated public estate. Or, to provide another example, some sins or mischief must be tolerated for the sake of expediency and stability. Thomas Aquinas had already established the same principle in his famous hypothetical regarding brothels in Paris.

Again, so-called Machiavellian realist approaches were roundly condemned by seventeenth-century English-American Protestants not for their means but for secular goals; the subordination of means to the end was not the problem. Rather, improper ends—those detached ultimately from the supreme good of men—would inevitably produce disordered means.

Mosse again clarifies that,

“This did not mean that Puritans were indifferent to the ‘means’ used to arrive at the desired end; indeed they were greatly concerned with this problem. Yet, in the final analysis they arrived at their conclusions in spite of this emphasis. Means might be stressed, but it is always the end in view which comes to dominate and to direct the means.”

Those who seek to revile and supplant the vestiges of socio-political orientation to said highest good are surely best categorized as political enemies, and the political means justified in stopping them surely surpass those at the disposal of the private citizen when encountering an enemy of Christ.

Contra the so-called theological critics of strategies like NETTR, prudence and virtue are always joined when the chief good, truth itself, confines the scope and aim of all political action. Whilst the public means of attaining Christian society will be necessarily more brutal and seemingly uncharitable—less pure—than would befit private relations, this is no contradiction; it is simply reality. And in an ends-based politics, broad discretion must exist as to the means. Under a liberal paradigm, means are severely limited so that, in theory, substantive ends in view by any given political actor are infinitely malleable. To combat the infinite malleability of ends, of truth itself, means must become flexible if uncomfortable (given our liberal conditioning).

If the left did not represent hostility to true anthropology, true religion, true human flourishing, such warlike posture might be out of place. If we actually occupied the political nirvana of liberalism within a context of massive social and moral homogeneity, then it would be unnecessary. But this is not the world we inhabit.

Again, to preempt those insistent on misunderstanding, none of this implies in itself activity outside of or antithetical to the existing constitutional order, structurally speaking. It is not seditious, except with regard to the left dominance assumed and enjoyed for the past century. And yet, it does call for an alteration of political posture on the right relevant to prior standard operational modes. Any reformation of renewal congruent with the American constitutional order, if that is to be preserved, will inevitably appear disruptive; horrific, audible howls will arise from the left. But conditions so untenable and so historically remote from that history, text, and tradition from which they allegedly issue—the contestability of that continuity is the whole point—demand no less an aggressive, realist posture. None of this is theologically impermissible, at least from an historically Protestant position.

Recall, by analogy, Nathaniel Ward’s (1578-1652) quip in Simple Cobbler of Agawam (1646) regarding religious toleration. He cedes that his advice applies only to where Christians have power to affect religious homogeneity. He understands that toleration of divergent opinions and worship may be necessitated but that toleration as a principle cannot thereby rise to the level of principle itself. “He that is willing to tolerate any Religion, or discrepant way of Religion, besides his own, unless it be in matters merely indifferent, either doubts of his own, or is not sincere.”

It is at this juncture impossible to not assume that much of the in-house aversion to the realist political posture nascent on the right is owed to a lack of resolve and conviction about the way of life allegedly shared by all participants. Or, perhaps, that way of life has been so mutilated that they do not now recognize it, nor do they then recognize the culprits of the mutilation, or how late the hour truly is. This is demonstrated, in part, by their continued appeal to tolerance of the culprits. Not out of political prudence unto higher ends is tolerance pled here. Rather, it is advocated as a matter of moral principle, one implanted in the Western psyche by the left a century ago. No wonder the return of politics bothers them so. There is much left to say on this topic but for now, we can leave it at a salutation: welcome to the adult table.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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