Empty Sky Conservatism

Is there Conservatism without God?

Earlier this week, Oren Cass—executive director of the American Compass think tank, and a widely-followed public intellectual among conservatives on the “new right”—delivered the annual First Things lecture at the Heritage Foundation. Since his pathbreaking 2018 volume The Once and Future Worker, Cass has emerged as perhaps the single most influential academic defender of a “pro-worker” understanding of conservative economics, directed toward the preservation of conservative ends like marriage, family, and stability.

But Cass’s First Things lecture, “Constructing Conservatism in the Secular Age,” is the furthest thing from wonkish. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a bolder challenge to received right-of-center wisdom. In Cass’s view, the conservatism of the future must not only rethink its economic dogmas, but also its mode of cultural engagement. It must, in short, lose its addiction to “God-talk.”

Coming from Cass, the claim is particularly arresting. After all, theology and religious appeals seem to be the beating heart of the “new right,” at least in most of its organized expressions. National conservatism, integralism, and other flavors of postliberalism all assert that the project of the “secular public square” has failed: religious commitments might be suppressed, but they can never finally be ignored. Even most of the Nietzscheans and vitalists in the mix, whose ideas periodically make some headway, tend to claim allegiance to ostensibly “based” expressions of Christianity.

And yet this privileging of theology is precisely the move Cass contests. Not personally religious himself, he takes issue with the notion that this “new right” must necessarily be religious in a familiar sense. While he defends a set of political and economic principles that—as he himself notes—are remarkably consonant with the themes of Catholic Social Teaching (and, for that matter, the mainstream of classical Protestant social witness1), he does not understand them theologically—nor see theological questions as politically determinative.

Cass’s challenge fascinates me because my own “conversion” to his version of economic conservatism, with its rejection of libertarian dogmas about state and market, was rooted in explicitly religious principles. Not only could I find no trace of libertarian ideology in virtually the entire Christian intellectual tradition, I simply could not square the ruthless marketization of reality with the realities of human existence—as finite and limited and oriented toward “inefficient” goods like church and family. Taking seriously human nature as given meant taking seriously the necessary conditions for its welfare—not treating the body as a machine to be hacked and micro-dosed and optimized away. And yet Cass himself treats theology as largely ancillary—if not a political hindrance.

His proposal, then, must be answered. Can the unifying conservative vision he defends, shorn of theology, ever really be?

Cass begins his lecture with a bold thesis: “The traditional account of conservatism as built on religious morality is not working very well in America today.” Certainly, a common definition of virtue grounded in American tradition and experience is essential to national flourishing, and traditionally Americans looked to religious institutions to provide it. But times have changed: “This view no longer holds in our secular politics and our public square.” In support of that claim, Cass marshals an array of statistical data that well-read conservatives will find familiar: the decline in rates of religious participation over time, the decoupling of morality from belief in God, and the decentering of “religion” as a source of moral guidance. Mainstream Americans, in short, no longer seem to care much for religion.

What caused this? Like Charles Taylor, Cass rejects the “subtraction story” of modernity,2 or the notion that the explanatory power of scientific advancements necessarily squeezed out traditional faith. Instead, his argument sounds more akin to Kathryn Tanner’s: a culture of meritocratic advancement and technological progress, of manipulation of the world, led cultural elites to become increasingly estranged from traditional belief.3 Religious commitments, after all, disrupt any elite monopoly on knowledge production. As a result, religious claims are now simply ruled out of bounds in the public square. Rawls’s razor has prevailed.

Cass is skeptical of familiar conservative responses to this new status quo. “Has a religious argument based in Christian morality won just once in the last 50 years?” he wonders. Neither welfare reform nor Dobbs, after all, were the products of conversion. The old 1990s battle plan—rechristianize society and then build a virtuous social order—leaves social conservatives disempowered, and creates a power vacuum that libertarians are happy to fill.

He is similarly doubtful of “effort[s] to restore Christian morality by fiat,” or any approach that would “propose conducting our politics as if Christian belief were the foundation of the nation’s public morality, regardless of reality.” Here Christian nationalism and integralism—and their like—are in the crosshairs, on both theoretical and practical grounds. For one thing, Cass stresses, Christianity is too internally divided to justify a sweeping language of rechristianization. For another, how is it possible to re-impose Christian morality against the wishes of a democratic majority? Where is the Christian nationalist army? (In his recent book All the Kingdoms of the World, philosopher Kevin Vallier describes these difficulties as the “transition” and “stability” problems of religiously motivated antiliberalism.4) In the end, Cass contends, these projects end up weakening the conservative cause by marginalizing them in the public square.

Despite this “bad news,” Cass is optimistic about the future of conservatism for two reasons. First, despite his own lack of private piety, his arguments in The Once and Future Worker unintentionally ended up converging with traditional Catholic views, suggesting the possibility of a conservative synthesis mediated by something other than shared religious affiliation. Second, in Cass’s view, the left has little to offer the world but a cult of climate apocalypticism, opening up new opportunities for conservatives with eyes to see. What have conservatives offered instead? Not much, as Cass sees it, beyond the likes of “fascists” Curtis Yarvin and Bronze Age Pervert.

So what should conservatives argue, going forward? In laying the groundwork for his own proposal, Cass characterizes religious faith as the “form” into which the experience and ideas of past generations were poured, and which hardens over time. Hence, even if the “form” (i.e., the “mold”) is peeled away, the hardened “core” of accumulated ideas and experiences and historical memory remains largely intact. The question, then, surrounds the nature of that “core” which is still “structurally sound” despite the secularization of the West.

The “core,” as Cass sees it, is the idea of obligation as the foundation of virtue. To exist in the world is to stand at the end of a long chain of individuals who previously acted selflessly—who did not merely pursue their own interests, but nurtured the next generation. This obligation is not reducible to anyone’s private choice to assume it; its conferral precedes the capacity for reasoned choice in the first place. In birth and in old age alike, humans necessarily make demands on others, apart from whom they could neither exist nor survive nor thrive. 

This way of thinking, Cass suggests, constitutes “a sound basis for a conservatism that requires no particular faith.” While “someone of faith might accept the argument ‘God says to have children,’” this point can be made in nonreligious terms through a discussion of fairness or the free-rider problem. In the end, Cass submits, conservatives have an obligation to speak to problems in a way that persuades, and that expands their worldview’s appeal to outsiders. As yet, however, they are failing to do so.

It is interesting to try to triangulate the specific posture Cass is affirmatively staking out here. His philosophy is neither Straussian—Cass has no interest in urging political leaders to shore up a public cultus while remaining privately skeptical—nor Nietzschean, given Cass’s explicit rejection of that current. There may be something of the liberal Protestant worldview in the mix, but on the whole Cass’s views seem more to dovetail with those of figures like Mark Lilla or Anthony Kronman, who sympathize with established religious traditions and appreciate the cultural edifice they support, while still finding them personally unpersuasive.

But unpersuasive in what sense? In what follows, I want to briefly suggest that the post-Christian conservative morality to which Cass gestures (“empty sky conservatism”?) might not so easily shed a theological mooring. 

As I see it, there are at least two potential interpretations of Cass’s argument, which may be described, respectively, as substantive and rhetorical readings. On the one hand, there is the substantive philosophical argument that a conservative project can (and should) be developed and defended without reference to theological appeals. On the other, there is the rhetorical argument—the claim that conservatism, to persuade, should rethink its reliance on theological categories in a milieu that tends to be hostile to them. These two dimensions are woven together in Cass’s address in various ways, but they are in principle independent of each other. Strauss might well reject the rhetorical argument and embrace the substantive one; thinkers in the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement have often rejected the substantive argument and favored the rhetorical one. Or, put differently, there may be good normative reasons for theological claims to be implicit rather than explicit. But set that aside for the moment.

Begin, for present purposes, with the “substantive” reading of Cass’s argument. What would it mean to have a “conservative” moral vision without reference to theology?

I admit that, watching Cass’s address, I was surprised that during the question-and-answer period, nobody asked what seemed to me an obvious question: what do you understand to be the meaning of the words “God” and “religion”? The question is not an idle one. In popular secular usage, the word “God” seems to refer merely to an elevated sort of super-being, residing somewhere in the high heavens and issuing arbitrary diktats about how human beings should live their lives. Such a being has, for years, been the target of New Atheist polemics.

But classically speaking, God is not a finite entity among other finite entities; He is the infinite ontological source and end of all realities that are other than Him. (In my opinion, the best exposition of this point remains David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, but E.L. Mascall’s He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism is a close second). And lest I be charged with any Christian parochialism, versions of this claim can be found in Maimonides and other Jewish scholars, as well as in many other sources.5

Getting this distinction right—the distinction between “classical theism” and “theistic personalism”—has immediate implications for the relationship between religious claims and political life. Recall, for instance, Cass’s description of a hypothetical “religious” argument: “God says to have children.” This, for Cass, is juxtaposed alongside other “secular” moral reasons to have children, such as “doing one’s fair share.” At one level, it is of course true that “religion” involves doing what God says. But implicit in Cass’s formulation is an assumption that the defining characteristic of a “religious” argument is that it is basically extra-rational—that the question of “what God wills” operates in a discursive space altogether removed from the familiar categories of human inquiry. 

Theologically speaking, though, this is precisely backward. On a classically theistic account, the contours of human inquiry as such are normed by that Source without which creation could not be. God’s will that human beings have children is not some arbitrary thing; it serves the good of human beings in that it in fact summons them to do their fair share. To live in accordance with the will of God is to live true to the nature of reality as such.

This position invites an obvious rejoinder (the rhetorical argument): why bother with employing “religious” language at all, if the same claim can be made in less polarizing terms? Why not simply defend an “immanent common good” (my words, not his) and bracket out any reference to the transcendent?

Consider Cass’s argument for such an “immanent common good”—a moral order based on unchosen obligation, such as that owed by children to their parents (and ipso facto, to the generations that came before and will come after). To be clear, I find this proposal very persuasive on its own terms. Not only does it ring true to my own life experience, it is a stark refutation of the liberal/libertarian valorization of an “autonomous individual” who has never existed and could never exist.

But here is the crucial assumption: Cass’s argument here is pressed within a fundamentally “liberal” frame. The vitalist ideology of Bronze Age Pervert is ruled out of bounds early on, as a matter of ipse dixit. But Cass’s position does not seem to account for why that supervening “liberal” frame exists in the first place—for why a vitalist politics of “love only your own” and “might makes right” can be assumed to be illegitimate.

In the question-and-answer period that followed his address, Cass noted briefly that the traditional conservative trifecta of “faith, flag, and family” may have leaned too much on the “faith” dimension, at the expense of “flag and family” as unifiers. But where does the alternate road lead? As I see it, Cass’s paradigm will struggle to explain why, in principle, a moral order based strictly on relations of dependence “here below” does not ultimately terminate in an agonistic naturalism, where one’s duties to one’s family and country are logically extended to include duties to Volk, to race, to biological bloodline.6 We depend upon our kin, who brought us into being and who cared for us in our weakness, but what obligation do we have to “outsiders”? And what is the conceivable ground of such an obligation? Are we doomed, in the end, to the very ontological violence Cass rejects?

An answer readily suggests itself. In his address, Cass offers an impassioned, and elegant, defense of a morality based on existential obligation: “We therefore begin our lives with an incalculable debt. That we did not choose the debt is of no moral import. It is inherent to our existence.” 

Precisely so. It is a very small step to apprehend that this is, in fact, a properly theological insight. In traditional theological terms, the moral significance of dependence-relations among human beings simply reflects the primal fact that all of us, as contingent beings, stand in a relationship of ontological dependence to the necessary reality Who is our Creator and Sustainer—not merely a “being among other beings.” It is just this universal, transcendental claim—this recognition of the obligations all persons have to their one Creator—that relativizes all hierarchies here below, and so disrupts the vitalist account. And transcendence is irreducible to “nontheological” categories.

This, in the end, is why conservatism of the sort Cass defends cannot do without God, both substantively and rhetorically. If it is not to become merely a defense of the past or hierarchy as such, it must offer a transtemporal—and defensible—criterion of moral judgment.7 And that is the business of theology, in which “faith” and “reason” rightly coincide.

Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe I, as a religious conservative, am simply entangled in the very snare Cass describes, too caught up in the webs of theory and theology to recognize how rapidly the cultural ground has shifted. But I harbor no delusions that scholastic disputations will be returning to mainstream American universities anytime soon. My point is quite simple: at the level of theory, a healthy conservatism cannot do without a standard for the rational judgment of received tradition, and that is what, in the West, the Jewish and Christian theological inheritance has historically provided.

Operationalizing that commitment, in political terms, may take different forms. Cass and I would probably agree that, for better or worse, a moral vision that centers the reality of unchosen obligation is more likely to persuade majorities than one rooted in biblical proof-texting. But if it is not to become deformed—if it is to preserve the goods that Cass and I both see as integral to a healthy conservatism—then that affirmation of unchosen obligation must, in the end, cash out in a theological claim. 

Reason itself demands no less.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 7 footnotes
  1.  See, e.g., Onsi Aaron Kamel, Jake Meador, and Joseph Minich eds., Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction (Landrum, SC: The Davenant Press, 2022).
  2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 22.
  3. Cf. Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 1–2.
  4. Kevin Vallier, All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023), 116.
  5. See, e.g., Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student eds., Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith (New York: Kodesh Press, 2022) (expounding this point).
  6. Cf. Paul Althaus and Werner Elert, “Appendix I: Theologisches Gutachen über die Zulassung von Christen jüdischer Herkunft zu den Ämtern der Deutschen Evangelischen Kirche (Erlanger Gutachten),” trans. Ryan Tafilowski, in Ryan Tafilowski, “‘Dark, Depressing Riddle’: Germans, Jews, and the Meaning of the Volk in the Theology of Paul Althaus.” Ph.D. thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2017), 278–84; Paul Althaus and Werner Elert et al., “Appendix II: Der ‘Ansbacher Ratschlag’ zu der Barmer ‘Theologischen Erklärung,’” trans. Ryan Tafilowski, in Ryan Tafilowski, “‘Dark, Depressing Riddle’: Germans, Jews, and the Meaning of the Volk in the Theology of Paul Althaus.” Ph.D. thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2017), 285–88.
  7. At the risk of potentially retreading old Cold War-era ground, it seems straightforward to me that it is the possibility of speaking about this one God, in whom we live and move and have our being, that forestalls the horror of the total state—the apex of authoritarian bureaucratic “management.”
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John Ehrett

John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C., where he lives with his wife and son. His work has previously appeared in American Affairs, Public Discourse, and the Claremont Review of Books, among other venues.

One thought on “Empty Sky Conservatism

  1. If Christ is not resurrected, then our faith is in vain.

    Likewise, if there was no God, then our very being is in vain. Nihilism in that case is the correct response. Morality has no meaning detached from God. An atheist could argue that morality could find meaning in an individual person’s life. Even if it could, that isn’t what societies are built upon. They are built on shared morality and cooperation, which cannot be built in a Godless paradigm.

    Any attempt to impose morality will fail when attempted apart from God. The Word of God is the very foundation of morality and to dispose of that foundation would be to allow morality to be as fluid as one’s own heart.

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