Emerging Alliances at National Conservatism II
A rabbi, a priest, and a gay talk-show host walk into a bar. The barman looks up and says, “How was the second National Conservatism Conference?”
Pundits could be forgiven for cracking such jokes about the congress of conservatives earlier this month in Orlando, FL, where each day’s proceedings were prominently framed by either a rabbi, a priest, or Dave Rubin. Rubin also appeared on the keynote panel of the event alongside Yoram Hazony (an orthodox Jew), Sohrab Ahmari (an outspokenly traditionalist Catholic), and Douglas Murray (an openly gay anti-woke journalist), a panel dedicated to the question (more or less) of whether America should again try to be a Christian nation.
At first glance, NatCon II represented a kaleidoscopic coalition of conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals of all stripes, united only by their hostility to “wokeism,” “cultural Marxism,” or “the progressive elites” (depending on one’s preferred name for the common boogeyman). To some attendees, and many who have written about the event since, the dominant vibe was one of incoherence and angst, the agenda dominated more by common objects of fear than by common objects of love—unlike the first National Conservatism Conference in 2019.
There is some justice in such complaints, to be sure. Since early 2020, the rhetoric of the Right has become relentlessly negative, mimicking the victim mentality of the radical Left and prone to throw nearly every conceivable political and cultural phenomenon—mask mandates, BLM protests, Big Tech, critical race theory, universities, vaccines, and even January 6th—into some poisonous composite witches’ brew that “the Left” is trying to force down all our throats. Gone in some measure is the confident, can-do spirit of the “New Right” that was taking shape in 2019.
But look below the surface of the post-2020 malaise and you might notice something rather extraordinary taking shape at NatCon II: a tacit admission that the nationalist conservatives have been right all along.
For decades, American public life has been dominated by the conviction that the public square must be defined above all by individual liberty. That did not mean, liberals were quick to insist, that there was no room for virtue or religion or community, but all of these belonged properly in the private sector. There was disagreement around the margins about just how visible this private sector could be—should churches be outspoken contributors to public debate, for instance, or did religion belong in the interior recesses of the heart? But all seem to agree that “you can’t legislate religion” and indeed, that “you can’t legislate morality.” Even evangelicals, once known for their boisterously illiberal “Moral Majority” politics, have long since lapsed into the language of liberty, asking only for the “religious freedom” to practice their values in private.
Against this, a noisy, urbane, but mostly impotent “Catholic integralism” has in recent years reared its head, crowing triumphantly about the bankruptcy of the liberal project and insinuating that the Protestant Reformation was where it all went wrong. The integralists are never quite clear on what they want their restoration of public Christianity to look like, and what role a resurgent Papacy might play in such an arrangement (especially given the current Pope’s rather different vision of his role), but many of their proposals seem to be in open tension with the American constitutional tradition.
Meanwhile, on the Left, activists and intellectuals alike have long since abandoned the pretense of a neutral public square, and have sensibly decided that if no one else is going to stake a claim to it, they might as well occupy it in force. Over the past few decades, they have systematically co-opted the supposedly value-neutral instruments of culture-shaping—schools, universities, news media, entertainment, technology, and capital—and bent them to their will-to-power. So cunningly have they cloaked their agenda in the language of the liberal creed—liberty, equality, diversity, and toleration—that their classical liberal fellow travelers remained almost oblivious to their own subjugation until they either found themselves cancelled and fleeing for the exits, or learned to make only the right noises.
Into all this, Yoram Hazony’s central proposal at NatCon II came like a breath of clean, bracing air. Although offered with decency, dignity, and malice towards none, it dispensed with the dream that this illiberal tide could be reversed with a fresh dose of civility and mutual respect. The only path forward, he argued, was to take a trip backward to a tolerationism that preceded liberalism, a Christian politics after Christendom; back, in short, to the Westphalian Protestant political order that was the midwife of modern nations, including the American republic.
On the surface, NatCon II looked like an ill-conceived effort to resurrect the bankrupt fusionism of the 1950s and 1960s. Then, Americans were faced by the dual threats of a Marxist super-power abroad and Marxist intellectuals at home, sapping away at the foundations of traditional American values. In order to counter this threat, traditionalist conservatives and libertarians joined forces under the fusionist banner of Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley, convinced that liberty and order could hold together in the battle against godless totalitarianism. Today, communist China has replaced Russia as the ascendant geopolitical rival, aided and abetted by friendly American business elites, while America crumbles from within under the onslaught of “cultural Marxist” intellectuals. Whereas NatCon I had boldly repudiated libertarianism, and all its pomp, and all its works, libertarians and classical liberals were out in force at NatCon II, signaling a rapprochement in the face of a common foe. Had it taken only two years for national conservatives to abandon their high ground of common-good conservatism and enlist again under the banner of liberty?
The New Anti-Marxist Coalition
In fact, however, Hazony proposed just the opposite in his centerpiece talk, “De-Fusionism.” Reviewing the cautionary tale of the original fusionism, he proposed a new coalition, yes, but one with the terms of alliance reversed. The error of traditionalist conservatives in the 1960s had been to accept a junior role in the partnership, affirming a public liberalism and a private traditionalism. The fusionists admitted that liberty needed virtue to flourish, but parasitic as they were on a centuries-long inculcation of public virtue, naively imagined that merely private enclaves of virtue could suffice to nurture a culture of ordered liberty. Let churches and families continue to teach religion and self-restraint; law and government would promote nothing but equal freedom for all. The baleful consequences of this devil’s bargain did not become apparent until the downfall of the Soviet threat in 1990. Thereupon it soon became clear that conservatives may have gained the world, but they had lost their souls—and the soul of America as well. It turned out that Aristotle—and pretty much every sane political thinker since him—had been right: the public forms the private, the law shapes a society’s conception of virtue. By abandoning the public realm to an unbounded liberty, conservatives had consented to raise their children in a culture that preached unbounded liberty no longer as a means to good ends, but as itself the highest end.
The new anti-Marxist coalition, Hazony argued, must learn from these mistakes. First of all, this time around, liberals and conservatives must enter into alliance with their eyes wide open, recognizing that beneath their common near-term objectives lie fundamentally divergent visions of the good. Second of all, traditionalist conservatives must dictate the terms of engagement, ensuring for themselves the role of senior partner in the coalition: this time around, Hazony insisted, the deal would be public virtue, private liberty; public religion, private doubt. Four centuries into modernity, this might seem an unlikely negotiating posture, were it not for the demonstrable, catastrophic failure of classical liberalism to hold at bay the forces of totalitarian anarchism over the past two decades. Forced to reckon with the inability of liberty alone to hold the center, even lifelong libertarians might be willing to let true conservatives take a turn in the driver’s seat. Such was Hazony’s gambit, and the marvel of NatCon II was that by and large, it succeeded. Dave Rubin, Douglas Murray, even Ted Cruz showed up willing to play ball, it seemed, on national conservative terms. Perhaps equally surprising, Hazony had convinced many of the traditionalist Catholics, including outspoken anti-liberal Sohrab Ahmari, and everyone’s favorite integralist-adjacent political philosopher Patrick Deneen, to bury their papal hatchets and play ball as well.
This played out most vividly in the Monday night panel discussion between Hazony, Ahmari, Rubin, and Murray. There, Hazony developed more fully his case for what we can only call a renewed political Protestantism. The basic premise of the argument was pithily stated by Michael Knowles in a Tuesday afternoon plenary: “All societies have limits: laws standards, mores, taboos. Those limits delimit a society’s vision of what is good and true and beautiful. Beyond those limits lies what society considers to be bad and false and ugly. There is no such thing as a perfectly neutral public square… The public square itself has limits, and someone or some group will set those limits.” It is not a question of whether there will be some kind of public morality or public religion, but what it will be, and whether it will be willing to tolerate dissenters. After three centuries of a de facto Protestant establishment, Americans briefly experimented with an entirely neutral public square. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so we should not be surprised that within a single generation, the public square was re-occupied by a new public religion of relentless deconstruction, class conflict, and identitarian self-actualization. The new religion, it turns out, is far less tolerant than the old.
Recovering a Public Culture
Our choice is between a public realm that is defined by the majority culture, or one defined by a minority unafraid to seize the levers of power. Between these two alternatives, the former, it should be obvious, is preferable by far: it is more conducive to public liberty and much more stable over the long run. Of course, with Christianity well on its way to becoming the minority culture in the modern West, this may be unsettling; clearly the renewal of our public life will depend in part on broad-based religious revival and effective use of the culture of persuasion. But unlike Reagan-era fusionism, Hazony’s proposal insists that as long as a religious and moral tradition has a plausible claim to cultural dominance, it is entirely justified in using the institutions of the state to support, protect, and perpetuate that tradition. In his lecture as well as in the Monday-night panel discussion, Hazony recurred over and over to education to make his arguments: if we are not willing to fight to get God and Scripture back into the schools, then there is no point fighting for anything, because this is the battle that will decide all others in the end.
It made good strategic sense to focus the discussion on schooling—after all, even committed classical liberals, like Douglas Murray, have traditionally drawn the line of autonomy at the age of majority. Consenting adults may be free to do what they like, but children are not: they are rightly subjected to parental authority to receive a moral formation, whether they want it or not, so that they may be able to use their adult freedom well. And indeed, it is the woke Left’s overreaching assault on childhood and contempt for parental authority that has provoked the political backlash that propelled Glenn Youngkin to victory earlier this month. However, Hazony’s focus on education had a broader significance, highlighting as it does the fact that virtue must be taught; it will not arise automatically. Even consenting adults, conservatives have historically held, require the pedagogical aid of the law, curbing their worst impulses and orienting them toward the common good. The laws, far from aspiring to some fictitious procedural neutrality of arbitrating individual rights, will enshrine a substantive vision of the human good, one anchored in a particular religious, moral, and cultural tradition. The national culture, in other words, has a prima facie right to use the public realm to try and perpetuate itself. “For a country to survive,” Hazony said, “it has to have a public culture. That public culture has to have norms, moral norms, political norms, the traditions of how we live here: those are the guardrails that guide us; our job is to hand it down from generation to generation—not just families, congregations, but also the government.”
Not that it should therefore make life hell for every minority. Far from it. In this new conservative-liberal partnership Hazony was proposing, a sphere of private liberty must be guaranteed alongside a realm of public virtue. A just and healthy society, he argued, must provide “carve-outs” for religious, moral, and cultural minorities to pursue their own substantive visions of the good within their own communities. As an example, Hazony mentioned the earlier practice of religious instruction in American public schools—Protestant by default, but with a Catholic option, a Jewish option, and an option to opt-out altogether. And since Dave Rubin raised the issue directly in the panel discussion, Hazony acknowledged that as things stand in the modern world, even a Christian America would need to make space for a gay community that accepted its minority status. The key, he argued, was for minorities to stop demanding that they be treated as if they were a majority. “If you’re 80% of the population, and somebody else has a different view and they’re 2% of the population, there’s a limit to how much equality there can be between people who are 80% of the population, or a point of view that’s 80% of the population, and people who are 2% of the population. Liberals find this difficult. Conservatives find this obvious.”
As an orthodox Jew, Hazony had the ethos to make this now-unfashionable point. American Jews, he insisted, had no right to demand the purgation of Christmas trees and nativity scenes from the public square. They might find their presence painful, but “Guess what? Being a Jew is painful, and it’s not our job to clear the public of its norms; it’s not. You choose to be a minority, that means that your life is just a little bit harder. I think that being a Jew is worth it.” Indeed, Hazony made the case that accepting this tough bargain is actually to the advantage of minority moral communities. They will better off living in a healthy majority society that has public norms, even if they’re not quite their norms, than living in a diseased society that has renounced all norms. Indeed, in such a society, minority communities themselves will be healthier, since they are more likely to retain their own integrity and identity than if they win the right to be dissolved into the larger culture. The story of the Jews—and the dissolution of Jewish identity in liberal modern America—is a case in point.
What Hazony was calling for, in short, was a return to a political Protestantism—at least in the substantial enclaves of America that retain some kind of Christian majority. During the centuries following the Reformation, Protestant polities around northern Europe experimented with nation-states that were built around common cultures and publicly supported churches, but which still allowed increasing space for religious freedom and civil liberties for religious minorities. (Indeed, unusually for a conservative gathering, NatCon II featured a breakout session dedicated to exploring a Protestant vision for American nationalism.) Such a proposal, to be honest, is much closer to what today’s “Catholic integralists” are realistically pursuing than is the legacy of political Catholicism. It is perhaps a semantic point whether we call this proposal a form of “liberalism”; if so, one might call it an invitation to return to an earlier prudential liberalism of toleration, not the dogmatic liberalism of affirmation which has so readily mutated into intolerance. Indeed, in the panel discussion, Douglas Murray himself proposed such a distinction between tolerant and intolerant forms of liberalism.
Radical as such a proposal might seem in the current context of illiberal American hyper-liberalism, it really is anything but. As Murray noted, most European countries have never gone nearly so far down the road of separation of church and state that America has, and they are still liable to recognize the role of religious traditions in shaping a national common good. American liberalism is somewhat unique in its doctrinaire secularism and individualism. Even in America, however, the reigning hyper-liberalism is a startlingly recent development. In a striking departure from the thesis of his recent Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen argued in a stirring plenary address that “We must see this jointly-created, invented tradition of America as a fundamentally or solely liberal nation as a recent innovation, that is in fact a departure from the actual American tradition. It is an invented tradition that has been launched in the service of a rapacious ruling class.” He chronicled instead the story of a largely communitarian America, in which “until fairly recently, local governing institutions were charged explicitly with legislating morality.”
The takeaway from many of these sessions at NatCon II was, “imagine there’s no anti-traditional liberal individualism; it’s easy if you try.” Indeed, at the end of the Monday night panel discussion, Hazony succeeded in securing the provisional agreement of Ahmari, Murray, and Rubin for his proposal to put Protestant Christianity back into the governing institutions of American public life—a remarkable convergence indeed for classical liberals and devout Catholics.
Or did he? Dave Rubin’s plenary the following day, “The Future Conservative,” was ostensibly devoted to outlining the same new alliance, but sounded none of the same themes of family, faith, and morals as Hazony had on Monday. Instead, for Rubin, as indeed for several other speakers at the conference, the chief threat to the American way of life today was represented by Covid-19 restrictions. Given the ham-handed authoritarianism of so many pandemic policies, such concern is understandable, but we should be wary of how it is voiced.
After all, Covid-19 was an important reminder that freedom isn’t everything, that there is a common good, that borders matter, and that China must not be trusted—all key national conservative themes. A deadly invisible virus imported from a foreign nation made nonsense of libertarian fantasies or the globalist dream of a borderless world. If we allow short-sighted policies by draconian public health experts to keep us from learning this lesson, and simply default to reflexive “get off my lawn” rants, we will struggle to move toward an authentically national conservative vision.
Indeed, Rubin’s speech touched on another theme that dominated the conference: a visceral anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. One could almost be forgiven for forgetting that nearly everyone in the room was, from the standpoint of the ordinary American, a career intellectual and a member of “the elite.” Within many of the breakout panels, indeed, brilliant scholars and policy wonks hashed out the nuts and bolts of what a national conservative vision might actually look like when applied to education, economics, foreign policy, and more. And yet the conference was bookended by a keynote from Peter Thiel complaining that Americans trusted authorities too much and another from J.D. Vance proclaiming that “the universities are the enemy” and seeking to discredit altogether the concept of epistemic authority.
It is certainly not hard to understand, after the roller-coaster of 2020 and 2021, why many Americans might resonate with such populist appeals. But it is worth asking whether an authentically national conservative agenda such as Hazony proposed could really get off the ground in the face of such anti-intellectual headwinds. After all, a politics of virtue, as the Founders well-understood, requires a governing role for a “natural aristocracy,” and a politics of tradition requires a respect for the authority of wisdom. Put another way, it is not clear whether you can achieve Hamiltonian ends by Jeffersonian means. Those who stoke the passions of the demos to dethrone the current elites should not be surprised if they find themselves dethroned in turn.
This, then, is the greatest challenge facing the New Right. It really does have a coherent critique of the current economic, cultural, and political establishment. And it really does have a coherent agenda for a new economic, cultural, and political establishment that would promote the national good and renew the traditions that used to anchor it. Moreover, as NatCon II generated, even formerly skeptical classical liberals are beginning to admit that national conservatism is the only path forward. And, thus far, national conservatives have been remarkably successful in tapping into the wrath of the forgotten men and women of middle America as a wrecking ball against the corrupt reigning establishment. But the question remains unanswered: does this mass populist movement actually want to see a new establishment, do they want to see “God and Scripture back in the schools,” as Hazony constantly insists, or is their only real religion summed up in the motto, “Don’t tread on me”? Only time will tell.
*Image Credit: Wunderstock
Bradford Littlejohn is a Senior Fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute. He has published extensively on Protestant political theology, Christian ethics, and the Anglo-American conservative tradition. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife Rachel and four children.