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Multi-cultural political correctness: a conservative invention?

The number of ways conservatives see religion’s role within our secular civilization is as varied as the conservative movement itself. From the cosmopolitan intellectual journals there is an aversion to go beyond the general notion of a God (as was common with the most literate of the Founding Fathers) and leave the realm of religious faith in the private domain of individual conscience and practice. Christianity became Judeo-Christianity as the ecumenical spirit expanded to include members of the Jewish faith. In essence, the intellectual conservatives, as I’ll call them, became religious multiculturalists: beyond God and the Golden Rule it’s all a personal subjective matter. While never said in such terms – indeed, they would vehemently deny such a notion – that, however, is the sentiment prevalent at the intellectual end of the conservative spectrum. The sectarian religious right, at the other end of the conservative spectrum, would prefer a less inclusive and more literal interpretation of religious doctrine - and, of course, with a greater public presence.
Both religious tolerance and the rise of secularism go hand and hand as religion is eliminated from the public intercourse in numerous ways while it is restricted to the private domain of individual salvation and family tradition. For example, disputes are handled not by reference to the authority of religious texts but by reason and rhetoric with reference to common experience. Religion, however, is based on dogma – the steadfast acceptance of doctrine on the basis of faith – and is not amendable to debate or individual judgment. It claims to be an alternative to the “unreliable” process of human judgment. If religion was conditional upon rational deliberation it would fail to achieve the purpose of supplanting human thought – a fallible process that is contingent on the development of culture and individual character. It is such uncertainties of human knowledge, experienced as an unbearable anxiety, which motivates the premature acceptance of settled belief closed to the threat of further questioning.
There are a number of means used to reconcile reason and religion. Or, to look at it another way, there are numerous ways used to marginalize religion and enable the continued growth and expansion of reason. The most common way is to shrink the domain of religion’s applicability. Christianity is suitable to this approach since the original apostolic religion was concerned with salvation and the imminent coming of Jesus. This left a lack of concern with the needs of long-term planning and living this life well on the individual level. One the level of social organization little is written; missing, for example, is a detailed political theory. Consequently, contradictions between rationally living this life and religiously seeking salvation for the afterlife can be minimized.
Religious toleration can be seem as a hierarchical approach that singles out essential religious components from the thicket of sectarian eccentricities and the detailed prescriptions, dogmas, rituals, and extraneous side issues – yielding a more streamlined rationally ordered religion. This is common in the Anglo-American tradition. While John Locke sees God as important for morality, he also argues that the religion goes beyond reason without contradicting it. The sectarian differences, Locke argued, were less important than the essentials of the Christian religion which Locke considered eminently reasonable at its core. 14
The conservative historian, Paul Johnson, writing of the Great Awakening of the 17th century says it was a “specifically American form of Christianity – undogmatic, moralistic rather than creedal, tolerant but strong, and all pervasive of society.” “It crossed all religious and sectarian boundaries, made light of them indeed, and turned what had been a series of European-style churches into American ones. It began the process which created an ecumenical and American type of religious devotion … “ 15 Johnson considers Washington, Franklin and Jefferson deists. Washington “regarded religion as a civilizing force, but not essential.” Franklin’s “Autobiography” clearly shows his ecumenical practical approach to religion as an aid to living this life well. And Jefferson was even less religious in the traditional sense.
The American Founders were not conservatives – they were revolutionaries. But they were revolutionaries in the British tradition fighting for the restoration of liberal principles that every Englishman expected since the days of England’s Glorious Revolution over a century before. These principles found their expression in John Locke’s Second Treatise. The intellectual leaders of the American Revolution, Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, and Hamilton, were well read of liberal political writers from treatises of Locke, Grotius and Puffendorf to the collection of articles called “Cato’s Letters” of Trenchard and Gordon. From this intellectual tradition, the Founders expressed their doctrines of natural rights in clear terms and argued with full generality – even if their aspirations never gained full acceptance among their countrymen and remained a challenge and inspiration for succeeding generations. 16 There language was power and principled explications of universal truths.
The examples of history were even more important to the Founders than political theory. They devoured history books – reading from Greek and Latin authorities to eighteenth century British historians. They read it all. For history exemplified philosophical principles in graphic detail showing the subtleties and pitfalls of actions and practices over the centuries. The Founders showed a wise policy of learning from experience – often the experience of other great men of history whose triumphs or painful lessons provided amble examples. The Founders knew what principles implied. But what was most important with regard to liberty was the fact that they had lived it. In part by design and in part by benign neglect, the colonies had ruled themselves; it was the loss of liberty that outraged the Americans as England sought to exploit the colonies as she had others throughout the empire. By historical standards, the colonialists were clear about their goals. They could express it in principles, justify it with logic, place it in tradition, and they had experienced it in their own lives.
Even though 20th century American conservatives respect the revolution of 1776, their tradition has it roots in the rejection and reaction of another revolution: the French revolution. The conservative spirit owes its genesis to the English writer Edmund Burke. One of America’s most eminent traditionalist conservatives, the late Robert Nisbet, writes: “Rarely in the history of thought has a body of ideas been as closely dependent upon a single man and a single event as modern conservatism is upon Edmund Burke and his fiery reaction to the French Revolution.” 17 Burke set the tone with his concern for the “patriarchal family, local community, church, guild and region which, under the centralizing, individualizing influence of natural law philosophy, had almost disappeared from European political thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries …” While Burke looked back to the feudal past, American conservatives, in most cases, looked back to the individualism and natural rights of the Founding Fathers but tempered with concern for traditional institutions that at times superseded the individual: family, church, community, country and God. Tradition becomes the arbiter among these conflicting claims.
Tradition for Burke wasn’t merely the British tradition. Burke was truly multicultural in his respect for traditions. He fought on the side of the “historical tradition of a people” in England and throughout the British Empire. His supported “a sufficient autonomy for natural development of American potentialities” and the American desire for a distinctive governing ethos. But he didn’t stop there. “The same held for Ireland and India, in each case an indigenous morality under attack by a foreign one.” He believed in the collective wisdom of the historical process imbedded in the customs and traditions of a people. And he defended Hindu and Muslim traditions within India. 18
Relativism, or multi-culturalism, is a method which respects a strong role for religion or other cultural practices but allows group identity to determine the substance of belief. The stark subjectivism runs counter to religion’s motivating rationale. The contradiction was appreciated in Burke’s day by the American revolutionary, Thomas Paine. After all, Burke is advocating one religion for the English establishment and another for the French. What would he recommend for America with its myriad denominations? Despite its contradictions, religious relativism is, nevertheless, a means of maintaining a spirit of toleration in conjunction with strongly held beliefs.
The conservative spirit was an idyllic if not romantic longing for the past. For the 18th and 19th century conservative, capitalism and the industrial revolution was a destructive innovation which unsettles society. On the other hand, Burke detested the egalitarianism of the French Revolution – in particular the Jacobins – with their rationalism which pushed aside the past and set about to deduce a new social order via a central plan. In both cases, Burke saw the power of human reason and conceptual abstraction as a force to stamp out the fragile gains wrought through a practice slowing cultivated collectively, over many generations. There is a distrust of individual reason – a fear of the power to act on abstractions.
Even in religious matters traditionalism favors the wisdom embedded in institutions of long standing. Burke was weary of John Wesley, the Methodists, and the “enthusiasm” that could galvanize radical change in his day as well as the ghosts of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan excesses. Religious enthusiasm was to be feared as much as the Jacobins across the English Channel. Interestingly, Nisbet expresses similar concern in regard to the rise of the Moral Majority of the 1980s. 19
The intellectual leaders of the American Revolution do not fit the conservative ideal; they were Enlightenment men dedicated to the primacy and efficacy of reason. Jefferson’s justifiably famous quote eloquently expresses the Enlightenment spirit: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear." 20 Rights were not supernatural and stipulated by God. Rights “are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature,” says Samuel Adams. These rights are inherent in man’s nature neither created by God nor the state. But to “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” But Americans did not write philosophical treatises on foundational issues. With the quintessential American optimism in human nature, they deferred to common sense – a universal capacity in each individual. There was no conflict in the minds of the founders between valid well-reasoned ideals and the lessons of history. How could there be if one reasoned from nature and the empirical datum of a comprehensive study of history?
The French Revolution, superficially dedicated to the same noble ideals, had a radically different breading. The rationalism of Descartes, with its dubious deductions from pure thought, set the tone for the quick and easy dogmatic assertions untested by reality and tradition; a process that allowed the French Revolution down the Jacobin road and ultimately the tyranny of Napoleon. Continental Rationalism hijacked Reason and severed its connection to reality. Unlike the American colonists, the French were not a self-governing pluralistic society solidifying their gains and advancing the tradition forward. However, the difference wasn’t fully understood, even if the results were clearly and painfully divergent. The abstractions often sounded similar but in the case of the British and Americans, they summed up a broad experience and tradition.
The French were more Platonic in the boldness of their utopian Republic designs. Americans, whether conscious of it or not, were more Aristotelian in their reliance of vast observations, generalizations, and organization by essentials. Aristotle is the father of deductive logic, but his modus operandi is generalization after broad surveys of the subject under study while maintaining context and proportion. Deduction itself depends on prior generalization from particulars. The difference wasn’t appreciated as one tends to take for granted one’s distinctive approach. Jefferson initially thought the French Revolution to be in the same vein and for the same ideals as the American. He sided with Thomas Paine and against Edmund Burke on this matter. Burke, to his credit, quickly saw and reacted to the excesses unfolding in France.
Thus the American tradition at its founding marginalized religion in a variety of ways. It was regarded as private and personal. At times the core commonality was regarded as obvious and consistent with reason. There was an ecumenical spirit that was tolerant of non-essentials. And there was a confidence that nature and nature’s law exemplified the Creator’s design. Such beliefs boarder on religious relativism as contradictory details are dismissed or shrugged off. However, it fails to become relativism by the expectation that the important fundamentals should be absolute truths common to all religions and rational analysis. The privatization of religion leaves that common ground within the realm of rational discourse. We see the rise of deism in fact and spirit. The deist emphasis on nature and science led them to behave, operationally, as every non-religious person does: generalizes from an examination of reality with the aid of reason. Religion, too, had to be judged and found reasonable. Jefferson questioned the divinity of Christ and edited the New Testament to conform to the criteria of reason. This was, after all, known as the Age of Reason.
Is religious conservatism hostile to Western Civilization?
Contemporary conservatives attempt to shoe-horn history into religious terms. Religion is seen as a force for good despite the atrocities committed in the name of religion and despite the wars fought for sectarian supremacy. Since religion defines right and wrong, it is exempt from blame prior to observation and argumentation. It can’t be wrong – God is never wrong; He makes right and wrong possible. For the devout, religion can always be relied upon. Reason, on the other hand, is suspect in many conservative quarters. We’ve seen such skepticism going back to Burke’s reaction to the French revolution. Rather than contend for the title of reason’s standard bearer, conservatives readily surrender that title to any and every passing social movement that waves the flag of rationality. If some atrocity is done in the name of religion – the religion must have been “hijacked.” Religion is never suspect. On the other hand, reason can’t be trusted. Any failure done in the name of reason and reason gets full blame no matter what self-styled theory, half-backed thesis, or concocted dialectic claims to be a legitimate manifestation of human reason.
Charles Murray, one of today’s more intelligent conservative thinkers, warns about what he sees as the “unintended consequences of great art and science.” 21 For Murray, Aristotle’s discovery of logic led to the destruction of empirical science. “So the possibility arises that Aristotle, the same man who did so much to bring science to that edge, also supplied the tool that distracted his successors ...” The genius of the scientific revolution doesn’t fair any better: “Isaac Newton's discovery of the laws of motion and of universal gravity is another candidate for a supremely wonderful achievement with consequences run amok.” How? “Man could remake the world from scratch by designing new human institutions through the application of scientific reason. ... Reason was the new faith. Its first political offspring was the grotesque Jacobin republic set up after the French Revolution.” But wait, Murray’s not done! “... with their Leninist and Stalinist applications to follow.”
This is standard conservative faire. It’s not Descartes’ perversion of rationalism that takes the hit. It’s not reason “hijacked” by dogmatic intolerant “fanatics”. That’s right – while any failure of religion is seen as a distortion or perversion of a true faith that can only be good, reason, as we have noted, gets the full blame for the failures of its nominal adherents. Any twisted and tortured ideology built with the stolen authority of great men is seen as a hazardous flaw in the original ideas or a perilous side-effect leading us inextricably down the path of perdition. Does Murray actually think that reign of terror is rational? Do conservatives believe that discovering and respecting the laws of nature will be lethal to civilized society? And how did American Revolution avoid the disasters of the French and Russian revolutions? Was it because Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Paine and Adams based their ideas on close scriptural readings? Clearly not!
Such hostility towards reason is arguably an implicit rejection of our Hellenic heritage. However, most intellectuals, including Murray, express admiration for our secular Greco-Roman tradition. William J. Bennett once said we owe half of what we know to Classical Civilization. Russell Kirk and Leo Strauss both find Plato indispensable. Thomists still champion Aristotle. Historically, Aquinas plays a pivotal role in Western civilization for his role of solidifying Aristotle’s influence in Western Christendom. However, Aristotle’s profound influence over the centuries since Aquinas has so infused Western culture that it underlies and permeates our way of thinking. His logic is acknowledged but less so his eudaemonistic worldly ethos of living well and actualizing one’s potential. The pro-reason individualism of the Anglo-American Enlightenment is Aristotelian in spirit while it transcends the limitations of Aristotle’s aristocratic context of Attic Greece. To a large extent we take for granted and are not fully aware of our Aristotelian influence. Even Western religious practice has been affected by the Philosopher’s influence and it is hard to imagine a pure religion. Thus, the religious conservative need not harbor an antipathy towards reason, secularism, and naturalism as history shows. Yet, today, conservatives continue to exhibit hostility towards human reason.
The fear and hostility of purposeful human rationality is a central component of conservatism but it is more of a disposition than a result of an analysis. The father of modern American conservatism, Russell Kirk, explains, “conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. … The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.” This intellectually timid stance is made plausible by the hubris of totalitarian dogmas that swept aside the accumulated achievement of the Enlightenment’s respect for individual sovereignty and rights. Without that knowledge and understanding, the conservative’s humility would be warranted. But conservatism is actively hostile to the enterprise of rational analysis and subsists on the pre-rational level of sentiments and inherited dispositions. 22
Thus, the conservative generally doesn’t concern himself with an analytical attribution analysis, a search for intellectual origins, dialectical examinations, or theoretical system building. Consequently, the full extent of the Hellenic influence is missed. It’s not common to hear Conservatives blast secularism as materialistic and relativistic. How can there be ethics, they ask, without religion? Ethics, however, is a branch of philosophy. In fact Aristotle wrote the first treatise on ethics and it is secular in nature. He can hardly be called materialistic – indeed, he is teleological to a fault; he fully appreciates volition, values and achievement. Nor is he a relativist. Just the opposite; he is the heir of the Socratic/Platonic tradition advocating ethical knowledge in opposition to the Sophists’ excessive emphasis on human convention, which easily degenerates into relativism. Of course, these inconvenient facts, generally taught in philosophy 101, seems elusive to the modern conservative as he continues to reduce secularism to post-modern relativism.
The Conservative is committed to the primacy of religion. Almost everything good about Western culture is attributed to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This syllogism is rather crude but I find it ubiquitous when talking to conservatives (but rarely find it in print). It proceeds as follows: X considers himself a Christian; X discovered Z; therefore Z is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For example, Madison and Hamilton were admittedly Christian; our constitution is therefore Christian based. This kind of reasoning is a double edge sword. Should we call every atrocity done by a Christian, especially those done in the name of God, a result of the religion and the teachings of Jesus? Some critics, using the same crude syllogism say just that. Both are wrong. The superficial praise by association and guilt by association are poor substitutes for a broad study and rational analysis. Of course, one must be willing subject the matter to a rational analysis.
The credit given to Christianity is often astounding and, for some conservatives, engulfs almost everything. M. Stanton Evans, in the book “Freedom and Virtue”, sees individualism and rights in Christian terms. “As the political state is scaled down in the Biblical perspective, so the individual is raised up. In the Christian view, every person is precious because he or she is a child of God, made in His image.” He continues with a Burkian fondness for feudal time. “The second leading idea of the period, I would venture to say, was that of contract. The much-maligned feudal system was in fact a network of contracts – in which political allegiance was based on the notion of reciprocity. If the lord did not fulfill his obligation to the vassal, then the vassal’s allegiance was dissolved.” Evans seems to find all ethical and political values in religion. “Even in a brief recapitulation, it should be evident that we have derived a host of political and social values from our religious heritage: personal freedom and individualism, limited government-constitutionalism and the order-keeping state, the balance and division of powers, separation of church and state, federalism and local autonomy, government by consent and representatives institutions, bills of rights and privileges.” I must have missed that part of the Bible. Paul Kurtz, also in “Freedom and Virtue”, says, “Ethics is a vital dimension of the human condition and a recognition of the ethical life has deep roots within Western philosophy antecedent even to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The current attack on secular morality is a display of philistine ignorance about the origins of Western civilization in Hellenic culture and its historic philosophic development. It is an attack on the philosophic life itself.” 23
Surely the conservative is willing to acknowledge our debt in law, mathematics, science and engineering to the Greco-Roman civilization and the rebirth of classical studies during the Renaissance. Evans continues relentlessly: “Add to these the development of Western science, the notion of progress over linear time, egalitarianism and the like, and it is apparent that the array of ideas and attitudes that we think of as characteristically secular and liberal are actually by-products of our religion.” When conservatives completely marginalize our classical secular heritage by usurping the achievements of the great thinkers of Western Civilization, they join company with those movements broadly classified as Identity Politics. There are American Indian academics who claim everything original in the America Constitution came from Indian culture. There are Black Studies professors who claim all the major achievements of Ancient Greece are African in origin. Now Christian Identity Politics, as I’ll call it, is making similar absurd claims; thus they join those who minimalize our classical heritage.
The Hellenic spirit is what makes Western Civilization distinct. Christianity is a Middle Eastern religious movement in origin (as is Judaism and Islam). By trivializing and at times outright attacking the Hellenic tradition, it can be argued that Christian Identity Politics becomes another attack on Western Civilization similar to the current multi-cultural Identity movements common in academia today. At times, they even employ the same tactics. When multi-culturalists argue that non-Western science should be included in the curriculum or that we need a woman’s alternative to contemporary physics, it isn’t on the basis of the merits; the standards of merit – reason and scientific proof – are the invention of white European males according to these proponents. Similarly, when “Creation Science” is advocated as an alternative to contemporary biology, it is not that reason and evidence shows creationism is a viable alternative in an ongoing controversy. Christian Identity Politics is an embarrassment to the conservative movement. If it is an exaggeration to say that conservatives must rejoin Western Civilization, it is certainly true that they must once again embrace and champion our secular heritage.
How can the conservative movement, which is now essentially religious based, deal with the religious enemy we now face? Conservatism, formed in the face of the Communist threat, is now challenged by a totalitarian movement that is driven by a pure religion undiluted with the rationalism of Greece and Rome. How will the conservative maintain their moral clarity in the face of the new threat? Will the soft ecumenical approach, so important in the marginalization of religion during the rise of liberty and toleration, blind the conservative to the depth of the problem? Or can intellectual conservatives again privatize their religion, embrace our Classical secular tradition, and champion our rational scientific culture against the barbarian theocratic enemy seeking to return civilization to the dark ages. Where is that moral clarity, Bill Bennett talks about?
To date, the conservative response is worrisome. In 1979 two important events occurred in the Islamic world: the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The horrors of Iranian theocracy were obvious to any reader of the daily news. Even before the Shah fell there were ample reports of what was to come. Islamic fundamentalists burned a movie theatre full with women and children; apparently movie-going violations Sharia law. The viciousness of these types of atrocities gave a preview of the coming regime. However, conservatives were ready with a nuanced rationalization: Shia enthusiasm is not indicative of the more staid and established Sunni traditionalists. The Sunni religion provides a more sedate foundation for the values of an Islamic society. Our government eagerly helped Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan as they fought the atheistic communist