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Recovering the philosophy of conservatism

Yoram Hazony calls for a society built upon family, church, and nation

Yoram Hazony Twitter/@yhazony

Recovering the philosophy of conservatism
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For decades now, conservatism in America has been an almost purely negative force, an exercise in saying “No.” To be sure, this is in part because there has been so much to say “No” to: abortion on demand, gender ideology, rampant pornography, same-sex marriage, and an unaccountable administrative state that stifles innovation. One wonders if so much opposition would have been needed had conservatives done a better job articulating their own positive vision. Even freedom, the value conservatives praise most often, has been framed in negative terms: freedom from interference, freedom to be left alone—the same kind of freedom, in short, that has guided the so-called “pro-choice” movement. After decades of failure, it’s worth pausing to ask whether there is anything more to conservatism than this.

One of the encouraging results of President Donald Trump’s years in office, despite his iconoclastic style, was a new willingness on the right to reconsider what it might take to conserve an American way of life worth conserving. “Getting government out of the way” might have been a plausible solution when the underlying structures of society—families, churches, communities, and businesses built on mutual loyalty—were strong and healthy. But that is no longer the case. Instead, conservatives must now recover a positive vision of what it means to build and sustain a conservative society. Many exciting initiatives, think tanks, and policy proposals have appeared for this purpose in recent years, but they have lacked a comprehensive philosophy. A big step toward the development of such a comprehensive approach may have come with the publication of Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Israeli American political theorist Yoram Hazony.

Formerly known chiefly for his paradigm-changing defense of national loyalty and national sovereignty in The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), Hazony has now planted a flag in the sand with a bold argument for conservatism. Many on the right today might scarcely recognize the political and social vision Hazony outlines, a robustly positive outlook built upon the ideal of a society organized around honor, duty, and mutual loyalties as expressed in the institutions of family, church, and nation. That is because, as Hazony cogently shows, many of today’s “conservatives” have adopted the political philosophy known as “liberalism”: a commitment to maximize the freedom of individuals and reject all unchosen obligations.

Hazony’s argument constitutes a bold double-or-nothing gamble, arguing forthrightly that if conservatives want to conserve anything, they will have to argue explicitly for the necessity of God and Scripture as the anchors of a shared public life.

Unchosen obligations, however, are simply the fabric of human life. We are born into families and communities with obligations to obey those charged with our care and honor those who are older and wiser. The person who grows up with an instinctual loyalty to his own country we praise (or used to praise) as possessing the virtue of patriotism, while the person who freely chooses to pledge himself to a foreign nation, we look upon with suspicion. Indeed, Hazony’s book relentlessly exposes the extent to which the liberal vision of humanity squarely contradicts the human nature it purports to describe. Instead of maximizing individual self-interest, people unfailingly adopt the identity of a larger tribe and fight fiercely to defend it—if deprived of such a tribe at birth, they will find one to attach themselves to as soon as possible (as our fiercely tribal politics today testify).

If this is so, it means we cannot neatly separate government and society, public and private, in the way our culture has sought to do for decades. Cold War–era conservatives proposed that perhaps government could adopt a stance of perfect neutrality toward goods like God, family, and tradition, and as long as individuals promoted these within private life, they would still flourish. But this is like saying that a husband could feign indifference toward his wife, treating her “neutrally” like all other women, and still expect his children to grow up respecting and honoring her.

Hazony’s argument constitutes a bold double-or-nothing gamble, arguing forthrightly that if conservatives want to conserve anything, they will have to argue explicitly for the necessity of God and Scripture as the anchors of a shared public life, for the idea that a nation’s laws must reflect and promote the moral traditions it wants society to practice. This may seem radical, but it was common knowledge until a few decades ago. Faced with uncompromising cultural Marxist adversaries who understand all too well that law and morality are inseparable, conservatives will have to either capitulate or rediscover their own positive vision for a morally ordered nation.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for 10 years as president of The Davenant Institute and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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