Chapter 21: Toward an American Renaissance: Faith, Liberty, and the Future of Conservatism
Conservatism is about community, with civic responsibility at its core, about love of country and patriotism rightly rooted in the best we have to offer. Our exceptionalism is rooted in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and in the transcendent view of America deriving from our Judeo-Christian heritage. We must reintroduce to the rising generation of young Americans this great heritage and patrimony—the heroes; the great battles and generals; the great music and composers; the great paintings and artists; the great poems and poets; the great novels and writers; the great turning points of history; the great buildings and architects; the great monuments, sculptures, and sculptors; the great discoveries, explorations, scientific achievements, and inventors; the great books and great authors; and the fundamental narrative of why, in Russell Kirk's historic pentagon Greece, Rome, Athens, Jerusalem, London, and Philadelphia comprise the five anchor cities in the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian story of Anglo-American freedom and liberty.
Noah Webster, writing in his On the Education of Youth in America, said: "Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country." Ken Myers wrote: "Education rightly ordered must properly train the sentiments, sensibilities, and affections of students. ... A person so trained will understand that the chief end of a truly human life is to conform the soul to reality, not ... to attempt to remake reality to fit our dreams." This is what gives students moral certainty and a consensus about our public life.
The writer Theodore Dalrymple has placed America's cultural challenge in the right context, saying we need to learn from Europe's slide into aggressive secularism. He says we need "a defense of all that is best ... in American history. ... That is why the outcome of the culture wars in America is so important to its future. A healthy modern society must know how to remain the same as well as change, to conserve as well as reform. Europe has changed without knowing how to conserve; that is its tragedy."
The way forward for American conservatism is not to detach economic prosperity from the great moral issues of our time; economic deficits are rooted in moral and ethical deficits first. Character, personal integrity, and its consequences are inevitably tied up with economic dynamism, technological creativity, and the vitality of the marketplace. This strong sense of duty and economic flexibility go together because virtue is the other side of freedom; they are inextricably entwined and linked.
Pope Benedict XVI eloquently said: "Let us never forget how exclusion of God, religion, and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man. . . . In our time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn, and quartered, but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed, and parodied."
We need people of faith in politics, in the professions, in science, and in the arts because they help suffuse life with moral ballast. This will be one of the central tenets of our national restoration. Politics and religion operate in the same sphere because both deal with how we organize our lives together. It is why we can and do formally separate church and state but not religion and politics. This formally recognizes reality: a civic order on the one hand and a moral and religious order on the other.
William F. Buckley Jr.'s assertion in God and Man at Yale is as apt today as it was when it was first published in 1951, that in writer Roger Kimball's words, "The dual between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world." Buckley wrote, "The struggle between individualism [by this he meant conservatism] and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level."
Once-great countries that forget their patrimony, and especially their faith, in a kind of general amnesia have a few things in common. They become more brutal and vulgar, but they also forget the things that made them great: their literature, their national songs and hymns, the heroes who died in wars or made incredible sacrifices to make them free and to give them a future of hope and prosperity. Secularization and decline go hand in hand. Of all the paintings by Norman Rockwell, my favorite is titled Lift Up Thine Eyes. The painting is centered on a majestic cathedral and in front of it a host of people. All are too busy and preoccupied to notice the cathedral's splendor, giving it not even a glance. Heads are down, eyes are averted to the sidewalk. Ill cultures are like that. We need a cultural renaissance to battle a cultural forgetfulness that sometimes seems pervasive, meretricious, empty, and void. There is much spiritual vitality in our land still, but it is too often attenuated. Burke warned about just how fragile civilization can be, and our culture is worthy of our robust defense and nurture.
The writer Evelyn Waugh, speaking of Rudyard Kipling, wrote: "He believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned..." Waugh, who penned these comments in 1938, observed: "At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history."30 In commenting on Waugh's observations, Kimball wrote, "The contest between barbarism and civilization is perpetual. There are no permanent victories, only permanent values."
This is consonant with T. S. Eliot's view of the kind of tradition worth preserving. He believed that in both politics and religion, tradition was dynamic, not static, and I agree. Eliot said it was dangerous "to associate tradition with the immovable; to think of it as something hostile to all change; to aim to return to some previous condition which we imagine as having been capable of preservation in perpetuity" and that "tradition without intelligence is not worth having." There are things in the past worth preserving; there are things in the past worth discarding. Innovation is a part of tradition but always with fixed principles.
With Burke, Johnson, Coleridge, Newman, and especially Eliot I believe conservatism at its finest nurtures and conserves the beautiful, the true, and the just in our culture. That is what Eliot meant when he said there was a kind of pastness in the present that keeps contemporary life vital. It is what makes the ugly and deliquescent in our culture so heartbreaking.
Our founders were comfortable and encouraging of religion's role in American public life and in politics itself. They did not seek to separate the two because they rightly believed faith promulgated a moral citizenry, which was essential for the survival of our young republic. It is no less true today. It is impossible to understand America, in our founding and in the present era, without understanding the centrality of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a tradition of faith so powerful that it is not only not static; it is the primary vehicle for much of the major social changes in our history. And it is the model for the very forward for America now.
From The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era by Timothy S. Goeglein. Copyright 2011 by Timothy S. Goeglein. Excerpted by permission of B&H Books.