My Love Letter To Conservatism

I fear that, short of urgent, fundamental change, my next letter will be a eulogy.
05/31/2017 12:02 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2017

There’s a type of conservatism that’s indistinguishable from wisdom, from sober thinking, from the sort of sensibility that comes with well-seasoned judgment.

This philosophy is characterized in my mind by GK Chesterton’s story about two political types, each of whom had an opinion about an old gate that blocked a nearby road:

“The modern type of reformer goes up and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let’s clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer does well to answer, ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go and think. When you can tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”

As every generation eventually comes to realize, there’s a certain passion for progress that comes naturally to youth. Which is why, balanced against this impulse, we have the caution of those farther down the path, who warn that the thirst, good in itself, must be quenched with care.

This dynamic surely in mind, Irving Kristol once referred to conservatives as “liberals who’ve been mugged by reality.” His phrasing stuck, resonating as it does with anyone who’s ever witnessed what the ugliness of man and the roughness of this world tend to do to beautiful ideas.

While too clever to be quite true, his description did at least hint at the truth. A close reading of history and sociology does suggest something of a speed limit on the pace of human progress ― a threshold for adjustment that can’t be exceeded unless humans become something other than what they are and have always been. Complex systems simply don’t move quickly, or else only move quickly when they are breaking.

A Problem Defined

In even the most libertarian theory of politics, government exists as a positive force to help ensure the preservation of a fundamental stability as we stumble together towards the light, balancing rights and responsibilities against each other in view of some idea of a common good.

There is, of course, a dangerous vulnerability in this way of things. To put it in picture form, we might imagine an evacuation order issued on account of a powerful but far-off storm. Given the complexities and distance involved, some number of hearers will be sure to ignore the warnings until the danger reaches their door. And, to our great frustration, we’ll find ourselves unable to either leave them behind or lead them faster than they’ll come.

Conservatism, understood in any rigorous sense, ought to have no interest in placating that sort of person, in encouraging or legitimizing their behavior, or in coming short of anything but resolute condemnation. There can be no virtue in holding society hostage until you need its help, nor in winking to the practice in exchange for a few votes and a pot of stew.

Yet this is exactly what popular conservatism has become in North America: no longer a ballast, but a shield for reactionary forces who would point to the storm and call it the justice of a vengeful god angry at our progress.

Studies in Unseriousness

There’s a common criticism that ideological conservatives do everything with their ideas except take them seriously ― that they’re zealous to pronounce and defend their viewpoints without investing comparable effort into understanding the very things they’re saying in relation to the data as it exists.

For example, many of today’s hardline right are fond of explaining how they’re against gay marriage for what it might do to an institution they hold dear ― even as they themselves use it as a loose metaphor, demonstrated in the fact that divorce rates are 25 percent higher among heterosexual couples.

Social conservatives also preach abstinence while succumbing to “moral failure” as frequently as most liberal Millennials opt to have free sex. Does feeling guilty about it after make it preferable? Given the obvious truth that relationships infected by guilt and shame end more destructively than those which don’t, can the sex-negative model still be considered a universal moral positive?

This isn’t to say that moralistic frameworks have no place. There’s great value in fighting for a careful review of what marriage is, where it comes from, what good one hopes it will bring to society ― even in an explicitly religious context. Those are useful, healthy questions for an open society where a diversity of beliefs exist alongside an essential need for us all to get along.

The problem is when we substitute partisan talking points for good data and honest dialogue.

The Elephant in the Policy Room

No issue has poisoned the well or separated the tribes quite like abortion. One struggles to even conceive of another issue as rife with disingenuous and long-debunked claims (from both sides, but mostly from the right).

Beginning at the beginning, there’s a reason the Bible never mentions abortion ― just like there’s a reason that neither Christianity nor Judaism ever came to anything resembling a consensus judgment on it despite 3,000 years of discussion. We simply don’t understand when human life, whatever we take that to mean, really begins.

Life may begin at conception. Or at first heartbeat. Or at the onset of mature brain signals. Or at quickening. Or at fetal viability. Or perhaps at some abstract benchmark like ensoulment (some church fathers thought this was metaphorical, while others considered it a physical act that happened at 40 days ― which about a third of abortions happen prior to).

Given the lack of objective means of deciding the issue, the reasonable conservative position is to tread with caution relative to signals that correlate with life ― to remain abortion-averse in principle.

An unreasonable position, in contrast, is to let principled ideology overrule a clear reading of the data. Which, of course, is exactly what the right has been doing for nearly forty years now. There is no dialogue. Only sermons about the evils of liberalism and the need to criminalize the “murdering of babies” as a means of stemming the cultural tide.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Legislating subjective morality almost never produces the desired civic benefit. We can’t bully each other into adopting new viewpoints. The only effective tool we have is to explain ourselves clearly while living out our beliefs as consistently as possible, allowing the fruit of our ways to make its own argument (a stance strengthened by frequent, honest invitations for dissent and counter-argument).

Pragmatism, however, is only half the battle. We also have the strawman problem. Few of the liberals I know are actually interested in an abortion free-for-all (especially late-term). They’re in favor of going where the data would lead, which is overwhelmingly towards the idea that the “rare, safe, and legal” framework results in the best overall outcomes, especially when paired with free contraception and strong sexual education programs (most notably ones that don’t rely exclusively on promoting abstinence, which has been shown repeatedly to end in more pregnancies and STDs than amoral alternatives).

The key is reducing unwanted pregnancies. Any other approach is less effective at the only goal we all claim to care about.

To the degree that we’re being honest about the changes we want to see, conservatives need to argue in much better faith and with a much improved eye to the evidence.

Origin of a Mythology

This all suggests a question: where exactly did western conservatism go off the rails on this? While that’s somewhat beyond the scope of this letter, even a partial accounting of the lives of men like Paul Weyrich and Roger Ailes is enough to give the sense.

For our purposes, we can simply compare conservative commentary on abortion in 1973 (just after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S.) to that in 1979 (when it was opportunistically weaponized for political gain).

I’ll note that we made no great progress in abortion-related science in those years, nor was any significant change made to the medical techniques involved. The practice carried on like it has since time immemorial.

So what did change? Televangelists with a profit motive joined hands with monied interests keen on gaining religious cover for grossly self-benefiting policies. They then adopted abortion as a convenient campaign plank.

There never was a moral awakening ― just a predictable response to strategic, well-funded political rhetoric.

Beyond Binary Thinking

Lest I be thought to be bashing Christians or conservatives, let me get to the foundational problem: the basic idea of partisanship is an outdated and destructive form of tribalism.

Our current system is toxic and simplistic, a relic of the worst of our heritage. It’s a blunt tool that degrades and divides without preserving or uplifting. Any productive value it once had has long-since expired.

This becomes more obvious the further back you stand. One party claiming the exclusive high ground of wisdom? One subset of citizens having the arrogance to claim that they alone exercise common sense? Does that framing strike you as allowing for even the possibility of productive dialogue?

Looking at conservatives specifically, how can they make a virtue of the idea of being too level-headed to ever burn recklessly in the face of injustice? I would place little trust in the judgment of someone who doesn’t come apart at the throat sometimes in the face of the brokenness of this world. Wisdom outside of empathy is no wisdom at all.

A Time For Everything

At the heart of the confusion, we have a forgotten truth: prudence and empathy aren’t really opposing philosophies. They’re two dimensions to a decision, meant to be applied with wisdom by the collective judgment of men and women armed with good data and sound minds. Neither is useful as a singular orientation. As the good book says, there’s a time to gather stones and a time to throw them (along with every other set of balancing activities under heaven). Wisdom, in that ancient sense, wasn’t to place yourself in one camp or another, but to judge which was appropriate for the season or situation.

This translates well to most practical political issues. I’m not for or against taxes. I’m for intelligent taxation. I’m not for or against debt. I’m for debt that funds investments which pay a return greater than the carrying costs. I’m not for or against regulation. I’m for regulating those who prove unable to act well without it. In short, I’m for using the most appropriate means available to secure the outcomes we all want: peace, prosperity, and a healthy world in all the senses that matter.

These aren’t partisan positions. They’re messy, contextual considerations. Which is why I don’t vote on party lines. Given how universal most values are, I vote for candidates who demonstrate the ability to weigh the evidence and make sound judgment calls, who know how to counter-balance the pendulum when it swings too far.

When I hear someone claim “I’m a conservative,” what I hear is “I enjoy making right turns”. Which, I mean, that’s great ― but the world is far more accessible when your steering wheel allows for both directions along with the odd u-turn.

The Wrong Idols

I’ve lived in some of the most conservative places in North America. I scored an 80 on the PBS “Do You Live in a Bubble” test (suggesting that I really don’t). I’ve lived alongside both tribes in deeply embedded ways. Beyond the rhetoric, I don’t see a real difference in the underlying values on either side.

But then I look at the rhetoric and I understand why we aren’t getting along.

We all have curious heroes based on the curious myths that we cling to. Liberals, for example, are quick to name Galileo to their secular pantheon. Curiously, few of them seem to have read much about him. The academic literature suggests that any “persecution” he received had nothing to do with his science and everything to do with his supreme pettiness. He was a misanthrope, not a martyr.

But even though Galileo might be said to represent the worst of dogmatic liberalism ― haughtiness, over-confidence, and blinding arrogance ― his approach was still ultimately preferable to those who refused to look through his telescope. His progress was decidedly imperfect, but it was still progress.

This is why I support more liberal parties than conservative ones: their excesses are curable in a way that modern conservatism doesn’t allow for. As far as party systems go, the right has rejected the telescope. This isn’t a comparable sin. A course gone awry can be corrected far more easily than atrophy can be reversed.

And so I’ve written a love letter to conservatism alone. I worry for her in a way I don’t worry for liberalism. I fear that, short of urgent, fundamental change, my next letter to her will be a eulogy.

The Path Forward

Parties, to the degree that they offer value, should be known for nuanced and informed ideas on how we might best respond to the known facts in light of the best practices; and for leaders who run on character, ability, and a willingness to speak simply and act decently for the public good.

This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to want. In fact, looking with a long enough lens, it seems inevitable that traditional partisan models will run their course if favor of something more sensible.

But how and when that transition happens means everything — which, of course, is entirely within our control.

I’m going to close this letter, as with each of the two that follow, with an excerpt from an old sermon that I shall give the last word:

“If some young mind here this morning holds new ideas and is tempted to be intolerant to old opinions or to offensively condescend to those who hold them, he may well remember that people who held those old opinions have given the world some of the most memorable service it has ever been blessed with. We of the new generation will prove our case best, not by controversial intolerance, but by producing with our new opinions something of the depth, strength, nobility, and beauty of character that in other times were associated with other thoughts.” - Harry Emerson Fosdick

[Author’s Note: This is the first of three letters that I’m writing as a series to explain why I’ve recently left the conservative-evangelical church. Two more — A Love Letter to Christianity and A Love Letter to the Youths I Left Behind — will follow in coming days.]

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