Political ideologies are a lot like individuals in that they tend to ascribe ultimacy to some aspect of God’s creation, rather than ascribing ultimacy to God himself. Once they have ascribed ultimacy to their chosen idol, they look to it to “save” their society by eradicating “evils” that threaten their idol. And “We the People” are tempted to embrace these ideologies as political saviors.
I’ve described and critiqued this phenomenon in a recent book, Letters to an American Christian. I’ve also critiqued it in a summary article entitled, “The Intellectual in Canada Who Unmasked Political Idolatry in America” and in countless articles on my website.
Given that my primary allegiance is to Christ and his church, my commitments to political parties, platforms, and leaders should always be tentative. Thus, since I land on the right side of the American political spectrum, it is especially helpful to beware the dangers found on the right.
That’s why I enjoyed re-reading The Revenge of Conscience, by University of Texas (Austin) philosopher J. Budziszewski, in which the author exposes the “sins” of various political ideologies on the Left and Right. After reading, I decided to publish a couple of articles familiarizing readers with J-Bud’s thought. Recently, I published a summary of his criticisms of political progressivism. Now, I publish a summary of his criticisms of political conservatism:
- Civil Religionism: Some conservatives think America is God’s chosen nation and thus envision God as the underwriter of American aspirations, even when those aspirations are more nationalistic and less Christian. Even Americans who have little interest in Christianity sometimes exhibit a missionary-like zeal to spread secular conservative ideology. They confuse America with God’s coming kingdom.
- Instrumentalism: Secular conservatives are often instrumentalists; they want to use Christianity to achieve state ends. (I see Budziszewski’s point and I’ll raise him one: many of these secular conservative view evangelicals as useful idiots.) Budziszewski writes, “Although language describing Christianity as the law of the land has disappeared from our cases, judges and legislators are just as interested in the social utility o the faith as they were before—and just as indifferent to its truth.” Many culturally powerful conservatives do not believe in the truth of Christianity, but merely that it’s socially useful.
- Moralism: Religious conservatives can exhibit a misapplied moralism. It is right and good for the government to enforce some of the precepts of our faith (e.g. prohibition of murder), but not all of them (e.g. prohibition of pride). Even though the OT contained a civil law for Israel, God does not give civil law for the Gentiles. The New Testament does make clear some laws which we must refuse (worship of Caesar), but it does not explicitly tell us which laws we must demand.
- Caesarism: Many conservatives elevate the laws of man above the laws of God. They don’t say so explicitly, of course. But they in fact refuse to acknowledge any laws of God.
- Traditionalism: Some conservatives think we should keep doing what we have always done traditionally. But this causes problems. Should we continue to own slaves? Should we continue to allow abortion-on-demand? Every evil, once installed, lays claim to being a tradition. Even SCOTUS has acknowledged that Roe might have been based on unsound reasoning, but they are sticking with it now because it is precedent. Justices Kennedy, O’Connor, and Souter argued, that “the immediate question is not the soundness of Roe’s resolution of the issue, but the precedential force that must be accorded the ruling.”
- Neutralism: Some conservatives agree with liberals that we should mind our own business and avoid making moral and religious judgments. Michael Oakeshott is an example. But this is not even possible. Laws and policies are, in one way or another, underlain by religious and ideological reasoning.
- Mammonism: Many conservatives believe the purpose of the commonwealth should be to increase wealth continually, often while ignoring social issues. Even if Adam Smith’s theory is basically right, the “invisible hand” of the market doesn’t work without a moral populace. Budziszewski writes, “Capitalism depends on a moral spirit which it cannot supply and may even weaken; it is, in the most exact of senses, a parasite on the faith.”
- Meritism: Conservatives often think that they should do unto others as they deserve. This is the opposite of liberal propitiationism, in which we do unto others as they want. Conservatives have a preference for justice, while liberals have a preference for mercy. But Christ has a preference for both. Liberal propitiationists want to pay women cash prizes for having children out of wedlock, but conservatives want to end it. Budziszewski’s problem with the conservatives is that after they’ve cut off the cash prizes, they tend to walk away and do nothing to help.
Budziszewski concludes that the more Christians are faithful to our identity in Christ, the less reliable allies we will be with adherents of ideologies. In other words, our primary “reference group” should not be “other political conservatives on the right.” Our primary reference should be Christ and the church, and our primary mode of politics is one of witness.
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Another well-aimed volley. I appreciate seeing conservatism’s being put in the crosshairs too, even though I tend towards cultural conservatism myself. Seeing the influence that Budziszewski seems to have on your thinking, I’ve done a little research on him. I’m now convinced that “The Revenge of Conscience” should be on my bucket list, even though I’m growing increasingly selective in my reading habits now that I’m on the homestretch of life. Thank you!