This Journal is sponsored by the Assn. for Christian Conferences, Teaching and Service.

ISSN: 2354-8315 (Online)



Saint Augustine
Conservatism, Christianity, and the Revitalization of Europe - The Arguments of the Secular Conservatives
PDF Print E-mail
Article Index
Conservatism, Christianity, and the Revitalization of Europe
The Path to Western Secularism
The Arguments of the Secular Conservatives
Fundamental Flaws in These Arguments
What We Can Learn from Contemporary Russian Conservatives
All Pages

“There is,” Muller confidently asserts, no necessary link between conservatism and religious belief.”5 Rather, he insists, the contrary; conservatism, rightly understood, is secular through and through. That is why he chose to begin his book with Hume rather than Burke. “The thought of David Hume,” he tells us, “marks a watershed in the development of conservative social and political thought into a coherent, secular doctrine.”6 That is true, but it requires a very selective reading to conclude that conservatism is “a product of the Enlightenment,” that its arguments take place on the “enlightened grounds of the search for human happiness, based on the use of reason.”7 Those who dispute such a claim are, Muller says, “orthodox” rather than “conservative.” So be it; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “orthodox” means “right in opinion


In order to buttress his case, Muller points out that few of the major figures of the Enlightenment favored a popular revolution of the kind that was acted out in France in the tumultuous decade of the 1790s. With the important exception of Rousseau, who was never a philosophe, that is true; most favored rule by Enlightened despots such as Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Joseph II of Austria. The first two were atheists and the third a secularizing revolutionary. But calling attention to the fact that the philosophes distrusted the unenlightened masses looks suspiciously like a way of diverting attention from Voltaire’s decidedly anti-conservative, and certainly anti-Christian, “érasez l’infâme.”

Part of Muller’s strategy in fact is to restrict his analysis to social and political thought, where relativity reigns. (“I reprobate no form of government,” Burke wrote, “merely upon abstract principles.”8) In that way, more profound questions may be ignored; or as Muller puts it, by showcasing the “social scientific cast of conservative thought” one can set to one side “more literary and romantic strands of conservatism that traffic in the nostalgic evocation of the past.”9 One is reminded of what Samuel Johnson said of the politician George Lyttelton, namely that “politics did much engage him as to withhold his thoughts from things of more importance.”10

Muller has nothing good to report of an orthodoxy that holds that secular thought imposes unnecessary limits upon the search for truth—especially upon “truth” that means something more than historically useful. The orthodox, he says, are really reactionaries who believe that modernity represents a decline from a better time and who are prepared to defend lost causes. He cites in this regard the Southern Agrarians of the 1930s— John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, and Andrew Nelson Lytle. It is true that these contributors to the famous symposium, "I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition," were reactionaries—Tate, a Catholic convert, entitled one of his books Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas—but under conditions of modernity it is reactionaries who are the true conservatives. “I loved and admired and longed for the better things of the past,” the Catholic historian John Lukacs has written, “especially of a past whose presence I could still see and hear and smell and sense, physically and mentally: that was how I became a reactionary.”11

Muller is not alone in his effort to excommunicate reactionaries and secularize conservatism. Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal describes herself as a “skeptical conservative” who grounds her “ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument.” She takes strong exception to the view “that what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith—as if morality is impossible without religion and everything is indeed permitted, as the cliché has it.”12 If she really believes this to be a cliché, she—like the philosopher and secular conservative John Kekes (and like Nietzsche)—is oblivious “to evil as a spiritual disorder, to evil as rebellion, to the mystery of evil.”13 Perhaps that is why she can assert with such confidence that “Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular.” Leaving aside her talk of “rights,” best understood as the ever-increasing demands of the left, that is hardly the conclusion forced upon us by a century that witnessed two world wars, Auschwitz, and the Gulag Archipelago.

Mac Donald is not the only conservative journalist eager to defend a secular point of view. John Derbyshire, who writes regularly, and often interestingly, for the National Review, reports that he grew weary of reader e-mails pestering him about his religious beliefs. And so, in a piece dated October 30, 2006, he responded to their importunities. “Q. Are you a Christian? A. No. I take the minimal definition of a Christian to be a person who is sure that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, or part-divine, and that the Resurrection was a real event. I don’t believe either of those things.... Since about the end of [2004] I’ve been coming clean with myself, and quit going to church. No, I am not a Christian.”14

In the spirit of Christian charity, I will not enumerate the reasons Derbyshire cites for his unbelief; suffice it to say they do not rise to the level of Ivan Karamazov’s refusal to accept a world in which innocent children suffer. As to whether or not an irreligious person can be a conservative, he naturally replies in the affirmative. “The essence of modern conservatism is the belief in limited government power, respect for traditional values, patriotism, and strong national defense.” This definition reduces conservatism to little more than the platform of the Republican Party.
In a piece entitled “Let’s Be Rational,”15 Anthony Daniels, the British psychiatrist and prolific writer who sometimes uses the nom de plume Theodore Dalrymple, recalled a colloquium he attended with American conservatives. “I happened to mention,” he wrote, “that I was not religious, unlike the other members of [my] panel…. I was surprised afterwards that several of the audience approached me and thanked me for it. What was there to thank me for? They said that they, too, were without religious faith, in short atheists, and it was a relief to them that someone, otherwise of like mind with the majority of the audience, had confessed it.”


Last Updated on Thursday, 12 January 2012 20:49