The Temptation of Secular Conservatism | First Things

If there is one silver lining to President Obama’s re-election—an event that fills many with apprehension—it is that it’s provided a clarifying moment for American conservatism. For years, the conservative movement has been carried along by its “big tent” philosophy, which welcomes conservatives of various types. In the wake of Obama’s victory, however, these differences have been accentuated. Many conservatives believe this was a winnable election, and blame some faction of the GOP for supposedly blowing it. Social conservatives are warring with libertarians, foreign policy hawks with non-interventionists, immigration reformers with opponents, and generous spenders with fiscal conservatives. Recriminations are flying high, and plenty have ideas about reviving American conservatism.What has gone unnoticed is just how secular the conservative discussion has become. In his famous book, God and Man at Yale (1951), William F. Buckley lamented the collapse of Christian consciousness among higher academics, and hoped conservatives could reverse the trend. Russell Kirk followed with his classic, The Conservative Mind (1953), arguing that conservatism was nothing if it was not supportive of a transcendent Judeo-Christian order. And Clinton Rossiter’s neglected study Conservatism in America (1955), declared that “no conservative can afford to be casual about religion. Those political or cultural conservatives who are indifferent are to that extent—and to a goodly extent it is—imperfect conservatives.” In recent times, many of these notions have been challenged. While many conservatives still embrace faith, and defend the Judeo-Christian heritage, the idea that modern conservatism is synonymous with faith and tradition has lost traction. A whole new generation of self-styled conservatives want little or nothing to do with either. When the creators of South Park, the crude but popular animated sitcom, were asked if they were “South Park Republicans”—since their show mocks liberals, especially liberal celebrities—they rejected the label, claiming the GOP wants nothing but “more government and more Jesus.”

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