In Praise of Heresy

Edmund Burke warned that eliminating religion was impossible – the religious impulse was natural to mankind, and if formal religion was abolished, equally fervent ideologies would rise to take its place.  Certainly we find that many people are more passionate about being Republican or pro-choice than they are about being Episcopalian or Buddhist.  And with any ideology must come, of course, heresies to that ideology – unorthodox beliefs which are a danger to the purity of the ideology.

In the case of religion, heresy is a manifestation of falsehood amidst truth, and harmful more often than not.  In the case of politics, however, truth is non-revelatory and hence less clear-cut, and ideologies form when one idea is adopted as the totalizing principle that overrides all others.  Heresy is therefore a moderating, enriching force crucial to both stability and statesmanship.

Conservatism Disrobed

This truth is perhaps clearest in the case of conservative ideology.  Most modern American conservatives initially sound more like 18th century liberals.  They sing of abstract principles, while it is the Progressives who are wary of principles divorced from practice.  James Ceaser writes on Postmodern Conservative:

“Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting its theoretical foundation of natural rights. This “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” (Lincoln) is something conservatives are not embarrassed to proclaim, even before the United Nations General Assembly. On this point, they are in full accord with the original liberals. Modern liberals, by contrast, are suspicious of metaphysical truths, advertising themselves as pragmatists while hiding their values behind the process of change.”

Philosophically, the driving force of this apparent switch is Progressivism’s inversion of Burke’s notion of tradition.  For Burke, the validity of a principle increased with the degree to which it was ingrained in a society (thus old age was better than youth).  For the Progressives, it was precisely the opposite – the validity of an idea rested in its relevance to contemporary culture (in its newness).  Consequently, while Burke was comfortable with abstract principles mediated through historical experience, the Progressives rejected both tradition and the abstract principles behind it.

As a result of Progressivism’s political successes over the past century, conservatives have found themselves fighting to keep their heads above water, apparently robbed of their appeal to tradition after bad traditions (divorced from the abstract principles) have had decades to develop.  Many conservatives have consequently abandoned the word “tradition” entirely, choosing instead to appeal directly to the abstract principles (or “absolute truths”) that Progressives tend to deny.

This leaves them essentially naked.  With only one fig leaf to cling to, they totalize it and turn it into an ideology little different from that of French liberals in 1790.  With a philosophy based only on a set of abstract principles that typically date back no further than the Reagan administration, they hold to those principles with religious – ideological – fervor.  And with an ideology comes heretics.  People like David Brooks are therefore accused of being “not real conservatives,” not based on a lack of preference for the old and tried, but based on whether they adhere to the holy writ of the ideology.

Heresy: The Coat of Many Colors

Of course, conservatism for an American could never be fully what it was for Burke.  Properly speaking, an American conservatism is a kind of metropolitan traditionalism.  It draws its ethical, religious, social, and political capital from a winding line running through England, across Europe, back to ancient Israel and the Roman Empire.  Like that of Rome itself, America’s tradition is partly adopted.  Thus Americans have always felt an affinity for universal principles.

However, those principles (as indicated above) were mediated through a long tradition of political thought, most heavily through the early Americans’ biological ancestors in Britain.  The strength of the American Revolution, for example, came not from its romantic roots in ancient Rome, but from its tradition of self-government inherited from Britain and practiced for generations.  The “revolution” began because British troops sought to infringe on rights the people of Boston knew they had always had.

The typical conservative today retains an affection for the American founding, but not for the tradition that birthed it.  He would rather appeal all the way back to Israel and the Greeks and Romans, to truths from the Bible or natural law.  His political philosophy (even when sensible) is consequently as bare as his theology, the threads of time having had no chance to fill in the holes with helpful nuances.  Were his ideology all he had, he would be little equipped to do more than oppose the ideology that reduced him to his current state.

Thankfully for American politics, the conservative heretics are many (though many of them too totalize their points of emphasis).  Traditionalists, agrarians, Kennedy Democrats, fiscal conservatives, and even the occasional confused libertarian (to name a few) color the mix.  While ideological conservatives remain the norm, the strength of 21st century American conservatism (though not necessarily the Republican Party) remains its lack of unity.  In the absence of a hegemonic ideology, diverse and thoughtful dialogue – the anti-ideology pill – continues, and heresy is the instigator.

Next: Progressive Traditionalism.

1 Comment

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    November 24, 2009

    Kevin

    I think the important question is whether those “universal principles” Americans had such an “affinity” for are actually true “for all men at all times,” as Lincoln says.