Ask random people what they think a “conservative” looks like.
Half the respondents will no doubt describe a clean-cut, well-dressed, and very stuffy man with a briefcase, traveling up the elevator of a tall tower on Wall Street where he will begin his day making a lot of money. The other half will, probably, describe a gun-toting, long-bearded hillbilly in overalls sitting on his porch after a Sunday sermon. These are the stereotypes people have in mind when they hear the word conservative.
The question is, why are they so radically different?
It is because conservatism is not as simple as people think, despite John Stuart Mill’s simply equating conservatives and stupidity. The reason there is so much disagreement between even conservative intellectuals about what it means to be a conservative is because there are inconsistencies and puzzle pieces that don’t quite make for a neat picture. But traditionalists who are disgusted by Ayn Rand’s onslaughts against self-sacrifice are just as wrong as the strict libertarians who deify the free market. To be a conservative requires both. We must celebrate the achievements of man as well as be grateful for the blessings of God.
Conservatives deplore nihilism, and yet they also tout wealth, prosperity, and prestige. Treated as the ends of life, these things are devoid of meaning. At the same time, conservatives encourage faith and community attachments, but not to the extent that they make a man naïve to the realities of the world or impose too harsh an order that interferes with the rights of the individual.
Conservatism has more than one dimension: one is lived in a church, the other in a skyscraper—the two “houses of conservatism.” A skyscraper represents the work of man; a church represents man’s gratitude to God. One aspect of the conservative is humble, faithful, and community spirited; the other is productive, individualistic, and indeed something of an egotist.
With that in mind, let's review two classic movies that illustrate the two dimensions: The Fountainhead (1949), penned by Ms. Rand herself, and Lilies of the Field (1963), based on the novel by William Barrett. When National Review listed its “100 Most Conservative Movies” of all time, both of these films made the list. That is quite peculiar, considering that one of them is about extreme individualism and the other is about the value of humility and faith.
Both films actually have a similar premise but each presents a variation on the same theme, teaching the audience a diametrically opposite moral message. Yet both messages are distinctly conservative. In both films, the protagonists are creating a building: in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark is an architect designing a New York skyscraper, and in Lilies of the Field, Homer Smith is a transient jack-of-all-trades building a church for Eastern European refugee nuns in the Arizona desert.
At this point, readers who have seen Lilies of the Field are probably humming the iconic “Amen!” song, picturing Sidney Poitier leading the nuns in his catchy Baptist hymn. It does not matter that Homer and the nuns speak different languages and practice different religions. The word Amen is an ecumenical acknowledgement of the Creator that all pious people understand.
Homer Smith, played by Poiter (who won his Oscar for the role), is gluttonous and, although not overambitious, seeks to leave his mark on the world. Fully human and thoroughly relatable, Homer is someone in whom you can see a bit of yourself. Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) you admire, of course. You would certainly want to do business with Roark, and you know that anything he does will be done right and that he would never try to cheat you. But you cannot relate to him as if he were an everyman. You certainly would not want him as a friend or neighbor. His great imperfection is that he knows that he is perfect. As Patricia Neal’s Dominque Francon says of him: “He’s earned the right to despise us.”
When asked to work for charity, Howard Roark emphatically refuses. He says, “The man who works for others without payment is a slave. I do not believe slavery is noble, not in any form nor any purpose whatsoever.” He later says, “Before you do things for people you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done you must love the doing, not the people.” Homer likewise wants remuneration for his labor. He tells the nuns: “If it’s for hire, you’ve got yourself one man for one day. When you hire Homer Smith you get good work.”
But both characters are denied payment for their labor. At the trial, Ellsworth Toohey, a newspaper columnist who despises Roark’s ethic, says of the architect, “It was his duty to sacrifice his own desires and to contribute any ideas that we demanded of him, on any terms we chose,” and adds that no man should “aspire to any virtue which cannot be shared.” Roark’s prosecutor asks the jury, “Has a man any right to exist if he refuses to serve society?” When Homer tells Mother Superior he insists on being paid, she answers brashly: “You talk like an American millionaire! Wall Street!” Thinking of Homer only as a strong, resourceful man sent to them by God to build them a church in answer to their prayers, she refuses even to thank him for his free labor. In her eyes, God is building the church and Homer is just the Almighty’s instrument. He tells her, “You are very large on religion but you don’t know how to accept a gift without making them feel small.” To this, Mother Superior responds without a shred of sensitivity: “Poor man, his feelings are hurt!”
Just as Howard Roark wants to be the sole designer of his work, Homer Smith wants the satisfaction of building the chapel his way, by himself. If he is not being compensated, he could at least have the legacy of building something that is solely his work that will stand for years to come. But when members of the community arrive to help Homer lay bricks, that dream is also shattered. He complains about it to Mother Superior: “I wanted to build it myself. All my life I wanted to really build something. Maybe if I had an education I would have been an architect or even an engineer.” The imperious head nun will not give poor Homer even a smidgen of understanding. She replies: “Well, the chapel is being built and that’s all that matters. God is building out there the chapel, and you sit here feeling sorry for yourself because you are not him.”
Howard Roark would have destroyed what the others had already built of the chapel and started over. But unlike Roark, Homer goes along with the less-than-ideal plan of the sisters. Eventually, at least, he gets to inscribe his initials in the adobe on the roof at the foot of the steeple. And he eventually gets the reluctant “thank you” from Mother Superior that he had been craving since his arrival.
Roark would rather work as a day laborer than create buildings that conform to public desires. He says, “I don’t build so I can have clients; I have clients so I can build.” But it ends happily. The Fountainhead’s hero ultimately prevails in finding clients who do not ask him to compromise his designs. Yet we must ask why Ms. Rand’s objectivism precludes such a compromise. What capitalist does not consider public demands on his work? Even in the free market, everyone is ultimately in the service of others.
The theme of The Fountainhead is that no man should ever sacrifice himself for other people. We are supposed to take pride in our ideas and achievements. And it teaches that our greatest moral obligation is to afford the same chance to others. Lilies of the Field, alternatively, instructs us to be humble and charitable and to derive our self-worth from the community. As we have seen, both philosophies are only half right. As seemingly inconsistent as these two moral schemes are, a conservative aspires to both. The Jewish talmudic tradition teaches that the tribes of Israel are one whole distinct people chosen by God for a common purpose and destiny, but it also teaches that being a man created in the image of God means to be singular and unique, as He is.
Two other plot points come to mind from Lilies of the Field. Homer Smith is black and the nuns have escaped from the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Because of his race, Homer’s feeling of being treated as a slave as he fights for his self-worth cannot be missed, but it is subtle. Mother Superior’s citation of Proverbs 1:4, “Cast in the lot amongst us, let us all have one purse,” and her invocation of Matthew 6:28, “Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow,” might seem communistic. But we know that there is a world of difference between community and communism. And given the oppression she fled, we understand why she is sensitive to Homer’s comparing her dictatorial ways to Hitler’s. Mother Superior is not a fascist. Homer is free to leave at any time, but he feels drawn to stay and help build the chapel.
Despite what Ms. Rand and her objectivist admirers insist, the moral message that we must be humble and enjoy God’s blessings is not a rejection of freedom or individuality, nor is it a blight on self-esteem. And yet we also know that we would never be satisfied with the story’s conclusion unless Homer’s pride of personal achievement had somehow been fulfilled. We do not want that for him to the same extent that it is given to Howard Roark in The Fountainhead’s climax, but we want at least to see Homer have his moment of glory. There has to be a middle ground. That middle ground is the very essence of conservatism.