Last week Ben Peterson wrote a wonderful response to my earlier piece about the inherent tension in American conservatism. In my article I expressed concern that the American tradition of individual liberty (and liberalism in general, both classical and contemporary) is inimical to Christian conservatism. Peterson agrees that a tension exists, but argues à la Tocqueville that it’s up to conservatives to carve out local responses and alternatives to the tension.
He’s not wrong. Cooperative associations are helpful and do foster a truly genuine sense of community. Peterson mentions the work of Jon Coppage over at The American Conservative and cites the hopes of some Americans for more religious involvement in political affairs. But, as correct as these assertions may be, they still don’t eliminate the problem, or even mitigate its effects in a substantial way. I’m not a man for statistics (they’re not, in my opinion, the “best” mode of epistemology), but the numbers do look grim. Fewer Americans are identifying with religion. The recent bombastic (and largely unwarranted) anger at recent Indiana legislation is telling. And, anecdotally, as a citizen of the Northeast, I must admit to knowing more lukewarm religionists and “nones” than I do zealous believers. Conservatives can play a role in founding and defending local organizations, communities, and the like, but such efforts are not going to heal the rift in conservatism as a political force.
The fact remains that social conservatives feel betrayed by the Republican Party. You need only read anything by Rod Dreher to touch this vein of American cultural thinking. Libertarian types like the Koch brothers scorn social conservatism in the name of freedom in the business realm. Some social conservatives have even shown immense dissatisfaction with the fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party, as seen in the development of small third parties like the American Solidarity Party. Simply put, emphasizing localism isn’t going to get the Kochs and Rod Dreher shaking hands and voting for Mitt Romney.
Of course, I’m not saying that such local work is bad. After all, it forms an important part of both the American and the Christian traditions. But individual liberty could very well undermine it. If you understand the purpose of your humanity as primarily being “free,” you have small reason to join an organization that doesn’t mirror your precise beliefs. So why waste precious time? The sad truth is that even organizations we take great pride in cannot be said to agree with us all of the time. The wholly free individual should have little time for such half-agreement, and therefore, perhaps only time for himself.
What can be done then? Well, I’m with Peterson in advocating more work on the local level. I also believe that conservatives will have to find more direct ways of engaging the overall culture: attending major universities, joining academia, heading companies, but most importantly being joyful and kind people. The “Culture Wars” are spoken about monolithically, but take place individually and therefore in an infinite number of ways. I walk around the Ivory Tower every day, despite being a pro-life Catholic. I speak with libertarians, progressives, and even virulent anti-theists.
The key to change is individual action. There can be no prescription, no mandatory overall fiat for all conservatives in America. Instead, we must fight any culture war with a smile, accepting the tension of political discourse, and simply hoping for the best.