Invoking God in the political realm is a conversation stopper, not an invitation to robust debate. America’s rules of religious etiquette demand that we acquiesce silently in a believer’s claim of revelation. But conservatism doesn’t need such revelation; common sense and an openness to fact will do just fine as support. Conservative principles are available to people of all faiths or no faith at all. ~Heather Mac Donald

Via Joshua Trevino

The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal. [bold mine-DL] ~Russell Kirk

The Kirk quote comes from his discussion of the ten conservative principles–which were not exhaustive, but meant to be the beginnings of an introduction–that can be found in The Conservative Mind.  The dividing line he is talking about today cuts right through the middle of the “conservative movement,” and the statement speaks for itself about the importance of a decent respect and recognition of the spiritual order and the spiritual nature of man–which is surely integral to understanding the constancy of human nature and the truth about human nature.  Conservatives are not, cannot be, monists, so long as we regard people as ends in themselves.  If we took Ms. Mac Donald’s prohibition on the non-empirical seriously, all metaphysics would have to depart from conservatism, and we would be left very simply with some kind of odd materialism that has no guiding vision or sense of what constitutes good order. 

When Ms. Mac Donald says things like, “conservatism doesn’t need revelation,” she generally seems to mean that “I consider myself a perfectly good conservative, and I don’t think we need revelation, therefore conservatism doesn’t need revelation.”  That is about as far as the demonstration goes.  Granted, this is for USA Today, but even so it is not much of an argument. 

This does not take account of whether there is much in the way of a tradition in conservative thought for thinking as she does.  There might be, but these arguments do not provide it.  But by way of rebutting this claim, I would like to recall some recent debates that Ms. Mac Donald provoked with her earlier call to rally round secular conservatism.  In the first chapter of this story, Ms. Mac Donald was writing in a symposium for The American Conservative, though her contribution struck me as being almost unique in its lack of relation to the relevant subject of “What is Left? What is Right?”  In that article, Ms. Mac Donald complained about the terrible pressures and burdens the religious conservatives were putting on their secular counterparts:

So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too. 

Of course, religious conservatives have never assumed that they alone occupied the field.  They were only too aware that they did not alone occupy the field.  So two months ago, it was all suffering and marginalisation for the secular conservatives.  Today, as we are deluged with more warnings about religious conservative madness and theocon perfidy from all sides, Ms. Mac Donald abandons the defensive crouch of the persecuted minority and goes on the offensive with the desire to clear out the opposition.  “Revelation?  We don’t need no stinking revelations!” she cries. 

Turning from the criticism that revelation is not strictly necessary for someone to be a conservative (which can be true to some degree), she has instead advanced the view that revelation is irrelevant to political problems and appropriately so (which is not at all true) and that conservatism doesn’t need revelation, either (also untrue).  Plainly any conservatism worth its salt seeks to protect and preserve the inheritance of Christian civilisation, and a vital part of that civilisation is the Faith itself.  In periods when adherence to Christianity was much more of a given than it is today, this likely needed less emphasis, but today it seems to me imperative.  You might be able to argue that one can be a law-abiding, sane member of society and uphold conservative principles without embracing that Faith or confessing belief in God, but what you have a much harder time arguing from conservative premises is that you can be a conservative and simultaneously deny the relevance and significance for public problems of the treasury of wisdom bequeathed to us over at least 2,000 years of Christian tradition. 

The secular conservative might not recognise the claims of this tradition to be truths handed down by God, but one marvels at the presumption that he is free to ignore the entirety of that tradition except for some mild aesthetic appreciation of nice Gothic cathedrals and the odd Baroque painting (”My, didn’t these religious people make nice paintings!” he will say) and determine that everything derived from what Christians hold to be revelation might as well be chucked overboard or ignored in the public square in exchange for our common sense and “openness to fact.”  A conservative subordinates himself to the traditions of his civilisation insofar as he is able and acknowledges that the traditions possess vastly more wisdom than he, his common sense and “openness to fact” will be able to amass in a single lifetime.  To neglect this and expect to make solid conservative arguments would be like trying to master a subject of inquiry without ever consulting a library.  This tradition, as my colleague Josh Trevino suggests, is largely amenable to reason and possesses reams of rational argument in exposition and defense of the claims of the Faith; should secular conservatives ever be inclined to engage it rather than dismiss it out of hand they would not only reconnect with their own cultural heritage but would discover a rich font of wisdom and truth that they do not have to acknowledge to be divine in order to recognise its importance and timeless relevance.