Whither Goest Conservatism?

A number of developments in the past month have put the spotlight squarely on the question, not too far back in people’s minds since last year’s election campaign, of what direction American conservatism is going to take in the foreseeable future. Until this year, after receiving criticism, the organizers of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had no problem allowing the Republican homosexualist group GOProud to participate. Still, news reports from CPAC discussed how many young attendees—the next generation of conservative activists—were supportive of same-sex “marriage” and a general downplaying of social issues. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, known as a conservative from my state of Ohio who was seriously considered as a Romney running mate, announced that he had shifted his position to support for same-sex “marriage” after learning that his son had same-sex attraction. Senator Rand Paul became a new conservative political icon with his filibuster to highlight the Obama administration’s suggestion that they could target suspected terrorists within the U.S. with drone strikes. Paul, like his father, has libertarian leanings and believes that some recreational drugs should be legalized. He also sees no problem with the “morning-after” pill, even though it is an abortifacient. A major report commissioned by the Republican National Committee to stake out the party’s future was strikingly silent on social issues and, in endorsing “comprehensive immigration reform,” seemed oblivious to the implications for the rule of law of accommodating millions of undocumented immigrants who broke the law to come here.

Is the new face of conservatism going to be one that features a less extreme version of the 1960s leftist “liberty of lifestyle,” with people the determiner of the moral norms they will live by? Does it embrace the Marxian idea that the character of marriage and the family are mere social constructs? Are such central principles of the American Founding—and of Catholic social teaching, for that matter—as the rule of law expendable when the political winds shift and they stand in the way of political advantage?  Is conservatism so eager for electoral victory that it will surrender the patient effort at political education needed to restore commitment to time-honored principles, even though the left—in good cultural-Marxist fashion—shows an uncanny patience in letting their attitudes sink into the fabric of American life so they can claim an eventual victory in transforming the American political order?

The great twentieth-century American conservative—and Catholic convert—Russell Kirk wrote about the “canons of conservative thought.” These included such points as how “political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems,” respect for the “mystery of traditional life” and rejection of “utilitarian aims of most radical systems,” the need for man to “put a control upon his will and his appetite,” and the belief that in contrast to reform “innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress.”

It is difficult to see how disregarding the true nature of marriage and the family is anything other than a rejection of traditional life and innovation of the most perilous kind. Wanting to make more readily available personally destructive recreational drugs and the “morning-after” pill and a perspective that views sodomy as a non-issue—reflecting, in some measure, acceptance of an ethic of sexual libertinism—hardly show a concern about controlling the will and appetite. Downplaying the rule of law in the name of political expediency is perilously close to a utilitarian attitude. Immediate political imperatives—whether forging a broader electoral coalition for the next election, falling in line with a perceived new electoral “mainstream,” or simply surrendering to the pressures exerted by interest groups like the homosexualists—seem now to be at the forefront and the religious and moral considerations behind them downplayed. It looks as if some (many?) conservatives have bought into the stock thinking of the secular left: “Irrespective of traditional religious and moral teaching, I will make up my own morality.” Whether one buys moral relativism sweepingly or in a milder way, it is still moral relativism. The spirit of moral innovation and moral pluralism is hardly in keeping with upholding the “permanent things,” as Kirk used to say conservatism embraced.

It looks as if many who call themselves “conservatives” are ready to turn their backs on the most serious issues gnawing at us today, that go to the real root of a civilized culture: the shaping of the soul, strong family life, and self-restraint and the control of the passions. Perhaps they should consult Edmund Burke, the godfather of conservatism, who viewed it as a right of men to have help in restraining their passions from without (that is, from the state and law). Such other historic luminaries of conservatism as Montesquieu and Tocqueville emphasized the need for self-restraint and the dangers of a pleasure-orientation, especially in the sexual matters—which, of course, are among the things at the very core of the crisis of contemporary American civilization.

We are witnessing conservatives who seem to want to take their bearings from the left on many of the crucial cultural questions of the day.

By downplaying or ignoring social issues and culture, it is apparent that these conservatives want to define themselves by a quasi-libertarian economic stance or belief in a mostly uninhibited free market. They should ponder for a moment that it was economic neo-liberalism—that is, a modified version of laissez faire—in the new era of “globalization” beginning in the early 1990s that helped triggered a reaction in the form of the resurgence of the American left and the accession to power of Chavez, Morales, Lula da Silva, the Kirchners and the rest of the new generation of Latin American socialists and quasi-socialists. They should also consider that our Founding Era was anything but laissez faire in either economics or culture. Motivated by their religious background, the early Americans stressed—as Catholic social teaching does—that private economic activity must be governed by ethical norms and be carried out in a manner consistent with the general welfare. As such, there were numerous laws—on the local level—that put reasonable limits on economic freedom.

All this points to some crucial imperatives for many who call themselves “conservatives” today—especially the young, but also the not-so-young: They need to return to their intellectual roots, and study thinkers like Burke and Kirk. They need to learn more about the American Founding. They also need to study sound social ethics. They might even put aside sectarian or secular prejudices and take a look at Catholic social teaching, to avoid another ultimately fruitless round of economic quasi-libertarianism. Some conservatives may have the cart before the horse; they need serious education on many fronts and a formation in solid principles before jumping into political activism.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

  • lifeknight

    OK. I understand that some “conservatives” are NOT that, but what about the bishops in our Church who have allowed the Morning After Pill (MAP) recently? Sure, some are “liberal” and some more “conservative,” however how can anyone (much less the unschooled), figure out the Catholic thought on today’s issues? Try teaching your children how to view the world through a Catholic lens—talk about a challenge!

    • Kevin McCormick

      I was concerned by the initial reports about the bishops and the morning after pill, however if I understood correctly they were only stating that it would be licit to be used in cases of rape in which it could be verified that ovulation had not yet occurred during the woman’s cycle. In such an instance it would not be in violation of the Church’s teaching regarding the sanctity of life or the sanctity of the expression of sexual love because it would be used to prevent ovulation and conception after an act of violence toward the woman. It would not be used as an abortifacient.

      • lifeknight

        Actually there is no real way to verify ovulation/conception. Medically speaking the fertilization occurs in a very short period of time. The “journey” to the uterus for implantation can be up to 6 days! Taking the MAP after rape will stop the implantation. This is exactly what the Pill does about 30% of the time in the women who take that abortifacient birth control. It does not stop ovulation.
        It has been a really serious issue in the Pontifical Academy for Life.

        • Kevin McCormick

          As an NFP instructor I am aware of the careful medical/scientific/ethical considerations that must be made in these cases. While I am no expert on such matters, my understanding is that it is possible to know if ovulation has not yet occurred. Fr. Tad Pacholczyk from the National Catholic Bioethics Center explains it this way:

          It is permissible, then, for Catholic hospitals to provide their patients with morning-after pills if the following four conditions are met:

          1. The woman is not already pregnant from prior, freely-chosen sexual activity.
          2. The woman has been sexually assaulted.
          3. The woman has not yet ovulated (i.e. has not released an egg from her ovary into the fallopian tube where it could be fertilized by the attacker’s sperm).
          4. The morning-after pill can reasonably be expected to prevent her from ovulating.

          Regarding this last condition, he states that the leutinizing hormone spike is an accurate indicator for knowing whether or not ovulation has taken place. If you have information to the contrary I would certainly be interested in knowing about it.

          • lifeknight

            Hi again,
            My husband is a Creighton trained MD consultant. I will ask him again about the 4 points you have state from Fr. Pacholczyk. I had the conversation recently in responding online to the bishops and the Pontifical Academy for Life. Certainly it is a point that needs clarification if the National Catholic Bioethics Center is proclaiming the usage of MAP. I am wondering what Dr. Hilgers is saying?

          • musicacre

            This is a trend to wanting to justify hormonal pills for women; just a new slippery slope! I have used NFP all my marriage and am an NFP instructor. I can tell you it is hard enough for a couple to create a baseline of data, only after careful charting and having an instructor help interpret the results, in the beginning. And you’re saying there will be accurate indication of ovulation on the spot, of a woman who is in a state of shock and her extreme emotions could certainly change what her hormones are doing. This is not a legitimate idea.

            • Kevin McCormick

              I share your concerns–my wife and I have used NFP for nearly 20 years and taught for nearly 10 of those. So as I said in my comment I’m familiar with the difficulty of the questions involved. But there is a test for determining levels of LH in a woman’s system and a spike in those levels indicates that ovulation is imminent or has already occurred. I would guess there are at least two reasons it is not used for NFP. First it would require that a blood test be taken daily around ovulation time and sent to a lab to determine the LH levels–which would be rather inconvenient (to put it mildly). Second, the cost would be exorbitant.

              But assuming that the test is 100% accurate at indicating whether or not ovulation has occurred, I can see no moral justification for forbidding its use in cases where a woman has been raped followed by restraining her system from ovulating to prevent conception which has not yet occurred. It would appear that this is the Church’s understanding of the matter. Obviously not every case would allow its use and it would have to be judiciously applied as a principle.

              But I don’t think it is a slippery slope to recognize the facts of the matter and allow for licit actions even with the knowledge that there are some who will abuse it or use it to further an agenda. As we both know such is true even for those who use NFP.

              • lifeknight

                The question posed by our conversation (not exactly related to this article) is whether ovulation has occurred and can this be documented with the lab work. If she is NOT pregnant, then what is the necessity of the MAP?

                • Kevin McCormick

                  Because the sperm can remain living for up to 5 days. By restraining ovulation it can prevent a conception.

                  • lifeknight

                    Hi again. The method of action of the MAP is not certain. In other words, one has not enough information to know whether it is used preovulatory or as a deterrent to implantation. We (as in my husband and myself) refer you to this MAP statement of action from Bayer: The precise
                    mode of action of Levonelle One Step is not known.At the recommended regimen, levonorgestrel is thought to work mainly by preventing ovulation and fertilisation if intercourse has taken place in the preovulatory phase, when the likelihood of fertilisation is the highest. It may also cause endometrial changes that discourage implantation. Levonelle One Step is not effective once the process of implantation has begun.

                    • Kevin McCormick

                      Yes, if it is used as a contraceptive without the additional LH test then the action would be uncertain because it does cause endometrial changes. But if you know that ovulation has not yet occurred then it would act in its primary function only–preventing ovulation. This is the reasoning used by Fr. Tad.

  • Alecto

    I wonder if it is accurate to label such people “conservatives”? It’s confusing. The word is applied to those who seek to preserve society, its institutions, traditions, etc…. The current crop of those to whom this label is misapplied have capitulated to modern trends, and to Orwellian “truths”. The only thing they seek to preserve is their own power. Let’s not cede the language which only causes us to struggle in framing the issues and construct persuasive arguments.

    These self-described “conservatives” lied about themselves to win elections, which demonstrates a lack of character and betrayal of the electorate on their part, and a stubborn intellectual and moral laziness on our part in believing them. I’m beginning to agree with Plutarch’s Coriolanus: letting the plebeians vote is destroying the country.

    American society is collapsing; the economy cannot function without a flourishing civil society. It follows that it will also collapse under the weight of corruption. Many who have been foolish enough to believe the rhetoric will find themselves without means to sustain or support themselves. It isn’t exclusively Burke or Kirk we should revisit, but a large helping of Greek tragedy if we also care to imagine what lies in our future.

    • tom

      Stronger individuals and weaker government make sense. Any policy that opposes this rule is suspect. Conservative IS a misnomer.

  • hombre111

    “Political problems are, at bottom, religiious and moral problems.” Amen to that. Like concern for the poor, being anti-war, anti-death penalty, and anti-predatory capitalism. All things popes have recently discussed. And there, conservatives fail badly. I loved a debate on FOX, where the pro-gun in any and all circumstances was a woman wearing a cross. Apart from its anti-abortion stance, the conservative cause does badly. And now a bunch of Republicans are suddenly pro-choice. Which makes them 100% fallen.

  • tony

    The GOP forfeited any semblance of conservative credibility when it was re-made by Bush II and cohorts in the service of entitlement-based social welfare and messianic, Wilsonian foreign policy. Knee-jerk support of military adventurism, masquerading as national security, has eviscerated principled dissent and relegated the GOP to a party wedded to hegemonic aspirations and corporate/crony capitalism. It is this development that has empowered the morally-challenged, libertarian element, whose visceral distrust of government makes them willing to throw out the baby (literally) with the bath.

    • tom

      True. With possible wars in Iran and Korea, I’m disappointed that our bishops don’t talk more of “just war” theory and how it applies to hundreds of thousands of Catholic soldiers in the trenches. Morality should trump patriotism every time. Why their silence again?

      • Art Deco

        You mean if the latest North Korean autocrat begins a massive artillery barrage of Seoul, it is ‘immoral’ to resist?

        While we are at it, why does Iran have a nuclear weapons research program? Is that ‘unjust’ or ‘immoral’?

        • tom

          Pakistan, Peking and Israel have them, too. Should we police the world? Should we attack nuclear facilities that could spew radiation over civilian populations? I say NO. Ultimately, though, each Catholic soldier needs to judge his conscience in each of these endless wars and should be able to have support from the bishops in forming his conscience. While the popes declare our wars “unjust”, American bishops remain mute.

          • tom

            p.s. One of my sons in the military, more often than not, had to rely on rabbis for spiritual guidance becasue the Catholic chaplaincy seems undermanned. Why not DEACONS for these jobs. Catholic men at war need Catholic chaplains, not kind rabbis.

          • Art Deco

            China has had nuclear weapons for nearly fifty years and done no injury to anyone with them. Their government is no apocalyptic or irrational. Pakistan’s program was asinine, but it was motivated to a degree by reasons of state – their regional rival India has nuclear weapons. Israel has been rumored for more than 35 years to be in possession of nuclear weapons. It has never made this public or sought any political advantage from it if true. Israel is also a country under existential threat, which Iran is not. Iran is the source of the existential threats. We are aware that most palaeoconservatives and Catholic peace and justice types would have a perfectly bland reaction if a nuclear weapon were dropped on Tel Aviv, but you cannot expect the Government of Israel to take that view (or the Government of the United States, while we are at it).

            Foreign policy by slogan is stupid.

            Our wars are not ‘endless’. By any serious historical standard they are very limited mobilizations.

            Why not provide at least a paragraph penned by Pius Xii, Paul Vi, John Paul II, Benedict, or Francis, in which they went so far as to declare any war in which the United States was engaged to be ‘unjust’?

    • Art Deco

      1. George W. Bush did not ‘remake the GOP’, nor was he derived from an eccentric subset of the GOP. He was the default establishment candidate.

      2. Legislative enactments require supermajorities in the United States Senate. Aside from that, the Republican Party had only slim majorities in the House of Representatives. Congress was not made up of Bush family recruits; the Republicans therein arrived there due to the rough and tumble of local politics where they were from.

      3. George W. Bush’s signature initiatives were an amendment to the conditionality of federal aid to education and an extension of public medical insurance to cover prescription drugs. Neither was an advisable policy, but neither made for aught but an incremental adjustment in state-society relations.

      4. Phrases like “knee-jerk support of military adventurism” are palaeoknucklehead rhetorical flourishes and have no basis in the world in which we actually live. The President recommended – and received congressional authorizations for – two overseas operations. The annual budget for these amounted to about 0.9% of gross domestic product. One locus was a country responsible for a casus belli without precedent. The other was a country with which we had been in a state of belligerency for a dozen years and with regard to which we were faced with a policy trilemma: do nothing, attempt to maintain a crumbling (and, we were assured, injurious sanctions regime), or eject the government. Each course of action had its pitfalls.

  • tom

    Good questions. I think “conservative” thought is really classic liberalism. The enemy, of course, is social liberalism with an ever more powerful state. Let’s concentrate on making stronger individuals and a weaker state. Of course, when leaders like Timothy Cardinal Weakling glad hand Leftists like Joe Biden, the moral compass just starts spinning aimlessly, attracted to scandal and grave sin.

    • Alecto

      Do you mean His Supreme Rotundity, Cardinal Corpulence? Bad me! That’s 50 hail marys.

      • tom

        Yeah, he’s been in 2 churches (St. Peter’s and St. Patrick’s) in three weeks where Biden’s received Holy Communion and is thinking up new lame jokes to tell instead of confronting the scandal of “personally opposed” pols like Biden claiming to be Catholic statesmen.

  • God gave us free will. He respects it so radically that he allows us to choose other than Him. He allows us to choose Hell.

    We live in a secular, pluralistic, post-modern society. The only way to protect our rights as Catholics is to wield liberty at every turn. Our philosophy should be this: as long as they aren’t hurting others or taking away others’ liberty, people should be free. Even those we disagree with. Even those who are living immoral lives. Grant them the freedom to make choices, and then, do the hard work of evangelization so they make the right ones.

    They are turning the mechanisms of control given to the State on us. They are turning the laws on us. We urge the government to define marriage one way, and when the balance of power shifts they define it in a way that infringes on us. We try to regulate obscene speech, then they regulate religious speech. It’s a pendulum, with a razor’s edge.

    Maximum freedom for all is the only way out. Continue feeding the Leviathan government, and it will destroy the rights we have left.

    • Caroline

      Excellent points, Steve. Many of us live very “conservative” (in the sense of traditional) lifestyles while supporting the right of others to make their own choices about their private behavior. Conservatives have done a good job of alienating those who make different choices. We would catch far more flies with honey than with vinegar. If we could commit to loving others and treating them with respect while trying to lead lives, as least as best we can, that would act as examples (to often conservatives do exactly the opposite), I think we’d make much more progress than we’ve been doing.

    • crakpot

      Our free will is a power – we have no right to use it to sin. The only God-given right to Liberty I can fathom is the freedom to do as one ought. This libertarian idea that one should be free to do whatever as long as it doesn’t hurt others is bunk, because it is as wrong to hurt yourself as it is to hurt others. Worse, the political action to legalize drugs, for example, works against real rights, like the right of a father and mother to protect their children from inducement to such sin when out of sight. Even when it’s “consenting adults” in immorality, the right of one of them to heed the voice of conscience and escape that sin should be protected and encouraged.

  • montanajack1948

    Professor Krason: I believe you hit the nail on the head with your reference to “controlling the will and appetite”. American conservatives have hitched their wagon to capitalism–I suspect that this tendency, already present in conservatism in earlier decades, was exacerbated by the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, which event became both a cause for “free-market” triumphalism and also meant that the defense of capitalism was the only right-wing game in town (politically speaking), anti-Communism no longer being necessary. Unfortunately, the last thing capitalism is about is “controlling the will and appetite”: in free-market America (“One Market Under God,” as Thomas Frank called it), you can and must have it your way, and you can and must have it now.

  • It’s too bad that the so called Catholics didn’t follow the Church teaching by voting their conscience. They voted the old time democrat way…with their hands out, palms up wanting the next handout. The only way for a change from that thought process is better education, but like the addict, it won’t happen until they hit rock bottom and feel the effects themselves. I try to educate folks about these issues as often as I can.

  • hombre111

    Where goes Conservatism? If we are talking about Tea Party conservatism, I hope it is into the nearest toilet.