‘Conservative’ Isn’t Enough

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To put it mildly, conservatives have a growing frustration over the Supreme Court. When President Trump appointed three justices to the highest bench in the land, there came with that an expectation that the court would make rulings which were more conservative in their leaning. While we did see that inclination regarding keeping houses of worship open (thanks be to God), there have been sharp disappointments regarding SCOTUS’s recent declining to hear a transgender bathroom bill out of Oregon and, of course, the Texas lawsuit against the election procedures in four swing states, leaving what appears to be mass fraud unchallenged.

Perhaps—and I hate to say this—it is our expectations that must change. Perhaps the conservative problem is not so much one with the Supreme Court as it is with conservatism itself. Perhaps conservatives—and especially Catholic conservatives—should brace themselves for a reality that may be already upon us: that we as a nation have gone too far down the progressive, post-Christian, post-Constitutional garden path to conserve truth and tradition. Can we be conservative if there isn’t anything left to conserve?

Conservatism might be heading, if not already arrived, into a semantical or contradictory realm. There is no real merit in being “conservative” if there isn’t something of a national consensus on certain realities, on truth. What’s more, there can be no conservatism if the societal doctrines that conservatives have clung to are out of reach. Truth and tradition seem to have gone out the window in so many respects, and with it the possibility to conserve or preserve principles based on truth that are no longer the legal precedent or the moral foundation.

It is a situation captured by the replacement of the word “virtue” with “value.” A virtue implies something objective, universal, something outside of ourselves that we must conform to, whereas a value is something relative, changeable, and particular to an individual. Virtue implies the existence of God and laws that He has ordained. But in the world of subjective values, when there is no conformance to realities or to God, then there is no truth. And that is the real problem in all of this—the assault on truth has gone on too long and has gone too far, and the American republic is no longer governed by truth. If we wish, we may quite literally, as the hipster slogan says, “live your truth.” The more relative things get, the less the concept of conservatism carries. Change and transience is a growing societal model, and that is inimical to conservatism.

Conservatism is getting antiquated with the same rapidity that objective truth is getting antiquated. That doesn’t mean that Catholics (or conservatives, for that matter) should shift with the times and abandon the conservative ideologies of small government and free enterprise, but that the fight is getting weirder and wilder with the increasingly dramatic opposing worldviews. We should, by all means, hold on to truth with all we have, while at the same time acknowledge that there will be disappointments within our ranks as conservatives reach back as far as the law allows in an increasingly left-leaning landscape, and may only be able to dredge up progressive sludge at this point.

Given this crisis in conservatism, SCOTUS may be acting within a “conservative” legal construct or convention of a generally accepted “justice,” but it is falling away from what is actually just, just as it is falling away from what is true. Conservatism simply cannot keep up with the lunging liberal ideologies. I would not, therefore, automatically accuse Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett of not being conservative in recent rulings that have conservatives feeling betrayed. There is, as we know, a legal conservatism that is complicated and often difficult to recognize. It a conservative principle to refrain from overreaching the power of government to step in where the power invested in local legislatures and citizens should suffice. And when there is only a precedent of liberalism, the possibility of conservatism as we know it ceases to be.

When liberal cases are upheld by the Supreme Court, the instinct among conservatives is to object and hand-wring. But, for the sake of truth, Catholics should avoid knee-jerk reactions and misinformed interpretation. Just because the Supreme Court doesn’t side with truth or Christian tradition, doesn’t necessarily mean that the conservative Christian justices aren’t doing their job. What it may indicate is that truth has exited stage left a long time ago, and all that there is to conserve may not be worth conserving.

Even though the Oregon ruling was in keeping with the ideology of small government, it is still a classic case of how conservative-minded people can become frustrated with SCOTUS when it doesn’t seem to sustain traditional, “older-fashion” principles. Even though there is an inherent insanity and indecency in sanctioning the mental illness of transgenderism, the crisis lies deeper than these effects. There is a festering wound beneath these scabs. It is not simply a Republican or Democrat issue (even though many Republicans are more aligned to the truth than most Democrats). This is not about party politics. It is about culture, and we live in a culture that has lost its grasp on the truth. We give it plenty of lip service, but it is too often no more than that.

The 2020 election, of course, presents a striking instance of what I’m talking about. While it seems clear as day that there was a tremendous conspiracy of organized fraud launched on election to give Joe Biden the votes to “win,” we can well imagine what the backlash would have been if the election had been fair. There would have been just as much outcry and upheaval—perhaps even more. We can also presume that cheating may have occurred, or did occur, on the Republican side of the aisle. The point is, just because something is fair and just in America, does not make it accepted. Politicians, unfortunately, are not to be trusted, and that alone is a sad testimony to the role of truth in our politics. Protecting and enshrining the truth, the sine qua non of a democracy, is no longer a priority in the United States. And it hasn’t been for some time now, hurling conservatism into a seeming state of transition itself.

As he was stoned by his betrayer, Odysseus, the Greek poet Palamedes cryptically cried, “Rejoice, O Truth, for you have died before me,” and these words may well be the swan song of a postmodern age of martyrs, for truth, indeed, has died. Truth died when God died by Nietzschean Enlightenment pronouncements, and Catholics shouldn’t be surprised or outraged at the travesties and tragedies in our trans-truth society. Resist we must with calm courage, but part of the process of claiming truth on the Catholic side, is acknowledging that truth is not a tenet in our national debate and deliberation. And if truth is dead, then what is there left to conserve? The answer, of course, is that being conservative is simply not enough. But being Catholic is. While conservatism seems to have been swallowed in the progressive maw, Catholicism will be conserved till the end of the age.

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

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