National Conservatism Conference: A Call for Common Sense

“‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.” –G.K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Patriotism”

The National Conservatism conference convened in Orlando from October 31st until November 2nd to discuss what exactly holds together a nation and what above all else in any society must be conserved; what of America’s troubles ought to be shared, not with indifference, but remedies in mind. 

Rusty Reno, Jonathan Isaac, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Michael Knowles, Christopher DeMuth, Anna Wellisz, Sohrab Ahmari, Yoram Hazony, Patrick Deneen, Dave Rubin, Rod Dreher, Robert Royal, and a host of other intellectual heavyweights touched on various subjects and concerns, from Critical Race Theory to the threat posed to democracy by unchecked technologists. 

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Among the topics addressed, however, the dominant thematic threads that seemed to unite everyone in attendance, whether they be Catholic, Jew, Protestant, or atheist, Burkean, Leddihnian, or liberal, were as follows: the family is the bedrock of all civilizations and its erosion by big government and big business (what Chesterton refers to as Hudge and Gudge), by leftism and liberalism, must be reversed at all costs; a nation without unifying, transcendent values, those Judeo-Christian in particular, will balkanize or worse; and nationalism, not to be mistaken for or conflated with any form of imperialism or jingoism, is preferable to globalism. It struck me, especially after the “Catholicism and the Nation” breakout session, that the conference was Chestertonian in nature. 

Laissez-faire economics and libertine social outlooks were roundly lambasted along with the notion that conservatives in power mustn’t project or defend their values using institutional power. While it doesn’t seem that anyone was rushing to accept distributism, similarly, no one was rushing back to the Austrian School. Many have come to realize, as the conservative Catholic Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn had, that “the large, hospital house of liberalism kept all its windows and doors open, and thus the winds from outside could pervade the building.” If J.D. Vance’s closing remarks and Yoram Hazony’s insistence on America’s extolation of tradition are good indicators, the consensus regarding the way forward for conservatives is one the Apostle of Common Sense G.K. Chesterton would surely laud. 

Pope Leo XIII’s sense that liberalism, by intrinsically rejecting “the supreme authority to God” and casting off “all obedience to Him in public matters, or even in private and domestic affairs,” is the “greatest perversion of liberty” was raised again and again (mostly without attribution) at NatCon2021. 

Michael Knowles, the author of Speechless, noted: “We are told today’s conservatives are the real liberals. Perhaps that is the real problem.” Knowles and others underscored the fact that those guardians of Truth and tradition have—here painting with broad strokes—failed to protect them in the public square. “Epistemological optimists” incorrectly believed their knowledge of essential truths to alone be able to preclude or exclude the promotion of pernicious ideas. Liberalism has proved too destructive, too powerful; pulling up Chesterton’s fence on every issue, from gender to parental rights. 

Carol Swain noted the danger of libertarianism, of ignoring deviancy and those divisive ideological cancers that eat away at the body politic, and she emphasized the importance of America’s social connection to Christ. Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac, a newly-minted Petersonian, took up this point in his condemnation of the unChristian cancel culture worsening in the West and the lovelessness that results from a life spent pursuing ephemeral affirmations contra the love of God. 

Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the New York Post, rebuked fusionism, which calls for public liberalism and private traditionalism, since it has failed. Like the Eden Olympians in J.G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes, Ahmari suggests that, in the wake of that failure, we have become a society obsessed with bodily health; wherein civic virtue has been fast eroded; and where there is no progeny and no past.

Rusty Reno, the prolific editor of First Things, contextualized the Vatican’s current antipathy for nationalism, and he pointed out that this is at odds with the longstanding understanding, crystallized in Chapter V of Gaudium et Spes, that humans are localized; they belong to nations; and that the world is in fact a community of nations. As people anchored in localities, in regions with their own cultures, values, and borders, Rusty then discussed national loyalty and our obligations here at home, which include resisting the liberalization of our tradition and values and rejection of an “open faith.” One cannot grasp something of importance without closing their hand—or their minds—on something solid. Noting that the Church is like a battleship in that it turns very slowly, he articulated the need to defend it now, especially when the same forces threatening the good at home now threaten the Church everywhere. 

On the same panel, Bob Royal, the president of the Faith & Reason Institute, pointed out the importance of Americans conserving what’s best about their nation; those Christian virtues that first set them apart and made them great. Indifference won’t do. After all, said Royal, conservatism and Catholicism will rise or fall together in the USA. Liberalism also won’t do, since the new bigotry empowered historically by liberalism in the West rejects any and all pre-liberal concepts and traditions. Never mind natural rights and natural law, that rejection will mean the unmooring of America from its Christian bedrock, and ultimately its ruination. 

Anna Wellisz, VP of External Affairs of the Edmund Burke Foundation, reminded attendees that he who fears God fears no one; that we still live surrounded by saints; that, per St. Pope John Paul II’s suggestion, the family and the nation together best preserve sovereignty; that the fourth commandment entails patriotism; and that we must reject tribalism and identitarianism both and fight fearlessly for our faith and values.

Rod Dreher, whose Benedict Option I discussed this past spring in American Greatness (I argued it would be better tempered with a spiritually and socially combative Chesterton Option) came back from Orbán’s Hungary invigorated. No longer suggesting that rebuilding and renaissance on the fringes of the society (driven there by the soft-totalitarian “Pink Police State”) is ideal, but rather that—and perhaps recognizing that the “gates of Hell will not prevail” insinuates a Church on the offensive—Christians must be active, Dreher argued that “when the people give us power…let us use it to advance the common good.” Perhaps he recognized that a “dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing against it”; that, in his own words, “the acid bath of liquid modernity and the toxicity of wokeness” cannot be left unchallenged.

In calling for action, Dreher did not employ pugilistic language, as did the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo who called for conservatives to figuratively lay siege to the institutions (i.e., through which the Left conducted its long march and which have been left perverted). The separation of private and public has proven false, as the latter inevitably infects the former. Consequently, those ideas we hold privately we must assert publicly once again.

As Chesterton predicted and this conference made clear, people have begun to recognize that the 20th Century “was the beginning of a relapse into barbarism.” We now have plenty of coincident facts to quote (as Gilbert! did in its latest issue):

The nature worship, which we call pantheism, the power of the medicine-men whom we call scientific specialists, the belief in tribal curses and destinies which we call heredity, the disproportionate preoccupation with the tribe or pack which we call sociology, the Nietzscheans with their worship of force, the Eugenicists with their hints of infanticide…

What the speeches and conversations at NatCon2021 made abundantly clear is that people will now go far beyond quoting and will begin, or continue, to act in meaningful and impactful ways. After all, NatCon2021 was full of doers. 

I’ve already mentioned J.D. Vance, whose rise to greatness I doubt will be capped at the level of the Senate. Also indicating their willingness to act were senators Cruz, Hawley, and Rubio. Hawley’s remarks have already made their rounds, about which much in the past few days has been said and written. The indication, however, from all four of these politicians is that the focus going forward for the GOP is the reindustrialization of the United States extra to combatting radical Leftism. Bringing back manufacturing to America will not just mean that the Communist Chinese will no longer be able to threaten its supply of needed drugs (97 percent of antibiotics are made in China). It will mean an economic buttressing of the family, of the so-called rustbelt, and the dignity of the non-technocratic worker. 

Fortunately, the doers are not limited to Americans. I spoke to proud Poles and Hungarians, among others, who similarly are keen to protect the fundamentals of free and good Christian nations (i.e., family and tradition), not just in their own homes but in America also via supporting roles. They no doubt took to heart Miranda Devine’s suggestion that “if America succumbs, so does the West.”

In The Timeless Christian, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote: 

Christ broke the power of Satan so that since Christ’s sacrificial death we live in an eschatological period when evil is fighting only a rear-guard action, even though this can effect quite considerable destruction of the good.

It is clear from the problems we face now in the west, including but not limited to the Culture of Death that St. Pope John Paul II called out twenty-six years ago in Evangelium Vitae, are resultant of both the misguided work of desperate people and the desperate work of misguided people. We should be full of hope, cheer, and compassion in Chestertonian fashion, for the war has already been won. However, it is our Christian duty to stymie the Evil One’s rearguard action. Doing so will require us to protect and restore tradition for the betterment of our respective nations and to bolster the family.

Reagan once spoke of a time for choosing. Now comes the time for action—for patriots to set their country right. 

[Photo Credit: National Conservatism YouTube page]

  • Joseph MacKinnon

    Joseph MacKinnon is the author of several novels, the latest of which is Lethe, and he contributes to a number of publications, including American Greatness and American Thinker.

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