Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative adheres to CUSTOM, CONVENTION, and CONTINUITY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
In Part 1 of this series we discussed the image problem conservatives have among a diverse generation of Millennials. Conservatives mean to conserve biases of the past. Unfortunately, bias has become a four-letter word.
If you’ve followed my work before you’ve probably heard me say by now that the conservative views man as both a physical and spiritual being. Our reality is one, but it has a dual-nature. If this is so, it follows that our approach to everything in life should account for this dual-nature. To build one’s life on the accumulation of material things will lead to wanton emptiness as the soul is starved of nourishment in the same way a pious devotee who forsakes food will starve. The materialist views man as matter all the way through. Both worldviews may be wrong, but they most certainly can’t both be correct; at least one of them will consistently produce undesirable results as it runs contrary to reality. If materialism is true, we should expect to be able to find contentment in a life modeled after its teachings. If it is not it will produce discontent, even misery. If conservatism is true then even a subject as mundane as political policy must take into account our transcendental nature.
In our last post I closed with the curious notion that abandoning the institutions, heritage, and culture we were born into is a recipe for unhappiness. The reason for this is that our spiritual being yearns for connection with something beyond the here and now; something this present physical world cannot give. And culture—the continuous linking of one generation to another through shared customs and beliefs—is certainly something that extends far beyond our mere existence.
Perhaps you’re thinking wait a minute, if this guy believes we yearn for things that meet our spiritual needs why is he talking about physical things like culture and earthly institutions to bring that about? Let’s return to the conservative idea that humans have a dual-nature: We engage in the physical reality through physical means; but we engage in the spiritual reality the same way. Think of some of the commonly shared sacraments of Christianity—prayer, reading of the Word, partaking in the Lord’s Supper—in each sacrament the believer is acting in the physical and spiritual realms simultaneously. If we spotted a stranger on his knees with his hands clasped together and his eye’s closed and his head bowed we’d immediately assume—based on his physical posture—that he was in the act of prayer.
I don’t mean to deify culture or the institutions that inhabit culture; I only mean to point out that they are means to connect us to something transcendent. I don’t mean to suggest that all institutions are equally praiseworthy or spiritually nourishing; far more have testified to finding rest for their soul in the house of God than at their local rotary club. Institutions do not replace a relationship with the Creator, but they may facilitate one. The church is not God; it is one of the means by which He reveals Himself. And for that reason it matters very much.
If cultural heritage is arbitrary, then its absence shouldn’t matter. This fits into a materialist’s worldview. But if humans are spiritual animals, then it matters very much that we seek to find our place in something much larger than ourselves. Culture is part of that process. It lets us see ourselves in the unending chain linking humans through time from generations past to generations yet to come. It is the beginning of plugging our minds and hearts into something beyond ourselves. It is the first step towards the transcendental—for which human soul yearns. It does not replace the religious or spiritual experience, but it enriches it by giving us some context for where we fit into the big picture.
And yet much of the culture in Western civilization is under assault from within, accused of being oppressive, homophobic, racist, chauvinistic, or just outdated. “In place of the old beliefs based on godliness, judgement, and historical attachment, young people are given the new beliefs based on equality and inclusion, and are told that the judgement of other lifestyles is a crime,” observes English philosopher Roger Scruton, “If the purpose were merely to substitute one belief system for another it would be open to rational debate. But the purpose is to substitute one community for another…However, there is no such thing as a community based in repudiation. The assault on the old cultural inheritance leads to no new form of membership, but only to a kind of alienation.” I believe much of the discontentment—boredom, loneliness, addictions, nihilism—of this present age can be attributed to the eroding of our cultural heritage and institutions. The soul is deprived of true sustenance and instead searches for meaning in the junk food of various ideological “isms”.
While on book tour of multiple college campuses, New York Times commentator David Brooks observed a certain listlessness in students: “They assume that the culture of expressive individualism is the eternal order of the universe and that meaning comes from being authentic to self. They have a combination of academic and career competitiveness and a lack of a moral romantic vocabulary that has created a culture that is professional and not poetic, pragmatic and not romantic. The head is large, and the heart and soul are backstage...They have an unconscious boredom when they realize they have not achieved the highest level of their own fulfillment.” In our hearts we understand that what we desire most is not stuff or radical individual authenticity, but healthy and vibrant community that offers us acceptance, love, and purpose.
Is there any doubt that the traditional institutions that represent Western culture are in decline? As I argued in an earlier post, there is a tendency to believe that our ancestors were inferior to us in every way. We look at the advancements of science and the amazing strides made in reducing global poverty and begin to believe the myth that all knowledge and wisdom follows a linear, progressive path. It doesn’t. We are novices in cultural heritage compared to our ancestors and the fallout is devastating to the social order. Just as we are superior to our ancestors in scientific achievements, they are superior to us in spiritual aptitude and community cohesion.
Sociologist Robert Nisbet spoke of the need for cultural purpose for social stability: “If, for one reason or another, the individual’s immediate society comes to seem remote, purposeless, and hostile, if a people come to sense that, altogether, they are victims of discrimination and exclusion, not all the food and jobs in the world will prevent them from looking for the kind of surcease that comes with membership in a social and moral order seemingly directed toward their very soul.” Does this not explain, in part, the 21st century populous movements that led to the success of candidates such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump? For, though they may differ radically in policy and rhetoric, they are both peddlers of the same message of inclusion for a “people” who believe themselves to be excluded and forgotten. In fact, inexperience as a politician has increasingly become an asset for hopeful candidates. An absence of finding one’s “place” in society opens the door to eventual demagoguery and authoritarianism.
For society to survive, then, it is imperative individuals are able to visualize where they fit into society as a whole and find purpose and fulfillment from lasting institutions that serve a vital function. “Institutions decay when they are deprived of function,” wrote Russell Kirk, “Thus the family is disintegrating before our eyes not because of ‘sexual maladjustment’ and ‘family tension’…but because it has been deprived of its old economic and educational advantages. So it is with aristocracy, local government, guild, church, and the other elements which bound man to man for many centuries.” Perhaps the idea of finding one’s “place” sounds oppressive. But liberty exists within boundaries, not outside of them. Just as an infant is far “freer” under the care and provision of loving parents, we are freest when we operate within the boundaries of our dual-nature and occupy institutions left to us rather than disavowing allegiance to anyone or thing other than authentic individualism.
Again, it’s not a simple matter of only recognizing the importance of institutions; it’s a profound struggle to have our spiritual needs met in the same manner all of humanity struggles to make provisions for its physical needs. Just as we can deprive the body of good health through a steady diet of junk food, so we can deprive the soul of purpose through allegiance to hollow institutions. “Increasingly, individuals seek escape from the freedom of impersonality, secularism, and individualism,” wrote Nisbet, “They look for community in marriage, thus putting, often, an intolerable strain upon a tie already grown institutionally fragile. They look for it in easy religion, which leads frequently to a vulgarization of Christianity the like of which the world has not seen before. They look for it in the psychiatrist’s office, in the cult, in functionless ritualizations of the past, and in all the other avocations of relief from nervous exhaustion.”
If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely someone who is intrigued by politics. But unless your political philosophy extends beyond political institutions you will consistently come up short. Social media is replete with examples of this—people who have lost the ability to converse with one another in a manner that’s respectful, winsome, or even rational, and have instead been reduced to bursts of misplaced outrage one would ordinarily have to be intoxicated to pontificate. A life fully devoted to a political party or platform is not only a miserable life, it tends to make everyone you encounter miserable.
Brooks noted what a rarity it was to encounter those who weren’t exhausted by this endless search for institutional belonging. While addressing a group of students at a Christian university he said, “You have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect. You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind and a purposeful soul. Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it. From my point of view, you’re ahead of everybody else and have the potential to influence American culture in a way that could be magnificent.” While conservatism begins with the sentiment that the things we hold dear are fragile and effort must be made to conserve them we must proceed with caution. T. S. Eliot warned, “Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong thing.” Not all that glitters is gold.
It’s not necessary that every jot and tittle of institutions of old be preserved intact for conservatism to thrive and society to survive. But it will be necessary for Millennials to chart a course that provides for both continuity with the past and speaks to the Millennial soul. Salvation is not to be found on Facebook or in knock-off brands of traditions and institutions.
Healthy nations are composed of healthy individuals. And, since culture is a tool by which individuals attain spiritual purpose, it is often a greater determinant of a nation’s wellbeing than economics, natural resources, or blind luck. As such, the conservative is often a fierce defender of culture. But are all cultures of equal value? Are there times when it makes sense to be a critic more than a defender of your own culture? In Part 3 we’ll turn our attention to the ways in which this powerful tool may be misdirected.
This post originally appeared in The Millennial Review.