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A Biblical Conservatism

Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery offers a valuable new take on non-Lockean political theory, grounded in the Biblical tradition and relevant to our current affairs. Part one of a two-part review.

What should a conservative think after the Civil Rights Movement? Every recognizably conservative political principle—localism, gradualism, reverence for tradition—would seem to have been on the side of the “white moderates” whom King targeted in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” So far as I can tell, this problem has driven conservative intellectuals for sixty years to try out ever-new iterations of “neoconservatism” (from Daniel Bell to Michael Novak to Paul Wolfowitz and beyond). They all want, reasonably, to oppose both the excesses of liberalism and the racial blindnesses of paleo-conservatism.

Yoram Hazony is the latest in this line of post-Civil-Rights conservatives. But he distinguishes himself from the neocons by arguing that most or all of them have conceded too much to the political theory of their liberal opponents. In his new Conservatism: A Rediscovery, he offers a fresh, bold, erudite, and emphatically non-liberal take on what American conservatives should believe and want for their country. It should be read in full by anyone who has wondered what, if anything, a “conservative” politics could look like in our post-2016 landscape.

Conservative Political Theory

Hazony is an academic political theorist. All of us in that profession try hard to show our fellow Americans that the years we spend poring over old books have not been wasted, or that ideas have (political) consequences. The late Harry Jaffa and his students have popularized one version of this academic sales pitch: John Locke’s political philosophy can explain what made our Founding great, while the Progressives’ deviations from that philosophy can explain what has since gone wrong with our country. Hazony takes this pitch and more or less inverts it, replacing “Locke” with “Fortescue” and “the Progressives” with “Locke.”

Hazony belongs to an older school of American conservatives deeply suspicious of Lockean individualism, of whom the best-known representative is currently Patrick Deneen. But where Deneen’s book mainly critiqued liberalism, Hazony articulates a positive alternative. For the first time in a generation or more, American readers are presented with a full-fledged and non-Lockean conservative political theory. (Deneen insisted that only the small postliberal communities of the unseen future will be competent to produce such a theory.)

Hazony’s book is likely to be as influential as Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. His theory has much in common with Kirk’s, but he thinks Kirk was too soft on Southern slavery and its legacy. Hazony does not defend mere “political conservatism,” which would revere national traditions as such and so tends toward relativism. He defends the specific tradition of “Anglo-American conservatism,” which in turn is “the best-known modern version” of “biblical political thought.” Indeed, “a political theory in the conservative tradition cannot be made to work without the God of Scripture.” And the God of Scripture condemns slavery and injustice; QED. Not all national traditions are created equal.

This foregrounding of God and the Bible is the most distinctive feature of Hazony’s version of conservatism. For him, all ten of the Ten Commandments ought to be the basis for our nation’s social and political life. This position was uncontroversial in the West for many centuries, but today it is held by virtually no other prominent Western political thinker (with the notable exception of Benedict XVI). As Hazony argues, “one of the chief reasons for the dissolution that is visible everywhere in the Western nations today is the fact that principles such as the public acknowledgment of God, the honor given to parents by their adult children, loyalty within marriage, and observance of the sabbath have been banished from public life and relegated to ‘the private sphere.’” Hazony goes so far as to accuse the American Founders of having failed to appreciate this point sufficiently. And he offers the dire prediction that “the American nation will not endure without a return [of] religion to public life.”

 

One can still hear these Falwellian observations in a few American churches, but it is many decades since they were supported with anything like Hazony’s sophistication and philosophic rigor. The core of his argument is a well-worked-out theory of the “causes of human health and prosperity,” both for individuals and for societies. Its most striking feature is Hazony’s unremitting emphasis on humans’ natural desire to be honored by others and to show honor where it is deserved. He demonstrates at length why this premodern concept of honor—along with related concepts such as loyalty, kindred, hierarchy, and constraint—must be at the heart of any reasonable political theory. For this reason alone, his book makes another essential and indispensable contribution to our ongoing, and urgently needed, recovery of classical political thought.

What’s Wrong with America

Hazony’s theoretical insights lead him to some bracingly original observations. For example, he points out that even the Civil Rights Movement’s justly celebrated liberal triumphs have now turned out to have “been achieved superficially, without arriving at a settlement that could endure the test of generations.” Instead of trying even harder to secure autonomy for rights-bearing individuals, then, we ought to be strengthening the mutual honor and loyalty between the cohesive “tribes” that make up our diverse nation (where “tribes” can be “religious, ethnic, sectoral, professional,” ideological, or partisan groupings). Above all, we must “ensure that the descendants of slaves are an integral and honored part of the American nation.” These intriguing but underdeveloped suggestions point toward a communitarianism that might, at long last, begin to overcome decades of conservative tone-deafness on racial issues.

Hazony’s Biblical moralism also allows him to talk with refreshing clarity about some of our society’s worst spiritual illnesses. He speaks of pornography, drug use, and the widespread abandonment of the elderly as the manifest evils they are, without apology. He points to the “dissolution of the family” as “the great plague of our time,” whose cause is “the incapacity of adults to keep a marriage from failing.” He traces that incapacity further back to the massive shift in “the economy of honors” that occurred in the 1960s, when “marriage and child-rearing ceased to be honored” above alternative sexual practices, and “age-old stigmas against divorce, adultery, cohabitation, abortion, single motherhood, homosexual unions, pornography, prostitution, and many other formerly disreputable behaviors were disarmed.” I believe my undergraduates would call this book “based.”

Today’s critics of the Sexual Revolution usually insist that they are not nostalgic for the 1950s model of suburban family life. Hazony agrees, but for the opposite reason: the 1950s nuclear-family model was not nearly conservative enough. Unless multiple generations live in close proximity, it is all but impossible to live out every day “the precept of honoring one’s parents,” which “is at the center of moral teaching and practice in every conservative society.” In the “traditional,” multigenerational family, the domestic hearth was the center of daily economic, educational, religious, caretaking, and other charitable activities. But if children spend the day away at school, if at least one parent spends the day away at work, if young adults spend four years away at college, and if grandparents receive care away from home in their declining years, then we have “removed from the physical household . . . much of what the family was a little more than a century ago.” This (so to speak) “’offshoring’” of traditional family functions is, Hazony says, the true “disease” of which divorce and family breakdown are mere “symptoms.”

This would suggest the depressing conclusion that our contemporary moral and familial crises derive even more from the Industrial Revolution than from the Sexual Revolution. Against that conclusion, Hazony asserts that the traditional family model “continues to exist, with certain adjustments, in many orthodox religious communities even in our day.” Unless he meant to write “Orthodox,” this reads like flattery of his majority-Christian audience. However much Hazony’s own community in Jerusalem may have preserved the integrity of premodern home life, I am aware of no American Christian community that has done so (excepting those that also preserve a preindustrial farm economy).

An Anti-Liberal Conservatism

Hazony certainly shows at length how his “conservative political theory” is better suited to diagnosing such cultural problems than the Lockean liberalism that most American “instructors in political theory” take for granted. By proclaiming natural freedom and equality as the only legitimate basis for politics, liberal theory attacks any claim that ancestry, kindred, loyalty, tradition, particular religious doctrines, or anything else inherited from our parents and forbears could be relevant to our political rights and duties. It seeks to construct a just society by abstracting away from all the factors that (as Hazony argues at length) make real human societies cohere.

 

Moreover, liberal theory’s supposed neutrality on questions of the good life is a thinly disguised hostility toward the conservative understanding of the good life. For if we have a natural right to “disregard . . . parents, teachers, and elders,” it must be because a life devoted to honoring those authorities would be “servile . . . or ‘living for others’”; the adolescent rebellion against elders that was once seen as a “vice and a tragedy” thus becomes “a positive good.” If we have a right to send off our aging parents to retirement or assisted-living communities (which Hazony suggests is “abuse”) in order to maximize our own economic potential, then it would seem positively foolish and blameworthy of us to squander that potential. If the conservative claim that “a married life is more praiseworthy than the life of a bachelor, or of a divorcée, or of a single mother” is seen (rightly) as an attack on the doctrine of universal human equality, then that moral claim must be banished, not only from our legal system but even from our social and religious life—as it largely has been today.

Of course, Enlightenment liberalism has had a place in American public life since the Founding, and Hazony does not hope to expurgate it. His complaint is rather that since the 1960s, the “powerful stream of Anglo-American conservatism” that once “held Enlightenment rationalism in check” has been “forcefully suppressed.” He concedes that traditional conservatives remained one faction within the anti-Communist quote-unquote “conservative” coalition assembled by William F. Buckley and carried to success by Ronald Reagan. (Buckley had “made the strategic decision,” which Hazony admits was the right one in context, “to redefine ‘conservative’ to include . . . anti-Communist liberals.”) But after the Berlin Wall fell, at any rate, Hazony’s non-liberal conservatives “were sent into political exile on the fringes of party politics,” and the movement known as conservatism increasingly taught its youth that “what we are conserving is liberalism.” Today, recognizing that a similar conservative-liberal coalition is needed again to fight the neo-Marxism of the contemporary Left, Hazony wants to make sure that this time the non-liberal conservatives do not have their identity subsumed in that coalition.

Hazony therefore criticizes the previous generation of conservatives for showing honor to classical-liberal thinkers like Hayek, Meyer, and Strauss (whom he seems here to be assimilating to Jaffa). The implication is that today’s young conservatives ought instead to honor intellectuals who teach the non-Lockean political theory that differentiates us from our liberal coalition partners. Despite initial appearances, then, this book is not a manifesto for tomorrow’s successful right-of-center coalition. Whoever our next Buckley may be, he will evidently need to use the term “conservative” more capaciously than this book does. And he will probably not have written a merciless book-length attack on the political theory of his coalition partners.

Rather, Hazony’s book seems intended to shape the self-understanding of one small but important “tribe” within the broader right-of-center movement: religious conservatives interested in political theory. If educated by the correct intellectuals, he suggests, these non-liberal conservatives can steer the broader movement toward a happier set of outcomes than what Hazony regards as the post-1991 Reagan coalition’s legacy of uncontrolled immigration, postindustrial blight, unsuccessful military interventions, plummeting fertility, and internet porn.

The book is ambitious. It offers a new theory of human social life; a survey of that theory’s philosophic and political sources; a new foundation for the political education of young Americans; an intellectual framework for national political success; a root-and-branch critique of basic assumptions of both Left and Right today; and, in a poignant closing chapter, an exhortation to live out conservative theory in one’s own personal life as an active member of an “orthodox church or synagogue that has retained its vitality.” Neither the Anglo-American political thinkers whom Hazony reveres, nor even the bolder Enlightenment rationalists whom he deplores, ever tried to accomplish so much in a single volume.

All of Hazony’s goals are admirable, but in the effort to hold them all together, his argument begins to show a few cracks. Those will be the subject of tomorrow’s essay.

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