Thursday, December 02, 2010

Saving Hope

These days you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a conservative pundit telling us that we are essentially doomed. John Derbyshire, Mark Steyn, and in his own humorous way, P.J. O'Rourke are among those who regularly warn us of the civilizationial decline, demographic collapse, and cultural catastrophe that awaits. In the December edition of First Things, James Nuechterlein takes issue with all this negativity on the right and also provides much-needed perspective on the proper place for politics among religious believers in a piece called Apocalypse No (sub req):

If the foregoing analysis is anywhere near correct, one is left puzzled as to why conservatives, despite the considerable evidence of the long-term success of their cause, seem so despondent. Conservatives are of course naturally attuned to the human propensity for folly and thus predisposed to mordant estimates of how things stand, but, even so, their insistently dark view of the current American situation seems somehow excessive.

It is important to emphasize at this point that the conservatism to which First Things adheres and with which it is primarily concerned is not political in the ordinary sense. Our conservatism is theological and cultural—in the tradition of our founding editor Richard John Neuhaus we regard ourselves as theologically orthodox and culturally conservative—and we impose no political litmus tests on our contributors (not to mention our readers).

Still, ideas and inclinations cluster, and it is an obvious empirical reality that theological and cultural conservatives are, far more often than not, political conservatives as well. (As evidence, note the high positive correlation between regular worship and conservative voting habits.) Which means, willy-nilly, that politics is not beyond our purview.

But there’s more than that. Orthodox religion keeps politics in its place. We know—or should know—that it is not primarily as political beings we were created and that it is not finally politics that commands our highest loyalties and concerns. Christians who are part of the Great Tradition understand that it is unwise to invest too much of themselves in the public square. As Fr. Neuhaus never tired of reminding us, the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.

Which suggests that we should be as wary of dystopian despair as we are of utopian enthusiasm. Politics provides neither final victories nor final defeats. Conservatives need no instruction in the dangers of inordinate optimism, but they might need some help with its opposite. The notion, widespread on the right, of an America irredeemably alienated from its founding principles and but a half step removed from abject capitulation to collectivist schemes has lost touch with where we are and with conservatism’s own best tradition of seeing things whole.

Political conservatives who have not cut themselves off from Burkean sobriety will know better than to give in to the fantasy that all is lost or that the apocalypse looms just beyond the horizon. They might even, if they attend to the historical record, come to understand that it is liberals who have more to despair of than they do. But perhaps it is unrealistic to imagine that conservatives could so uncharacteristically succumb to hope.