A Voice in the Wilderness In Defense of "Mere Conservatism"

9Nov/09Off

Mere Conservatism: History

by: R.J. Moeller

“I am not urging a lop-sided idolatry of the past; I am protesting against a lop-sided idolatry of the present!” -G.K. Chesterton

“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.” --Paul Johnson

cs_lewis_in_armchair_2In the introductory essay to "Mere Conservatism" a few weeks back I referenced the famed British author C.S. Lewis and his devastatingly effective explanations of the core tenets of the Christian creed.  In the first chapter of Book Four in Mere Christianity, titled “Beyond Personality: Or First Steps In The Doctrine Of The Trinity”, Lewis affirms his confidence in the intellectual curiosity and capacity of his reader by letting us know that despite warnings to the contrary from editors and colleagues, he is going to talk about heady, existential ideas regarding a complex topic.  In his case, he meant talking about some of the theological basics of the Christian faith.

Today I am going to be talking about History and the importance of integrating the wisdom of the ages in both our private lives and the public square.

In that same chapter of Mere Christianity Lewis astutely identifies the skepticism (and apprehension) most people have toward any attempt to codify or verbalize big ideas and concepts.  Many look at, for example, Christianity and see "a bunch of rules and regulations" written well before iPhones and Toyota hybrids that seem to have few practical implications on their modern life.  Similarly, in the case of studying our past, our History, many are either bored or insulted by the notion that, for example, what men in powdered wigs said and wrote 200 years ago about government, economics, culture, and the law has any real relevance to our day and age.

Mr. Lewis references a comment that a Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) fighter pilot made to him after hearing one of C.S.’s lectures on the existence of God and the importance of studying theology and doctrine.  The candid officer told Lewis that while he certainly believed in the existence of a Higher Power, and had “experienced God” while flying in the cockpit of his plane at night in the desert where he had been stationed, he simply could not bring himself to adhere to a list of “dogmas and formulas” that supposedly described who that Higher Power was and what His prescriptions for living as happy, fulfilling a life as is possible were.

Lewis was in total agreement with the general premise of this soldier’s statement.  The real thing, in this instance a real encounter with God, will always be more intense and real than reading about it later.napoleon1

Now think of this in terms of History.  The things we experience every day, the emotions we feel, the gut-wrenching pain and suffering we see, the unexplainable compassion and kindness we witness, all seem to matter so much more than anything that happened last month, let alone in Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany, or even Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

And to a large extent, this is true.  We have our immediate needs and responsibilities to look after, and our day-to-day experiences deserve the bulk of our attention and emotions.  But there is a bigger picture to consider.

C.S. Lewis points out that the pilot’s first problem was that he held a wrong understanding of what theology even really is.  The man was thinking of purely scholastic and theoretical study.  Yes, looking at the ocean and then at a map is a different experience, but who would say that because they’ve seen the ocean a couple times they would now need no map to navigate its murky and tumultuous waters if they wanted to travel upon them?

The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it.  In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real ocean.  In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.  In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary.”

History is a map.

Living history, making history with every breath you take (and, as my boy Sting would remind you, “move you make”), is abundantly more “real” and exhilarating.  No one disagrees with this.  History, because it is the story of mankind as re-told and recorded by mankind, is similar to the children’s game Telephone: it is susceptible to misrepresentations and misinterpretations.  This is another unavoidable reality.

But think of the people you know who only live moment-by-moment with no thought or care of the future, and no interest in learning from past mistakes (or even successes).  Are they really all that enviable?  Is it really possible to live this way and maintain a job, friendships, or family?  I would propose that it is not possible, at least not for long.  It would rightly be understood as childish, immature and irresponsible to live in such a manner.

meatloaf.s600x600Now think of the times in life where you’ve relied upon past experiences, or the past experiences of others, to make a decision and it turned out to be the wrong one.  Would any sane person gather from that incident that they should never again trust their own past, or the past of others, to help guide them in making a future decision?  Everyone has had a bad meal before, but no one decides that as a result of your aunt’s questionable meatloaf you won’t be eating any food again.

History matters because it involves the creators of it: us.  There are names and dates and places to learn, but learning History should be seen as the pre-requisite to the prized end-goal: understanding History.  Wisdom comes from a healthy comprehension and appreciation of facts and realities that have occurred in the past.  There is no area of study, no academic discipline, no political or ideological movement that is not completely reliant upon information collected from the past.

So why then is there generally such a divergent view between conservatives and liberals as to what role History ought to play in making personal and collective decisions?  Why is it that no matter if we are talking about History in a theological, political, or economic sense, liberals tend to downplay the credence we should pay to the wisdom of the ages, and conservatives usually call for an embrace of it?  Why is one side so enamored with sweeping “change” and perpetual “progress” and the other so much more focused on maintaining and modifying what has been proven to work?

I believe the ideological divide comes down to one word: authority.

The strand of progressive-liberalism produced by the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s that typifies the thinking and values of our media, academia, and current president recognizes, I believe, no real authority save itself (and themselves).

The Constitution does not allow for the type of all-encompassing change the Left’s good intentions compel them to push for, so the “living, breathing document” myth and a rabidly activist judiciary are foisted upon a misinformed and/or disinterested America.  The Bible does not condone the bulk of the Left’s secular-progressive social values, so it is either rejected outright, marginalized, or annexed into the government’s control (see: Europe).  History confirms the Left’s penchant for centralized power and a government-run economy to be (at best) a fool’s errand, so the History of the Christian West, especially the History of the United States, is re-cast as a harrowing tale of how benevolent, science-minded collectivists founded and developed the freest, most prosperous civilization in human history despite the racists, sexists, homophobic, bible-thumping xenophobes who believed in things like free markets, personal liberty, personal responsibility, and a Creator whose authority supersedes the whims of a corruptible, power-craved State.

The reason I put Theology first in the “Theology-History-Economics” triumvirate that most clearly defines Mere Conservatism is because I believe that when first things are first, everything else will fall in place.  As soon as the Theology I outlined last week is in place, as soon as you acknowledge a Creator (who bestows purpose and grants rights) and the reality of mankind’s fallen state (e.g. sin), History’s relevance and importance becomes self-evident.hands_of_god_and_adam-400

History is important because our Creator thought it worth the time to create and put us in it.  History is relevant because it is the collection of all that the things that have worked and failed as long as we’ve been on the earth.

History is an imperfect source, but matters a great deal because there is a great deal more of it than anything else.  How does one study the present?  The future?  We go to our grandpa or grandma for wisdom not because they know how to Tweet, but, in large part, because they’ve been around since before the inventor of Twitter was born.

The Left confuses the need for a “trust but verify” attitude towards the authority of History with a regrettable disdain for, and flat out rejection of, it.  Shortsighted axioms such as “Don’t trust anyone over 30” were ingrained into American culture and society when they should have been saying to one another, “Don’t listen to anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with what happened in their own country beginning 30 years ago and working backward to its founding.”

Or how about, “Don’t trust anyone who hasn’t read a book published at least 30 years ago”?

I realize that for some, this talk of History and authority will either blow over their head, or anger them.  To those liberals offended, I mean no personal phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgdisrespect.  Conservatives are not perfect; we simply ascribe to better ideas and truer values.  And to those who see little point in this whole discussion, I apologize for not mentioning my thoughts on who you should start in Fantasy Football, Kanye West, or even just one of People’s50 Sexiest People Alive” in this essay.

For the rest of you, to those interested in accepting the call to confront the socio-political challenges of our time, please understand that the writer of Ecclesiastes was right when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Anything and everything we don’t like about what is happening to our country and culture, and in our churches and synagogues, is a direct result not of unforeseen occurrences or unpredictable challenges but unpreparedness and a pervasive inability to reinforce those same weak links in our spiritual, intellectual and moral armor that consistently allow us to be struck where the most damage can be inflicted.

Not knowing, and more importantly, not understanding, our past is helping to cripple America.  Mere Conservatism seeks to help change that.

“In other words, [History] is practical: especially now.  In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about [History].  But it is not so now.  Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed.  Consequently, if you do not [spend time investigating History], that will not mean that you have no ideas about [History].  It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones – bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas.

For a great many of the ideas about [History] which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real [Historians, Theologians, and Economists] tried centuries ago and rejected.  To believe in the popular view of [History] in modern [America] is retrogression – like believing the earth is flat.”

Comments (15) Trackbacks (4)
  1. Absolutely fantastic blog post here, RJ. I’m gonna link to it on my own site. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Economics next week.

  2. Today it seems that we are ashamed of our past. Our Judeo-Christian roots that were and STILL ARE integral to our past, present and future. We have tried to replace what the Founding Fathers laid down for our country over 200 years ago with the new age perversions of diversity and multiculturalism. Our leaders have stepped away from anything to with any kind of leadership that is faith based or just about even mentions faith unless it is in the most generic terms and attempts to cover all religions and ideologies. Your are correct in wanting MC to change this, this I applaud and support 100%.

    In the past our power and military carried us through nearly every threat that has faced this country. Again, it is almost as if we are ashamed of this part of our past as well. The fact that the USA has been victorious in almost every conflict and I include Vietnam in this light too. That is not a discussion for the here and now as it is a bit off topic but suffice it to say we had all the tools to win that conflict but chose not to for many reasons. Our past is one of our greatest strengths. Yet we are failing to learn not only for our OWN history but that of Europe. Great powers have come and gone throughout history. We do not have to follow down that same path unless we let our leaders and politicians take us there, as they are doing now. If we learn from only our successes, then we will be doomed to failure. The most successful countries, powers, people are the ones who are not afraid to to look at the failures they have encountered throughtout their history, but they have been willing to admit to those failures, intergrate them into the present and use those failures as keys and knowledge to a stable and secure future. I do not mean mean admitting to our past as an embarrassmant and apologize for it like Obama has, on the global stage. Appeasement, groveling and cowardice has made us look weak and indecisive. Our enemies have been feasting since 1/20/2009.

    The push by the demosocialistacrats for more government is best for us, that the
    government KNOWS what is best for us is built on a self perpetuating welfare state that eventually will fail and collapse into utter chaos. Europe and England are on the brink of such a collapse. The ONLY way this machine can survive is ever increasing taxation and the stripping away of liberty and freedom. Our Constitution, Bill of Rights are a unique and precious gift that the Founding Fathers set down for us. They, for the most part acknowledged the need and purpose of our Creator in the construction of such wonderous and powerful documents. The left of today wants us to go the way Europe has gone. They have turned their collective backs upon our Creator and His living word. This is not the world I want for my children, nor for my remaining years. Trouble arises when mankind corrupts the word of God and the authority of our Creator. The damages are already great but THIS country, and it’s citizens have survived a bad president and bad times before. The alternative this time is, we cannot fail
    for there is too much at stake. The Paul Revere’s of today are riding through our streets, calling us to action and perhaps arms. It is a call we best heed that call. Freedom is at stake.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful essay. I’ve been looking back through your blog archives and think you have done a great job and are enjoying it. I’ve been giving this a try for just three months now. I’ve added your blog to my blog list. Is there somewhere in your blog that I can find more biographical details? Thanks again.

  4. I suppose this is well-written, but I just think that the obsession conservatives have with the past and the “good old days” is stupid and impedes our country from moving forward. You have cited Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations before but there is no way he could understand our economy now. And the Founders had some good ideas but they never knew how complicated the world would get. I think someone like Obama is right to push for change and progress. Reaganomics didn’t really work, being bullies with our military has gotten us nowhere, and things like traditional marriage are not the reality of how people actually live anymore.

  5. “Things are different now”…. “How could men, who wrote with quill pens and by candlelight, know about the differences of today?” The error is that many confuse technology with true advancement. When we read Homer or the clay tablets of Sumer, we understand what they are saying…. we haven’t changed. In many ways, humans are “hardwired” and so prone to make the same mistakes… history is a map full of wrong turns.. knowing history can help prevent repeating the errors of the past.

  6. “There is no area of study, no academic discipline, no political or ideological movement that is not completely reliant upon information collected from the past”.

    Excellent essay, RJM.

  7. Liked your article, but I think it misses the point: the difference–the real difference–between “liberals” and “conservatives” in America these days is economics.

    Classical liberals–some Democrats, most Republicans and almost all Independents–believe in the free market, or ‘capitalism’ as Marx has named it. (There really is no such thing as ‘capitalism’. A free market is what people do when they have freedom of choice, or left to their own devices.) Those who are now calling themselves ‘liberals’ and vote Democrat are, at the very least, economic populists. Mr Obama and his buds are actually Marxists who believe in economic “equality”, regardless of the logic or cost.

    So-called “Conservatives” are now primarily social conservatives who subsume economic and personal freedom in the interest of their morality.

  8. ahem-

    Thanks for commenting. I COMPLETELY agree that a massive difference between Right and Left in this nation is their respective views on issues regarding economics. You couldnt be more right. In fact, if you stick around for next week’s installment of Mere Conservatism I’ll be devoting an entire column on that difference. It is the third pillar of the Theology-History-Economics triumvirate that describes MC. For the purposes of this essay, I was focusing on History. The difference between liberals and conservatives is authority when it comes to History. That is my hypothesis.

    The larger point of what I’m attempting to do here is fleshing out a conservative worldview as I see it. Conservative is a big word that encompasses a lot of different ideas to a lot of different people, but I believe that are some basic, mere things that define a conservative view of the world.

    Free market economics and economic liberty is KEY to this. While you wait for my next piece on that very topic, PLEASE check out this essay that helps further describe my views on the matter: http://bastiat.org/en/the_law.html#SECTION_G701

    Thanks and God bless.

  9. RJM-

    Thank you for the rare treat of reading a well thought out essay to start my day. You have hit the nail on the head and being a huge Lewis and Chesterton fan, I throughly enjoyed your approach. As a student of history, I am afraid that we are headed for another Great War in this century. I think it will be again a war for freedom, a war to throw off the chains of despotism forged by those who impose change for the sack of their own power cravings.

    My question for you is do you believe this fight can be postponed or avoided altogether, or is it inevitable? It does not seem like the Left is willing to listen to reason and the only way to assure the success of unreasonable positions is through despotic coercion. Free men will suffer some things but not everything. How long do you think it will be before Free men rise up and say enough of this!
    Or has the dumbing down of America been successful and the land of the free and home of the brave now just another myth of history?

    Thank you again for your efforts and thoughts.

  10. David-

    Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

    I think the coming “war” is already here and it is ideological in this country, not violent (thank God). Americans in significant numbers are wising up to the ever-increasing control of a federal government and congress that spends and spends recklessly as their popularity declines precipitously. What needs to happen is that the passion and momentum that began in August must carry over to the primaries in 2010. Fiscally responsible conservatives and libertarians need to be nominated and elected to supplant the RINO and the liberal Democrats. We still have power.

    Politics, I firmly believe, is downstream of culture and right now the culture has for too long been either apathetic or misinformed. But things are changing. It HAS to start in the home, among families, friends, and neighbors. Every person you know under the age of 30 should be in your cross-hairs in terms of speaking to them about these issues, sharing pertinent articles, and buying them books instead of Wii games. If public schools (and sadly, many private religious schools) will not teach ALL of our History and refuse to even acknowledge the legitimacy (and I believe supremacy) of our conservative-libertarian values, then we have to do it. There’s no way around it: self-governance is not easy. But its worth the effort and worth the fight.

    -R.J. Moeller

  11. Excellent piece. It evokes Einstein’s famous musing on insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. With an appreciation for history, we know what works and what doesn’t (New Deal-like programs, for example, do not work). The left disregards such lessons and trudges on, ambivalent to the past and brazenly ill-equipped for the future. As J. Peterman said to a wet and bewildered Elaine [at their meet-cute]:

    Elaine:… I don’t even know where I’m going.
    Peterman: That’s the best way to get someplace you’ve never been.

    Unfortunately, we all know where the Left is going. And it rhymes with failure.

    -Adam

  12. I like these essays, well done!!

    “Anything and everything we don’t like about what is happening to our country and culture, and in our churches and synagogues, is a direct result not of unforeseen occurrences or unpredictable challenges but unpreparedness and a pervasive inability to reinforce those same weak links in our spiritual, intellectual and moral armor that consistently allow us to be struck where the most damage can be inflicted.”

    This might be the quote of my week.

  13. Really excellent post, R.J.! Your writing reminds me very much of Bill Whittle’s brilliant blog EjectEjectEject. It is imperative that we study history, not just to know what happened, but how and why countries developed as they did and give insight into why people today act as they do.

    You have a talent to make difficult subject matter very clear. I hope you have ambitions of publishing beyond the blogosphere!

  14. This was an excellent essay, but a couple of quotes don’t sit well with me.

    “The Constitution does not allow for the type of all-encompassing change the Left’s good intentions compel them to push for, so the “living, breathing document” myth and a rabidly activist judiciary are foisted upon a misinformed and/or disinterested America. The Bible does not condone the bulk of the Left’s secular-progressive social values, so it is either rejected outright, marginalized, or annexed into the government’s control (see: Europe).”

    And

    “Conservatives are not perfect; we simply ascribe to better ideas and truer values.”

    If our country’s founders were so in-tune with Judeo-Christian theology and values, and the Constitution that they wrote does not allow for change… that is to say, it is not a living, breathing document… and conservatives ascribe to ideas and values more in-tune with the founders and the constitution… then conservatives are inherently static.

    Conservatives are basically stuck in 1776, ignoring the obvious growth 234 years of progress and procreating has brought. We cannot attempt to interpret the Constitution through the eyes of the founding fathers and still expect to apply those interpretations to modern America. We must use the Constitution as a living breathing document because it’s not 1776 anymore, and the founding fathers were not infallible.

    In 1776 there were no mega multi-national corporations that served as an aristocracy, taking over entire political parties and making elected officials their puppets (see: Republican). If we were to attempt to interpret the Constitution as the founding fathers intended, we would reinstitute slavery, segregation, genocide and sexism into American law and society because those things were obviously okay with them (see: American History 101). When the founding fathers wrote, “All men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” they did not consider the African-Americans, the Native Americans or women in general to be “men.” So, should we then erase the “all-encompassing change” that progressives have brought and go back to the Bible-condoning values of the founding fathers?

    We must apply the Constitution to modern America, otherwise we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

  15. @ Jeff Corley’s comment above…

    Mr. Corley, you couldn’t be more wrong in saying that judicial activism is the only way to make the changes our Constitution might need. The “Constitution that they wrote” certainly does allow for change, but not by the method you advocate.

    Article V of the Constitution provides a mechanism for amending the Constitution. This amendment process has been used, to cite one example, to address your concerns about the rights of women, by granting women the right to vote.

    The problem with your preferred method (letting Supreme Court Justices who are smarter than everybody else re-write the “living document” as they see fit on any given day) is that it makes our country an oligarcy.

    John Adams said that America should be a “nation of laws, and not of men.” You clearly want to do the opposite.

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What is “Mere Conservatism”?

The basic ideas, ideals, and values that generally define and characterize the central tenets of what today might be termed "modern conservative thought."

We believe that a proper understanding of history, economics, and theology leads to certain conclusions. Many of these are the same conclusions our Founding Fathers arrived at in constructing a "more perfect union."

All ideas and opinions are welcome; not all are correct.

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