Magazine article The American Conservative

What Would Burke Do?

Magazine article The American Conservative

What Would Burke Do?

Article excerpt

The neglected tradition of high church conservatism

EDMUND BURKE might not like what American conservatism has become. With its devotion to abstract rights, democracy, and perpetual growth, the American Right today looks more like a stepchild of Thomas Paine than an heir to the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France. But Burke would recognize the conservative movement's rhetoric of liberty, its anti-elitism, and its alienation from institutions of authority. Those are the hallmarks of a disposition Burke described as "the dissidence of dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion." In 1775, that was how he characterized the creed of Britain's rebellious New England colonies. Today, those words apply to the faith of many in the Republican Party's base.

Burke was no Protestant, though he was not Catholic either. (His mother, wife, and sister were.) He was an Anglican who defended the establishment of the Church of England, even as he eloquently argued for toleration of Dissenters-that is, Protestants-and Catholics. Indeed, he wrote to his friend Thomas Erskine, "I would give a full civil protection ... to Jews, Mahometans, and even pagans." Burke was, in the words of scholar Peter Stanlis, a "High Church Anglican" for whom "the Church of England was Protestant in her national sovereignty, but essentially Catholic in her inherited doctrines and forms of worship."

His attitude toward Dissenters-who sought to disestablish the national church or separate themselves from it-was ambivalent In the case of the American colonists, he sympathized with their Whiggish political principles (he was a Whig himself, after all), but the philosophy he espoused, most famously in Reflections, was a high church conservatism to match his High Church Anglicanism. His understanding of the proper relationship between faith, culture, and politics was very different from that of the radical Protestants, whose anti-establishment views held revolutionary implications for the social order.

High church conservatism may seem odd to Americans accustomed to the culturally Protestant and politically populist low church variety. But Burke was just the first in a long tradition. "A considerable amount of English conservatism," sociologist Robert Nisbet noted, "beginning with Burke and extending to such minds as Coleridge, Newman, Disraeli and Matthew Arnold, was activated and shaped by the religious revolution ... that paralleled the democratic and industrial revolutions."

Not all high church conservatives are Anglican; some are not even religious. Similarly, not all right-wing Anglicans or Catholics are politically high church. Perhaps the majority of Catholic conservatives today, swayed by Republican propaganda, have assimilated downward to the low church conservatism of their allies. The distinction arises not from doctrine but from one's overall approach to politics.

Low church conservatism, more familiar, is readily described. It has five common characteristics. First, it values faith over works-what counts is the character of a politician and the intentions behind his actions, not the outcome of his policies. No man, of course, can read another's soul, thus in practice the low church conservative places great value on professions of ideological purity. Sinning politicians like Newt Gingrich and David Vitter may be forgiven, so long as they say the right things. Disastrous policies-wars gone awry, for example-may be pardoned on account of righteous aims. Conversely, good works count for naught without profession of the right political faith.

Second, low church conservatism retains the anti-clericalism of its religious counterpart This entails a pervasive anti-elitism. For the low church conservative, a popular broadcaster such as Rush Limbaugh possesses greater authority than a scholar such as Russell Kirk. The former derives his position from (or has it affirmed by) the congregation-his listeners. …

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