What Would Burke Do?

By McCarthy, Daniel | The American Conservative, May 4, 2009 | Go to article overview

What Would Burke Do?


McCarthy, Daniel, The American Conservative


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

What Would Burke Do?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.