There is bewilderment in conservative ranks these days about where to go from here. Midterm elections lost, a war gone sour, an evangelical spokesman fallen, homosexuals on the ascendancy, a sense that there is nothing any longer to unify the parts of the coalition that first assembled 50 years ago – all of it is reason to hang out the pessimism that seems so natural to conservatives.
When conservatism began its popular resurgence in politics and ideas in the 1950s, the thing that tied together the intellectual camps – the traditionalists like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, the classical liberals like Hayek and Friedman, and the neoconservatives like Harry Jaffa and Irving Kristol – and made their adherents a collective force, with time, for Ronald Reagan was the spirit of anti-communism. Conservatives, after all, are generally trying to conserve something good in the face of something bad. Conservatives need not agree about the ultimate good (the good could be liberty, or equality, or truth, or tradition). But they must agree about what is bad (communism was bad).
Today, as in 1964 and 1980 when communism was pulsing and the right was united, there are different views among conservatives about what constitutes the good. However, unlike 1964 and 1980, conservatives today are divided about what constitutes the bad. Some say that terrorism is the great enemy; others say that war is the great enemy. Some say that government is our undoing, others that the popular culture is evil. It is possible to hate terrorism and war and government and popular culture all at once, but it is not likely that a winning political movement can come together on all these themes.
Indeed, there is no winning conservative movement. Even if the Republicans are still a force in politics, what passes for the conservative party today is hardly conservative, because it is more driven by special interests than a resistance to something bad.
But there is evil in our world that will destroy souls and nations if conservatives don’t unite against it. Whatever arguments are to be made for the war in Iraq, the fact is that Iraq in the equation of public opinion and practical statesmanship has distracted from the realities of Sept. 11. It has moved conservatives away from what could define their calling at the launch of the 21st century. Our response to the problem of Islam cannot mainly be war, though it may include war. We must respond with a renewed culture. We must counter the rise of Islam with a faith of our own.
That is not to say that conservatives must be Christians, but conservatives must understand that the only defense against Islam is a vibrant Christian culture. Politics is a contest of opinions about how best to protect a culture; while culture has to do with ideas and relationships, politics has to do with force and order. Our politics need not be immediately religious, but our culture must be.
A society is made up not only of political institutions, but of families, churches, businesses, local communities. Each institution has its own function, each its own role to play in the human experience. We produce and trade. We worship. We love. We serve. In doing these voluntary things we must be protected by force, and so we have laws and government. The United States is the best experiment in government that there ever was, because it is an experiment first of all in self-government.
The cult of Islam repudiates self-government and all we hold dear. If we are to continue to be a self-governing people, we must be a people of strong character, and strong character is founded in the Christian faith.
It seems more direct and tangible to go to physical war on Islamic terrorism than to fortify our culture at home and to set our political compasses toward such a fortification. It seemed to some people in the last century that war in Korea and Vietnam would kill communism. In those countries it did not. Not war, but the persuasive charisma of the free world led by conservatives in America persuaded the fall of the Berlin Wall. Communism, as a bad thing for conservatives to unify against, made possible a coalition for other things: limited government, family values, individual liberty. It was the movement for these things at home, all of them opposed in principle to communism, that gave Reagan the international presence to demand Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall.
War today is doing little for our credibility. It is faith that the Islamic world must see in us. If conservatives are to be reunited, we must first unite against Islam. From there we can renew our determination to be a self-governing and Christian nation.
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