It happens quietly, the renewal of generations. At my church last Sunday, the readings were given by a young girl — just stepping into her teens — with her parents and siblings all there to support her. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” she told our little congregation. “This is the word of the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God,” we chorused back.
Ancient rituals like these are, for Yoram Hazony, at the heart of what it means to be a conservative. An observant Jew himself, his new book Conservatism: A Rediscovery seeks to recover an Anglo-American conservative tradition that puts faith — as long as it’s Christian or Jewish — at the core of a healthy free society. It is all a very long way from wonks in bow ties offering tax incentives and policy papers on planning reform.
Hazony’s last book, The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), helped to launch National Conservatism, a growing influence on right-leaning intellectuals, both in America and Europe. National Conservatives like national independence, which puts them on the side of Brexit. But they are also keen to moderate the political right’s attachment to freedom. Individual liberty, liberal democracy, free trade: all are under suspicion. With this book, Hazony attempts to explain what his alternative looks like.
This alternative begins at home, or perhaps in the local congregation to which every conservative household should belong. For Hazony, political conservatism cannot be separated from personal conservatism. If you don’t live your life in a manner which honours tradition, accepts constraints and helps to raise a new generation in the ancient faith, you can’t be trusted on policy. A British reader may pause to wonder how this squares with a rakish oaf like Boris Johnson getting Brexit done, where a devout dud like Theresa May failed. But Hazony also believes that private devotion is not enough: a stable society requires its great institutions and senior figures to publicly honour the Biblical god as well. “What is not honoured in public also tends not to be honoured in private”.
As Hazony reminds the reader, Western leaders once invoked Christian nationhood without blinking. In 1939, President Roosevelt’s State of the Union celebrated “God-fearing democracies”. FDR declared: “An ordering of society which relegates religion, democracy and good faith among nations to the background can find no place within it for the ideals of the Prince of Peace. The United States rejects such an ordering and retains its ancient faith.”
Still, Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a disorienting read for conservatives raised on Thatcher, Hayek and Reagan. Hazony repudiates the fusionist Cold War strategy that brought disaffected liberals and conservatives together to defeat communism. He sees the right’s accommodation to liberal ideals as a fatal compromise which opened the way to moral and political disaster. For Hazony, there can be no big tent strategy against the new Marxism of the woke. Instead, his vision is closer to Pope Benedict XVI, who called for Catholicism to remain pure, even if it shrank to the size of a mustard seed.
It’s hard not to admire the sheer bravado of this book, which seeks to reframe the entire history of Anglo-American conservatism. A hopscotch structure ranges from personal memoir to political philosophy to grand narrative, expelling along the way a succession of liberal-minded heretics. Thomas Jefferson becomes an Enlightenment-addled fool, whose absence from America’s constitutional convention should be considered providential. The promotion of free trade and free markets were grave errors: they have left America divided and weakened, and its enemies enriched.
For all its boldness, Hazony’s reinterpretation fails to give enough credit to his opponents. The fusionist right has long recognised two Enlightenments: French (bad) and Scottish/English (good). That division mirrors Hazony’s preferred framing, which pits rationalists, who want to bulldoze tradition in the name of their theories, against empiricists who value what has been tried and tested over generations.
Could Hazony’s purified conservatism have won the Cold War?
As even Hazony has to acknowledge, the conservative heroes of the Cold War were faithful to the longer Anglo-American tradition. The liberal Friedrich Hayek was a champion of and a major contributor to the empiricist tradition. President Ronald Reagan was no market fundamentalist, but a far more nuanced thinker with deep concerns even for the place of faith in public life.
Hazony’s beef with Reagan and Hayek is that they took liberty seriously, while he wants to rein it in. He blames liberty for an assortment of social ills, but doesn’t consider its service as a source of energy and success for causes that matter to conservatives. America’s high levels of religiosity compared to Europe, for example, are a direct consequence of a more liberal marketplace of belief. Likewise, Hayek disavowed conservatism because of his empirically-grounded conviction that it couldn’t win the war of ideas.
Oddly for a book which champions empirical common sense over rationalist daydreams, such practical considerations seem absent. Fusionism won the Cold War. Could Hazony’s purified conservatism have done the same? Would kicking all the unbelievers and liberals out of Conservatism, Inc. really be a smart tactic today? Perhaps he is the one developing an abstract vision that has lost touch with political reality.
No doubt it all sounds more convincing in America, where Supreme Court rulings have driven Christian references from the public square and prayer out of publicly-funded schools. But, from the UK — where we have a state church, enforced acts of worship in schools and collapsing public religiosity — it’s less clear that more government power and less freedom is the fix Hazony would like it to be. Especially when one of our most publicly Christian and influential Conservative MPs is the arch-libertarian Steve Baker.
The real problems of our times do indeed call for prayer. We also need pragmatism and coalitions of the likeminded. For the sake of future generations, the tradition which carried us through the last crisis deserves its own renewal.
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