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Artillery Row

Righteousness and nations

The religiosity of national conservatism

It is no coincidence that the National Conservatism Conference is being held at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster. There is not exactly a shortage of venues in the capital. The organisers had all manner of trendy hotels they might have chosen from. If they needed to be within earshot of Britain’s elected representatives, there is the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre just the other side of Parliament Square. They chose the Emmanuel Centre. Built in the Twenties by Sir Herbert Baker, the building has been owned by the Emmanuel Church since the late Nineties. Its vaulted ceilings, adorned with Biblical passages, reveal that the primary function of the building is to host Christian worship. It is here that Yoram Hazony and company have decided to make their pitch for a British national conservative movement — a Christian conservative movement.

It appears that commentators as of yet have failed to appreciate this religious and moral dimension to the national conservatism package. Peter Franklin is surely one of many to believe that the nation is a distinct conservative institution which can be separated out from the family and the church. Whilst the latter two have seen their significance to British life wane, the nation remains a “potent force”. This is not, though, how the movement’s most articulate advocate understands the relationship between national conservatism and religion. Chair of the Edmund Burke Foundation that orchestrates the movement’s events, research and outreach, Hazony is unambiguous: “A political theory, he argues, “in the conservative tradition cannot be made to work without the God of Scripture.” A conservative programme, he puts it elsewhere, cannot be advanced “without extensive cooperation amongst Christian denominations, in coalition with orthodox Jews and other minority communities”. His book Conservatism: A Rediscovery ends with a clear message: the first thing would-be conservatives today should do is start living a “conservative life” — that is, get married, have children and, crucially, join a congregation. 

Hazony began this line of thinking as an undergraduate, when he wrote a paper entitled “Church’s proper place in the state” for the Princeton Tory. His mature case about religion’s “proper place” in the conservative revival is threefold. Firstly, religion is central to restoring a degree of intellectual humbleness about the capacity of human reason. Secondly, it is vital to restoring the family as a cross-generational form of community (a “clan”) for the raising of children and the support of the elderly. Thirdly, it is the key to generating groups (“congregations”) committed to the transmission of traditions and institutions that sustain the nation. For Hazony, national renewal is inseparable from spiritual renewal. 

What are the prospects for such a religiously inflected conservatism in the United Kingdom? Hazony is fond of Irving Kristol’s statement that conservatism is built on three pillars: religion, nationalism and economic growth. Conservatives in the UK have always been defenders of the nation, and, whilst they can be frustratingly reluctant to will the means, they certainly will the ends of economic growth. As for the religious pillar of Kristol’s triptych, British conservatives are generally less enthusiastic. 

Thatcher saw her mission not as economic liberalisation, but moral regeneration

When it comes to the place of religion in public life, there is a great cultural chasm between the United Kingdom and the United States in which Hazony was raised and educated (let alone the Israel in which he now lives). David Cameron might have said he was “evangelical” about his Christianity, but political leaders are generally cautious about revealing their religious convictions in this country. One need only look at Kate Forbes and the recent SNP leadership contest, or the difficulties that Tim Farron had as leader of the Liberal Democrats, to understand why. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine a Prime Minister asking God to “bless this United Kingdom”. 

For the Conservative Party more narrowly, churchgoers are an increasingly unreliable electorate — a stark comparison to the strong alliance between America’s evangelicals and the Republican Party. A century and a half ago, Disraeli could describe the Church of England as the Tory Party at prayer. Today, Conservative policies are just as likely to come in for public censure from the church, and churchgoers are just as likely to identify as non-conservatives. 

There is, however, a deeper reason for why conservatives in this country appear to have a more ambivalent relationship with religion, and it concerns the specific nature of British conservatism. The relationship between faith and conservatism in the UK is complex; it might be separated into two lineages of thought. For Lord Hailsham and Hugh Cecil — two parliamentarians who made admirable attempts to articulate the tenants of conservatism in book-form — British conservatism was inseparable from a staunch and active defence of the Christian faith. This religious conservatism is far from a consensus view, however. Indeed, it is no coincidence that perhaps the greatest conservative philosopher of the 20th century, Michael Oakeshott, was also a scholar of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, like many conservatives, took the sceptical view that the role of the State is not to impose a doctrinal or scriptural truth upon the population, but to mediate the relationships between individuals and communities who will inexorably have conflicting values. These two traditions of thought co-exist (and collide) within the contemporary conservative community. 

At a more structural level, there is also a question of what all this means in a country where, unlike in the United States, Christian religious observance is now the endeavour of a minority. Conservatives might well lament the shrinking congregations and decline of the church as a vestibule of community. They equally recoil, however, from using the levers of the State to encourage greater religiosity amongst the public. Conservatives believe deeply in the limited ability of government to perfect human beings. Notwithstanding all this, there is a great risk that, in failing to appreciate the seriousness of Hazony’s moral case, we fundamentally misinterpret the national conservatism project itself. 

This has happened before. Advocates of national conservatism in the UK frequently define their political outlook in contradistinction to Thatcherism, which they associate with a liberal individualism that has acted as a solvent on communities and traditions. Yet, as Hazony himself points out in A Rediscovery, this is a caricature of Thatcher, for she chiefly saw her mission not as one of economic liberalisation, but moral regeneration. A massive transfer of assets away from the state and into the hands of individuals and families was aimed at inculcating the “vigorous virtues” within the British public, as Shirley Letwin put it. Economic efficiency was secondary to this moral objective, as evidenced by the fact that Thatcher’s government felt justified in selling off millions of state-owned homes to former tenants at a large discount.

The goal is the entrenchment of moral values that go beyond partisan politics

“Thatcherism” as advanced by its contemporary advocates has become a very different thing to the profound moral project that Thatcher believed herself to be embarked upon. Her devotees today speak of tax cuts, deregulation and economic growth, often without recognising that for her, these things were simply the means by which the moral character of the British people might be rehabilitated. “Economics is the method,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times: “the object is to change the soul.” She believed that promoting autonomy and private ownership would only lead to a better society if this were accompanied by a renewed sense of responsibility, duty and mutual obligation within communities. As she put it in a speech in 1978, “Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the Church, the family and the school.

The operative word here is “shared”. British conservatives on this matter have an enormous advantage over their American counterparts, but it requires that they appreciate a paradox: the Church in the United Kingdom has a far better chance of providing such a body of common beliefs and morals precisely because it is currently relatively apolitical. It is because religion and conservative politics do not go hand in glove in this country that the Church stands a chance of regalvanising our society — by supporting local communities and providing help and assistance to the needy in a far more intimate and human way than the State. The goal is the entrenchment of moral values that go beyond partisan politics, rather than the further politicisation of views that conservatives desire to be widely held. As Lord Hailsham put it, he who thinks that political struggle is the most important thing in life is not fit to be a conservative, “let alone a Christian”. 

Is a Great Reawakening possible or indeed desirable in Britain? We need to be clear on what we are talking about. Clearly the sort of religious conservatism advocated by the likes of Calvin Robinson is possible. Is such a bitter strain of religiosity to be welcomed, however? There is a world of difference between conservatism and reactionism, and the latter is unlikely to be the salve for our country’s discontents. A values-based conservatism, one that postulates a good society and the sort of interactions and relationships that we might want to promote in this country, is a very different proposition altogether. Such a conservatism would inevitably be shaped by our national history and its traditions, which are inextricably Christian. It might yet also be one that can unite a people that no longer goes to church every Sunday. 

Regardless, Hazony is entirely correct on one crucial point: a reinvigorated commitment to the national community will not itself help to produce the sort of country conservatives want without a corresponding effort to repair our collective moral fibre. As Thatcher put it, quoting from the book of Proverbs: “Righteousness exalteth a Nation. 

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