Tradition in the modern United States.
The briefest description I can give of the point of view for my work as a blogger is this: I’m a Presbyterian wandering around in the gap between Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition. How’s that for brevity?
Ah, but it seems to lack something in terms of conveying meaningful information to people who have better things to do with their time than read hundreds of pages of moral philosophy just because some blogger says it helped him get through his theological-political crisis. So I’ll start over and try to fill it out a little bit more this time. If you’ll indulge me by letting me get through three paragraphs of abstraction, I’ll get down to politics.
For quite a while, I had trouble making sense of political disagreements. There aren’t really too many ways to account for people who see the world differently than you do. You can hold them to be stupid, you can hold them to be arguing in bad faith in order to gain or preserve some privilege, you can hold them to be smart enough but irrationally committed to some wrong proposition or set of propositions, or you can give up on the neutrality of reason. I’d seen too many manifestly intelligent people disagree deeply to blame it all on stupidity. Experience belied any automatic assumption of bad faith. I had no idea how to figure out which fundamental propositions it was rational to commit myself to. What was left? It seemed like fideism or nothing.
And then Alasdair MacIntyre convinced me that it’s possible to give up on the sheer neutrality of reason without being a relativist. I’ll admit that it was MacIntyre’s sweeping indictment of Enlightenment reason that drew me in, but I’m neither a trained political theorist nor a professional philosopher, and I’m therefore unable to float around in the ether of theoretical criticism for too long before I have to ask myself: what does this look like? (You can get a good idea of the grounds on which MacIntyre criticizes liberal modernity from James Matthew Wilson’s recent “Letter from a Traditionalist Conservative” at Front Porch Republic, especially if you follow the discussion through the comments.)
In Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout has a section on MacIntyre in which he tries to show that at least some versions of liberalism don’t fall under the main part of MacIntyre’s critique, and that democracy in practice (and as theorized by some American Pragmatists) constitutes a viable tradition with significant advantages over “traditionalist” traditions. So the gap between MacIntyre and Stout is a space where I’m trying to figure out which traditions are most relevant to a fragmented Protestant in modern America.
Now that my three paragraphs of self-indulgent twaddle are out of the way (and I thank you for reading through it if you did), here’s a progress report. Burkean conservatism, Rawlsian liberalism in its cruder forms, and philosophical libertarianism are pretty much out as contenders for my allegiance. But I am particularly interested in what has been lost with the decline of mainline Protestantism, and I anticipate digging around in Christian political and social thought for a while to come.
I suppose that I’m some kind of a conservative, since that’s where I come from, but I’m not very interested in trying to defend my way of thinking as True Conservatism. I break with mainstream conservatism on foreign policy, economics, and culture war tactics, and probably on other things as well. As for foreign policy, I tend to think that the United States is badly overextended, and that the nation should make a long-term goal of reducing the size and spread of the military. As for economics, I observe that the laws of the United States are geared towards the corporation, which is indeed an efficient economic unit, but that large corporations are prone to excesses which will always ensure that people support a large government as a counterweight. Culture warriors have staked a great deal on a kind of hybrid evangelical/Catholic morality’s ability to be a public morality like the old Protestant one; for a number of reasons, I don’t think that can happen anytime soon. And on and on.
I’m a big pessimist, though, so maybe that’s enough to still be counted as a conservative?
(Note: I also talked about what I mean when I talk about “tradition” in this post.)