Conservatism and Non-Violence

A friend wrote me recently about my book, "The Conservative Soul," and had many trenchant criticisms. But one in particular struck home, and I've been thinking about it ever since. Today is a good day to air it - because what Good Friday is ultimately about, to my mind, is non-violence. That's why I felt so passionately about Mel Gibson's attempt to depict Christ's passion as primarily about the violence inflicted by others on Jesus. In fact, it is and was primarily about Jesus' decision to accept the violence without resistance because he wanted to show that only non-violence can ever truly, deeply defeat violence. Gibson never gave us the Gospel teaching to make sense of this, which is why the film failed so profoundly as a Christian movie.

Complete non-violence is a religious teaching, not a political one. I am not a pacifist. But a Christian grappling with politics will nonetheless, I think, seek a system where violence is minimized, and a free space is given for faithful non-violence to flourish. That's why the civil rights movement was, in my view, a religious movement at its core, and was never better illustrated than by the choice of its participants to submit non-violently to the hatred and fear directed toward them, to resist it but not to counter it with more of the same.

For me, Christianity can lead to a certain form of political conservatism, one dedicated to law and tradition and civility and conversation, not tyranny and ideology and warfare and violence. This conservatism is just as accessible to atheists as well - and was perhaps best expressed by Hobbes. It will require an effective monopoly of violence by the state, but will henceforth do everything to restrain its manifestation in the civil and international sphere. But my friend made the case better in his email, and suggested a line of inquiry well worth pursuing. I reprint it here, as a point of reflection on today of all days:

First, to me the book came across as essentially about a religious conservative disposition. Nothing wrong with that, and don't get me wrong, I liked the sections on religion. They were informative and helped in my own thinking about god and faith. But it has to be said that because there is lot about religion, the book might seem less relevant to the secular reader, someone who wants to completely divorce politics from questions of faith. It seemed to me that you began talking about fundamentalist religion to make a point about the 'politics of faith' of the theoconservatives. That made the point well, But the 'politics of skepticism' sections also had a religious tinge to them. So there is less on offer for the secular reader. I don’t think this was your intent but I could see some people concluding that conservatism is only possible, or even synonymous, with religion. Since there are atheist conservatives, I felt that the book could have offered more for someone who doesn't believe in god but who knows from practical point of view, or who has arrived at the conclusion philosophically, that human change does not and cannot take place ideologically, that it is always contingent. I suppose a theoretical discussion about contingency would have gone beyond what you were trying to achieve, but for readers hungry for more theory, I think it left some things unexplored. This was probably a difficult line for you to draw.

In my view this is more important to conservatives than they want to recognize. It’s easy to Tcscover say that conservatism is an anti-theoretical political sensibility, and Oakeshott certainly made that plain enough. However, Oakeshott was never completely satisfied with that either – he was a theorist and in my view his conservatism was based as much in his philosophical views as in his disposition. This probably goes against other readers of Oakeshott but I think at least Paul Franco would agree with me that Oakeshott’s strict divide between theory and practice cannot be maintained in his own writings.

My own view is that for conservatives to get their 'soul' back (a good word, by the way), they are going to have to think about at least one theoretical problem, the one that Oakeshott spent so much time on: authority. The Left has no use for political authority and that is their mistake. But the American conservative is equally blind. Americans generally do not worry about authority but opt instead to use entirely a vocabulary of power. Which is just to say that the peculiar problem in America is that all politics are politics of faith. There are no true politics of skepticism.

So my second point is that American conservatives face this difficulty and yet it is not really dealt with in your book. I think it would have really given the book more teeth to challenge theo- or neo-conservatives with the claim that their idea of politics is not authoritative. This is, to be fair, implied in the discussion of religion, but I think it needed to come out explicitly. In the end there can be no freedom without authority and American conservatives (like Margaret Thatcher) have lost sight of this. Perhaps we disagree about her, so that’s one to talk about. (Actually I found myself agreeing with you on some points about Thatcher, and that irritated me since I thought I had made up my mind about her).

The third point is the most important. Your book says nothing about the problem of violence. This may sound strange to mention, but against the backdrop of this idiotic war, it must be a question for conservatives how they stand on both the morality and political viability of military action. This is a many-pronged issue: a conservative is likely to be something of an isolationist, and he certainly would not think that democracy can be built in a day in a far away land by use of tanks and bombs. But apart from these policy problems, there is the question of whether violence should ever be chosen as a solution to political problems.

As I see it the conservative disposition has a necessary starting point in non-violence. Just as it rejects a "violence of ideas" endemic in ideology, conservatism must, even more so, reject physical violence as a solution to political or social problems. Revolutions are always fraudulent, war is the breakdown of politics. And conservatives believe in politics. War may be necessary, but when it supervenes all the stuff described in On Being Conservative, politics quickly goes out the window.

When the shame of this war really hits home for Americans, it will consist in the recollection that the best they could think of, their "Americanism," amounted to little more than the desire to drop bombs and "get their own back." Can anyone look at those 3,000 American dead, the 20,000 or so wounded, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian dead and say to themselves that was conservatism in action?

I submit this is not because of failed policy or poorly executed military operations. It is because the venture was radical in its proposition that good things can come from violence. They rarely can. So the general worry for conservatives should be the speed and alacrity with which they chose violence both with respect to Iraq, and with respect to detainees - the problem of torture. This is what people outside America are concerned about, the image of a nation for which violence was chosen so easily and willingly, for whom it might be again. Just where is the conservatism, the idea of a conversational politics, if violence is the solution?

I am quite certain, by the way, that Oakeshott was against violence except in the last resort. The violence thing worries me most. A guy like President Bush doesn't worry about such things because he is "righteous" in the eyes of his god. But a conservative should.