Not Just Useful

Almost the only complaint she makes about Toqueville is that he says too little about the Founders’ concern with religion [Ed: what concern?] … . But it is of a piece with her enthusiasm for her “benign and tolerant President” [Ed: she means George III. Benign?] who, she wrote last year, has taught Jews in particular not to be afraid of religious rhetoric and to understand what a force for political good religion can be. Like all such claims, it raises some awkward and here unaddressed questions: What does Ms. Himmelfarb herself think about the credibility of any particular faith? Is religious belief something that other people should take seriously, but which the enlightened need not? Ms. Himmelfarb neither asks nor answers such questions. She seems entirely uninterested in real religious conviction—even when she writes about John Wesley. And yet, as many writers have pointed out, religion can be useful if a sufficient number of people believe that it is not just useful, but true.

—Alan Ryan, Faith-Based History.

Bam. That’s the problem with Gertrude Himmelfarb, and it’s the problem with her hero, Edmund Burke. Burke was a smart man, a classical liberal, and foresighted enough to see where the French Revolution was going. But the brand of conservativism that he promoted as a counterweight to radical excesses was internally inconsistent and rested on an unsustainable devil’s bargain with religion.

The French Revolution led to the blood of the Terror, the dictatorship of Napoleon, and a generation of war in Europe. But the ancien regime was an oppressive system of leftover feudal privilege and corrupt absolutist power. For all of the humanitarian tragedy that followed, the basic ideology of the Revolution was right. Liberte, egalite, and fraternite are good principles, and there’s a reason the French still celebrate Bastille Day. The anti-rationalism that runs through Burke’s lament for Marie Antoinette’s lost decency is ugly: he and his enemy Paine are of a piece in their willingness to countenance awful suffering in order to protect their favorite abstractions.

As for religion, Ryan’s point is worth reiterating: religion can be useful if a sufficient number of people believe that it is not just useful, but true. In the 18th-century English mind, the religiously inflected cataclysm of the 17th century loomed large. The Civil War was probably the second largest tragedy in English history, surpassed only by the Black Death. Avoiding a repeat of such bloodletting became an important priority of the political order in England.

Whether between Catholics and Protestants or among Anglicans and Dissenters, religion was taken from the table of things worth fighting about. The Methodists would challenge the complacent Anglican orthodoxy, but neither side would pick up arms. By the end of the 18th century, when Burke was writing, the bases of this compromise seemed utterly beyond challenge. Religion was something moderating, a force around which individuals organized their consciences and social relations, not their wars. Thus Burke’s endorsement of it as something useful in preventing the madness of radical rationalism.

But note carefully the contradiction. What made it possible for Burke to think of religious devotion as something moderating, rather than as the very source of violence and utter social upheaval, was a century of tamping down religious passion. By “religion,” Burke had in mind something that many truly religious people would not recognize as genuine religion. The alignment of “religion” with the principles, both liberal and conservative, Burke held so dear, was a purely contingent matter. As Ryan notes, John Wesley was a “self-described enemy of democracy, and deeply hostile to American independence;” other Methodists were radical trade-unionists.

To be a Burkean in any age, then, is to face an unappetizing choice. One may be pro-religious, but make exceptions for anything too religious. Osama bin Laden is too religious for Gertrude Himmelfarb, I suspect; so, too are those Christian evangelicals hostile to women working ouside the home (e.g. Gertrude Himmelfarb, writer and professor).

Or, one may go ahead with the endorsement, and live with the perpetual unease that comes of throwing one’s lot with useful illiberals: one day, the illiberals may come to power. And on that day, your endorsement of their utility will avail you little as they run roughshod over the moderate Enlightenment values you hold so dear.

Such is the original sin of neoconservatism. It so recoils from what it thinks are the excesses of postmodernity that it would risk overthrowing modernity itself. For those who believe in aristocracy or theocracy, this possibility may not seem all that bad. But for the rest of us, it would be a tragedy.

Res publica reficienda est!