Yesterday we had a stimulating discussion at the NSA graduate forum, and I was going to take a moment here to let some of my afterthoughts spill over. We were discussing whether the left wing/right wing distinction is inherently an idolatrous one.
Anyone who has followed this blog for very long knows that there is a certain kind of rah rah right wing schtick that nearly makes me frantic. Whether it is David Gelernter’s exaltation of Americanism as a great world religion, or the quasi-devotional language that commentators like Sean Hannity use when talking about America, or patriotic rallies that resemble a charismatic worship service, it is as plain as a pike staff that there is a species of right wing behavior that is flagrantly idolatrous. As far as I am concerned, folks can take all that kind of red, white and blue bunting and decorate hell with it. But the question is not whether it is possible for loyalty to your culture and nation to be idolatrous (of course it is), but rather whether use of the right/left distinction is inherently idolatrous. And I don’t believe that is close to being the case.
At the same time, except when joking, I try not to describe myself as a man of the right — although I do self-identify as a conservative. With the former, when joking, I will say that my positions are slightly to the left of King Arthur. With the latter, when I say that I am a conservative, the obvious question is “what are you seeking to conserve?” The answer to that is “the heritage of Christendom,” and to do so in a way that looks forward to the contributions of the next Christendom. There is no way to be “medieval” or “reformational,” as I am, and not be a conservative of some stripe. And the fact that I am looking forward to the glories of the coming Christendom does not make me “progressive,” as I am sure would be plain once I was allowed to describe what I think those glories might actually look like.
One of the strong points of a practical biblical conservativism, over against the abstract ideologies of the age, is that it focuses on the concrete. Christ is the integration point, not some grand idea, and our duties are always right in front of us, simple and plain. There are certain intellectual convolutions that could make particularity and “individualism” abstract in an idolatrous way, but that is actually hard to do. Because of the Incarnation, the bias of particularity in politics favors the anti-ideological, which is to say, it is a bias against idolatry. And that describes historic conservatism very well. At the same time, I grant that it does not describe George W. Bush’s spending habits very well — there the resemblance would be more like a pack of simians that got into an Congo merchant’s storehouse of trade gin.
Modernist idolaters are invariably in pursuit of “justice” or “equality.” And if you ask what they mean, the response will be another generalization like “human dignity.” Conservatives can use abstract words also, like “decency” or “liberty,” but what they mean by it is usually quite particular and concrete. Their concerns for “decency” come out of their distaste for the T&A magazines at their local gas station, and what they mean by “liberty” is the right to open their own pizza joint without paying payroll taxes through the nose. It is very difficult to turn the concrete concerns of genuine conservatives into an abstraction. If you asked Obama about Walmart, his answer would float upwards into the disapproving mezzanine of abstractions. If you asked Sarah Palin about Walmart, she would say that it was where she got some of her stuff.
All of us must develop and display hierarchical loyalties, with loyalty to Christ and the Church being always at the top. But we must lean against making the Church into a deracinated third way, a kind of floaty thing above the societies of men. The Church in incarnated in local churches, and all the people who come to church do so speaking a particular language, representing particular cultures and ethnicities, having sons who fought in particular wars, and so on. The Church as genuine third way presents an alternative structuring of loyalties, but does not usually present us with an absolute choice between loyalties.
Here is a thought experiment to illustrate the point — the role of the Church in the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine has been a marked and exceptional one. What should a Russian pastor, a Ukrainian pastor, and an American pastor think about it? There are only two basic options — refuse to take sides, or take sides. If we refuse to take sides, we are in the process of becoming gnostics and our third way Church is a floaty thing. If we take sides, we might take the wrong side, which means that we have seriously stumbled. The ditch into which we stumble will usually be the ditch of some kind of idolatry (preferring the interests and policies of the Kremlin or the U.S. State Department over the interests of the Church in the Ukraine). But there is a genuine third way. Take the right side for the right reasons.