We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism

    (Photo: Doug Thompson)

    Excerpt from We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, by John Derbyshire (Three Rivers Press, 2009). Reprinted with permission from the author.

    From Chapter 8. Religion: What Shall We Do To Be Saved?

    Faith and Conservatism

    The association of religion with conservatism has always been a messy one. The old-world “throne and altar” conservatism of someone like Lord Salisbury or General Franco naturally embraced religion—or at least, in the spirit of Gibbon’s magistrate, the social utility of religion.

    American conservatism is a different matter. In this country, the connection between faith and conservatism is historically recent. It’s occasionally been the cause of internecine warfare among conservative intellectuals, as with the early-1960s spat between the celebration of individualistic capitalism by fiercely atheistic Ayn Rand and her followers, and the emerging circle of conservative thinkers, most of them Christians, around the young National Review. (Bill Buckley offered a thinly fictionalized account of the fight in his 2003 novel Getting It Right.)

    None of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—is inherently “left” or “right”. All three are capable of many quite different political interpretations—indeed, on the historical evidence, of any political interpretation whatsoever.

    The Tenth Commandment (“Thou shalt not covet …”) can be, and has been, read as a condemnation of the acquisitive spirit that animates capitalism. The Sermon on the Mount can be, and has been, read as a socialist—pacifist, redistributionist—tract. There is no more egalitarian sight in the world than the tawaf, the circumambulation of the holy Kaaba in Mecca at the end of a Muslim’s ritual pilgrimage. All pilgrims, rich and poor alike, wear the ihram, which a standard guidebook describes as “two pieces of white, plain and unsewn cloth.” I suppose that when the tawaf has been completed, the Saudi princes drive off to their palaces in chauffeur-driven limousines with solid gold trim, while the fellaheen shuffle away on foot to their crowded, insanitary pilgrim hostels. The egalitarian ethos is plainly there in the tawaf, though, and in Islam at large. It works its way through to the complaints about “corrupt, Western-backed rulers” made by Islamic fundamentalist militants.

    In the United States, Christianity has often been a prop of liberalism, and even radicalism. It’s not very long ago that Evangelicals were pounding the sidewalks and ringing doorbells on behalf of Jimmy Carter. I actually had my own doorbell so rung one evening in 1976. The Roman Catholic Church has produced radicals aplenty in recent decades, from the Berrigan brothers and “liberation theology” firebrands to Barack Obama’s pal Father Pfleger. The Episcopal Church has been at the forefront of modern feminist and gay rights movements, infuriating many “values” conservatives. Establishment Methodism is practically synonymous with bleeding-heart liberalism: Hillary Clinton is a Methodist—a pretty typical one, I am told. Of all the United States’ demographic subgroups, one of the strongest for redistributionist big-government socialism is African Americans … who are also one of our most religious subgroups. And so on.

    Politically speaking, polls show that the most religious Americans tend to favor conservative-Republican candidates, while the merely religious are all over the place, with a general trend, if anywhere, considerably left of center.

    The most intensely religious large group of Americans is Evangelical Christians. They form about 7 percent of the adult population. In the 2008 elections, according to the faith-trends-monitoring Barna Group, 88 percent of Evangelicals voted for John McCain, against only 11 percent for Barack Obama. That 88 percent is statistically the same as the 85 percent who voted for Geroge W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

    If you move down the scale of religious intensity you come to “born again” Christians. These are 43 percent of the adult population, a number that includes the 7 percent of Evangelicals. To put it another way, 36 percent of us are born again but not Evangelical. Of the overall 43 percent, there is a pretty even split in party registration: 18 percent Republican, 17 percent Democrat, 8 percent independent or other.

    This means that among non-Evangelical born-agains, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans. The 2008 McCain-Obama voting split among all born-agains, including Evangelicals, was nonetheless 57-41. (The 2004 Bush-Kerry split was 60-36.) Subtracting out the Evangelicals gives about a 52-48 split in McCain’s favor among non-Evangelical born-agains.

    Out beyond the born-again Christians are the merely Christian voters, “notional Christians” in the pollsters’ jargon. Barna doesn’t break out the voting here, but they note that party registration in this Christian-but-not-born-again group go 44-27 Democrat-Republican. Non-Christians—voters of other faiths, or no faith—split 62-36 Obama-McCain. Among atheists and agnostics the voting split was 76-23 Obama-McCain.

    The bottom line on Barna’s numbers is that the most religious Americans are strongly Republican, the merely religious tilt Democrat, and the irreligious are strongly Democrat.[*]

    Religious Right? On the evidence of the pollsters, religious Americans lean rather hard to the Left.

    Meet Your Pal the Metrocon

    Thus the Right does not own religion in America—never has, never will. Nor will it ever, or should it ever, be the case that religion owns the Right. Some religious conservatives think it does, and even more wish it did. There are Evangelicals who think we irreligious conservatives will be Left Behind en bloc at the day of judgment to face the Tribulation along with liberals; and there are Roman Catholics who yearn for the American conservative movement to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Vatican, as Damon Linker explained in his 2006 book The Theocons. The late Richard John Neuhaus, a leading theocon—he is the principal character in Linker’s book—wrote a famous essay in 1991 arguing that it is not possible for an atheist to be a good citizen. (Neuhaus generously allowed that atheists should, nonetheless, be permitted to remain citizens.)

    Sensible religious conservatives, though, know that irreligious ones need to be accommodated, just as sensible unbelieving conservatives understand that America’s religious exceptionalism is, for the reasons I bullet-pointed earlier in this chapter, a key bulwark against a drift to the milk-and-water statist pseudoconservatism of, for example, modern Britain.

    A digression within a digression here, before I return to my main theme. There’s a big overlap between irreligious conservatives and a species I tried to pin down in an online column once, a column people still ask me about six years later.

    This is the species “metrocon,” short for “metropolitan conservative.” My attempt to float this word back in 2003 was unsuccessful, mainly, I think, because people confused the word with “metrosexual,” which was being launched at the same time, to much louder applause. I founded my argument in the contrast between the busy sophistication of the metropolis and the relaxed simplicity of the provinces, a contrast that goes way back in human history—at least as far back as Greek comedy, in which the city slicker and the country bumpkin were already stock figures of fun twenty-five hundred years ago.

    Most of us are, in temperament and outlook, either metropolitan or provincial, either blue or red. I myself was raised in a small country town, but I have spent most of my adult life in big cities or their shadows, and have a mostly metropolitan cast of mind. (My sister, by contrast, who is a clever and well-read person of strong opinions, describes herself proudly as “a provincial lady.”)

    I dislike modern American liberalism very much, and believe it to be poisonous and destructive, as well as arrogant and false; yet I’m at ease in a roomful of New York liberals in a way that, to be truthful about it, I am not in a gathering of red-state Evangelicals. Setting aside our actual opinions about this, that, or the other, I’m aware that in the first gathering I’m among people with whom I have, at some level and in some key respects, a shared outlook; and in the second gathering, much less so.

    I’ll admit there’s an element of condescension in the metrocon viewpoint. What the heroic worker was to an old-line Marxist, what the suffering Negro was to civil rights marchers, what the unfulfilled housewife is to Hillary Clinton, the Vietnamese peasant to Jane Fonda, the Palestinian rioter to Edward Said, so the red-state conservative with his Bible, his hunting rifle, and his antisodomy laws is to a metrocon. He is authentic, in a way we metrocons are not.

    There’s a faint odor of cynicism here—the cynicism David Frum identified in the quote I started from. Big political movements must be held together somehow, though. If there was ever one that didn’t have a portion of cynicism in its glue, I never met it. Authenticity is in any case not to be sniffed at. My dictionary gives the antonym of “authentic” as “counterfeit.”

    You won’t find many people willing to admit to being metrocon, but the precincts I live and work in are thick with them. I conduct much of my social life among conservative journalists and editors. I know dozens of these folk. They are metrocon almost to a man. And of course woman, though the willing-to-admit quotient is even lower among gynometrocons.

    Here, for example, is a question asked by the Gallup polling organization in May 2008: “Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?” Forty percent of Gallup’s respondents said “should not.” Yet I’m pretty sure that not one of these journo-school metrocon acquaintances of mine would answer “should not” to that question. (Since 1977, when Gallup started asking that precise question, the “should nots” have never been less than 35 percent.)

    I and my metrocon pals, including your favorite conservative TV pundit and the editor and staff of your favorite conservative periodical, therefore stand to the left of 40 percent of Americans on this key social-conservatism topic. Not just 40 percent of conservatives, 40 percent of Americans.

    It’s the same with many other issues. Did human beings develop from less advanced creatures, with or without God’s guidance, or did God create Man in his present form? The public split 50-44 when Gallup polled that one, also in May 2008, whereas my guess for the metrocons would be more like 90-10 at worst. (Worst, I mean, for us scientifically literate metrocons. The with-without God’s guidance split, by the way, was 36-14.) I once found myself in a roomful of mostly conservative New Yorkers who were expecting me to speak impromptu on some topic of my choosing. Having just recently fought a couple of bouts with the “intelligent design” people, I suggested that as my topic. Nobody was interested. One rock-ribbed conservative-Republican gentleman expressed the sense of the meeting with: “That intelligent design stuff is for the rubes.”

    There is, as I said, no use denying the condescension here. I don’t think there is any cause for rancor or antagonism, though. Any movement that wants political influence must be a coalition of people with different interest and enthusiasms, town and country both. The metropolitan conservative and his provincial cousin both have their part to play in advancing common ideals. Sitting in New York or Washington, D.C., cooking up argumentative commentaries or organizing deep-brow conferences on “Whither Conservatism?” is as useful, in its own way, as running a Christian home-schooling group in Knoxville.

    Those things are not as critical to the future of conservatism, though. Looking across the pond at the country of my birth, where there are no powerful conservative lobbies—no Second Amendment warriors, no Christian Conservatives, no Right to Life chapters—I see what happens when conservatism becomes a merely metropolitan cult. Conservative politics in Britain has become marginalized and impotent. Things aren’t quite that bad here, and it hasn’t been I and my metrocon pals who prevented it. It’s been the legions of authentic conservatives out there in the provinces. Metrocons can’t carry this thing by themselves. Carry it? We can’t even pick it up.

    And religion is the real ballast out there, keeping what remains of American conservatism upright and steady. Religion matters to conservatism in a way it does not to the Left. As I pointed out earlier, it is a friend to localism, voluntarism, mutual self-support, traditionalism, and patriotism. If it goes down the tubes, then so do they, sucking us wine-sipping, canapé-chomping metrocons in their wake. That won’t matter to the religious Left, who are happy to see self-support delegated to government bureaucrats, who look askance at traditionalism, and who take patriotism to be an unacceptable affront to the Brotherhood of Man. It will matter to us, though. Which is unfortunate, because the omens for America’s continuing religious exceptionalism are not good.

    End of digression, end of digression. Return to main theme: America’s religious exceptionalism is doomed, and American conservatism with it.

    The End of Exceptionalism

    There’s no up-front to suppose that religious exceptionalism will be a permanent feature of our country. Things come and go. The Frontier, along with most of the Frontier Spirit, came and went; the three-martini lunch came and went, to the regret of some people still among us; so did the exceptional levels of chastity and sexual innocence in both sexes noted by de Tocqueville and other nineteenth-century visitors. (Traveling in the United States in 1896, a few months after the Oscar Wilde trial, Bertrand Russell was pestered with questions by young men who had not been able to fathom what it was that Wilde had done.)

    If we lose our religious exceptionalism, American conservatism will have had a key prop knocked out from under it. Can this really happen? Can a nation as “God-soaked” as ours really turn religiously indifferent? It certainly can. I have myself watched it happen in my own lifetime to two Christian nations, one Catholic and one Protestant, both as “God-soaked” as you please.

    There never was—well, not in the modern world—a country more steeped in Christianity than the Ireland of my youth. The 1951 census showed only 64 atheists in the Republic of Ireland. They could all have met together in one of those famous Dublin pubs. This intense devotion to the Church continued into the 1980s.

    Nowadays the strikingly low religious numbers coming out of Ireland are for vocations: 9 priests ordained in 2007 (when 160 died or quit), and just 2 nuns taking final vows (228 died or quit). You could cram them into a single confessional. The average age of Irish priests is currently sixty-one. Regular attendance at mass has dropped from 85 percent in 1985 to below 60 now, according to the Dublin Archdiocese; and that latter figure is propped up by an influx of Polish workers.

    It’s not just Catholicism that has taken a hit. The other paragon of intense religiosity in my youth was Methodist Wales. When we sang hymns at morning assembly in my English-Midlands schools, the voices of the Welsh schoolmasters—schoolmasters being the principal export of Wales—could be heard above all the rest. Every one of them had sung in a chapel choir; every one could tell you his voice register to a fine precision; none of them needed to look at the hymn book for the words (which he could have sung equally well in Welsh, also without a prompt book).

    Now the chapels of Wales are empty and derelict, where they have not been bought up or demolished. In 2001 they were closing at the rate of one per week. Wales, like Ireland, is becoming just another hedonistic, religiously indifferent European welfare democracy.

    It can happen anywhere. It can happen here. Will it, though? Yes, it will. The forces eating away at our religious exceptionalism are working away in plain sight. Some of them were set in motion by an event in very plain sight, an event that was hard to ignore.

    [*] For a neat visual aid here, go to the “Comparisons” section of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (religions.pewforum.org/comparisons), click on “Social & Political Views,” then on “Party Affiliation.” You are looking at a spreadsheet whose left-hand column breaks out respondents by religious confession. Each of the next six columns covers one political affiliation: “Republican,” “Lean Republican,” “Independent,” etc. Each has a bar chart showing one bar per religious confession.

    The thing that jumps out at you is that the “Democratic” and “Lean Democratic” columns have far more color—that is, longer bars—than the others. Only Mormons (65-22) and Evangelicals (50-34) break Republican.

    Excerpted from We Are Doomed by John Derbyshire. Copyright © 2009 by John Derbyshire. All rights reserved.

    John Derbyshire is a former contributing editor for National Review, where he wrote a regular column. He writes frequently for a number of other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the American Conservative, the Washington Examiner, the New Criterion and VDARE. In addition to his opinion journalism, he writes on the subject of mathematics and is the author of the books Prime Obsession and Unknown Quantity. His novel, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. A native of England, Derbyshire now lives on Long Island, New York, with his wife and two children.

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    1 COMMENT

    1. So many facts that Mr Derbyshire states that are far from actual Data that he is claiming as "true facts" including a total trashing of "straw dogs" of purported Liberal Positions that have little to do with much less understanding of actual Liberal Positions.

      So much of modern American Conservatism is based of a separate reality that there are so many actual facts contrary to their beliefs, that it gets beyond parody. I cannot imagine that a conservative that stuck to actual facts would not end up a strong Liberal, and several ex-conservatives from David Brock, to Bruce Bartlett illustrate well the process, but it is Liberal George Lakoff that lays out the two hard wired concepts that are shuffled in Childhood and lay the foundation that is modified by experience, to an overall clash recently given a mechanism, but going back through history as a part of the Human Condition.

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