On Theism, Conservatism, and Being Traditional

Stephen A. Schwarzman, the CEO of the Blackrock Group, a global investment group, wrote a memoir that includes his remembrances of growing up Jewish in an affluent Philadelphia suburb in the 1960s. He recalls it as a comfortable childhood in a predominantly Episcopalian community with few other Jewish families, and although at that time Pennsylvania state law required saying the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the public-school day, he didn’t mind. Then a family of Unitarians (my own childhood religious background) in his high school sued in protest of that requirement, in a case that was decided by an 8-1 Supreme Court decision in 1963 striking down that state law and prohibiting the requirement of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes from the Christian Gospels. This was one of the milestones in the deconstruction of the “soft establishment” of Christianity in the United States and the emergence of systemic secularism as a hallmark of the American system in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

This all struck me while leafing through a copy of Schwarzman’s 2019 book today at our local Ollie’s discount store (incidentally, I had the choice time-wise of dropping by either Ollie’s or a college-town independent bookstore this morning, and chose Ollie’s because of its religious book section, low prices, and eccentric collection and customers, of whom I am sometimes one since they used to carry the Orthodox Study Bible at discount prices in large quantities).

Nearby to Schwarzman’s book was a discounted copy of George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility, which former Nixon acolyte Hugh Hewitt praised as a “wonderful” “magnum opus.” The book includes a chapter on why the conservative sensibility ultimately should be secular rather than theistic.

Will’s career, which overlaps mine only in that we both incubated for a while amid the University of Illinois community in Champaign-Urbana, integrates well with establishment conservatism in the U.S. in the past couple generations. And praise from Hewitt (who was an aide to Nixon in his post-presidential exile and also directed for a time the Nixon Library) reflects, like his presidential mentor’s career, the limitations and paradoxes of that American conservatism as much as Will’s book. Hewitt as an observant Catholic who is mainly “in” the conservative establishment like Nixon (whose West-Coast Quakerism found common group with key Christian Scientist aides in his White House administration), in his endorsement of Will’s book, ultimately comes down on the side of the secularism that marks an undoing to the American republic. It stands at odds with the “soft establishment” that characterized Schwarzman’s Jewish youth in the United States decades ago, but is of a piece unintentionally with the sexual revolution and other developments that have led to deep cultural divisions within the U.S., and to “culture wars” in which those adhering to theistic traditions native to American culture are often decried as aggressors while the framework for “both sides” is set by a systemic secularism.

An Orthodox Christian Bishop in America recently stated that the minority of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. naturally have conservative tendencies, but that this is not enough, they must be traditional, which is something different. With that in mind, we can take into account briefly here a summary of Wills’ views as representing the conservative side of things, and then reflect also briefly on the differences between that a traditional Orthodox mindset that is of necessity theistic and more than that Trinitarian, and why that basic is essential to the American republic, even as conceived originally in a non-Orthodox heterodox Protestant context.

Wills’ chapter “Welcoming Whirl: Conservatism without Theism” offers a denunciation of Russell Kirk’s view of theism as necessary for American conservatism. “Regarding the question of our government’s logic, the idea of natural rights does not require a religious foundation, and the Founders did not uniformly think that it did,” Will writes. “It is, however, perhaps the case that natural rights are especially firmly grounded when they are rounded in religious doctrine. So religion is helpful and important, but is not essential” (p. 473). Will in the conclusion of the chapter writes of his supportive view of Shakespeare as a secularist (a view with which I personal as a professor of early literature do not agree), who believed “that the meaning of life does not derive from any source beyond itself,” approvingly writing of facing “the multifaceted human condition without reference to transcendence but also without immobilizing despair” (p. 511).

This could be taken as a creed of the conservativism that the afore-quoted Orthodox Bishop cited as not enough for the Orthodox Christian.

But it is also, I would add, insufficient for what Will claims.

For the American Declaration of Independence includes in its critical references to God the term “Providence,” that of a sustaining and governing power, which ultimately can be understood as theistic, not just a “watchmaker” Deistic view easily discarded for today’s American systemic secularism. When Abraham Lincoln linked the Declaration so firmly with the U.S. Constitution, and sealed by his Second Inaugural Address from shortly before his death on the Western Good Friday, he further highlighted America’s founding principles to theism. “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” is a theistic underpinning. Most Americans of the day, including most of the signers of the Declaration and Constitution, were theistic Christians, and the Constitution itself was signed under the date “in the year of our Lord.” Despite the Masons and Unitarians among them, most were Trinitarian Christians of a heterodox sort. Subsequently, America remained a predominantly Christian culture, whose “civil religion” evolved by the time of the Eisenhower administration in the Cold War into a sense of “Judaeo-Christian” heritage with school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance “under God,” and “In God we trust” on the currency. However much the “soft establishment” of foundational Protestantism has been struck down, mainly by court decisions by more recently by the Congressional so-called “Respect for Marriage Act,” it remains historically a foundational framework of the Republic, reflected in the balance of powers and checks-and-balances and limited federalism and Bill of Rights in the Constitution still being fought over legally and bureaucratically.

An Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) leader said at a meeting I attended at the Confederacy’s longhouse in the early 2000s that America had borrowed much of its Constitution from the Iroquois via Benjamin Franklin and others. But, he said, a major problem of the U.S. was the “separation of Church and State,” by which he meant the lack of a spiritual core to its system, which he characterized as borrowing mechanics but not spirituality from indigenous cultures. Yet the biblical spiritual basis of American remains shadowed in the founding documents and suggested in the republic’s history, however fragmented. The Orthodox Christian standpoint, going back to the long-lived Byzantine Republic (as historian Anthony Kaldellis has called it) of symphonia, the inter-relation of Church and State, provides the Christian realization of what is suggested in the foundations of the American system. That is symbolized in the double-headed eagle of distinct Church and State nevertheless related and serving as a kind of check-and-balance on one another. The West has tended to make the Church into the State and now State secularism has become a type of religion to the detriment of the virtue that even the Unitarian John Adams saw as essential to the survival of the republic, given that Unitarianism in his day was still somewhat closer to historical Christianity in the Protestant genealogy than it is today. His son John Quincy Adams specifically would call the virtue inherent in a Christian sense of marriage as inherently essential to the republic as well. Conservatives like George Will, swimming in their own modern American cultural goldfish bowl, cannot fully reach toward the traditional in a cross-cultural and cross-historical sense, and in this also provide only a limited mirror for a deeper sense of America as a country with Christian roots, however heterodox.


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