The Old-Time Religion, Revised

by Christopher Manion Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation

Recently by Christopher Manion: A Catholic Looks at AustrianEconomics

The 2008 election season was just getting under way — a lifetime ago, it seems — when Don Devine, a longtime conservative and Reagan Administration official, decided to stir the pot. He emailed some of his conservative friends from the old days — the really old days. They passed it around and soon there were dozens of grizzled Goldwater groupies from the pre-Woodstock years pounding the keys.

What bait had Don used to lure all us Neanderthals out of our caves? “Hey, guys, in the 60s, we were all young and absolutely energized by Barry Goldwater. These days, Ron Paul seems to have really caught fire among young people. If you were young today, would you support Dr. Paul the way you did Barry Goldwater?”

Well, Don might have thought he was stirring the pot, but in fact he was lighting the fuse on a powder keg. It didn’t take long for it to blow up.

The battle lines were drawn pretty quickly. On one side, old-timers who insisted that Ron Paul was a crackpot, a GOP home-wrecker, or simply “nuts”; on the other, those who cheered him as the voice of reason in a party that had become increasingly mired in war abroad and the Beltway Hot Tub at home.

These folks were first-generation conservatives, not clueless party-hearty newcomers. There were so many veterans of Young Americans For Freedom that we quickly adopted “OAF’s” as our label: “Old Americans for Freedom.” Every one of us was a hard-core Reaganaut, but that was the only uniting feature that remained. The fur flew as every GOP presidential aspirant, ignoring the sitting incumbent, claimed to be another Ronald Reagan — except Ron Paul. Unlike all the others, he mentioned George W. Bush — and he did it again and again, attacking the war, attacking the Fed, and attacking big government in general — including Bush’s.

Jeb Bush recently observed with a hint of relief that Brother George has been silent ever since the debacle of 2008. Meanwhile, with each passing year, Ron Paul took his message on the road, attracting ever more adherents. Today his analysis of the GOP Establishment that tried to stuff him down the Memory Hole has proven so sound that it has become an inspiration. A resurgent conservative movement might be coming home, back from its big-government detour and fully determined to defend the conscience that Barry Goldwater made famous.

The Reconstruction of Political Theory

Today’s conservatives are adrift because they have lost their vocabulary — and thus their voice. They speak in terms that liberals have defined. “Illegal” is now a forbidden racist slur. “Sodomy” is homophobic. “Marriage” is a symbol to be hijacked (hence the concession to append “traditional”). “Cuts” are greed incarnate. Even Natural Law is a lightning rod, as Judge Clarence Thomas found out during his confirmation hearings.

When Barry Goldwater died in 1998, the New York Times obit called him “recklessly candid.” Today, refreshing candor has given way to the “gaffe” — truths, spoken by mistake.

DoubleSpeak rules.

As Vladimir Ilyich Lenin asked, What Is To Be Done? Well, Confucius insisted that, to recover from social collapse, one must first restore the proper meaning of words. This is not the task of the politician — it is pre-political. But liberty cannot survive without it.

Lenin knew the enemy — in this case, Confucius. A hundred years ago, he proclaimed that the Communist Party was the “Vanguard of the Proletariat” that represented the true interests of the working class. Thus the Party, with the seal of approval of Marx’s Laws of History, was by definition superior to the proletariat — and to everyone else. That definition conferred upon the Party power without limits. If the workers didn’t agree, they had to be convinced — or eliminated.

Lenin’s magical formula resonated Rousseau’s famous dictum that those who resist the General Will must be “forced to be free.” This intellectual patrimony of the Left must be firmly understood if today’s conservatives desire to overthrow it (yes, “overthrow”: persuasion is out of the question). And no one has done more to articulate that task than my old friend and colleague, Dr. Angelo Codevilla.

Three years ago Codevilla authored a masterful essay entitled “America’s Ruling Class.” In the spirit of Aquinas’ via negativa, he made clear what his task was not: namely, a defense of the Republican Party.

A master theoretician, Codevilla’s approach reflects Eric Voegelin’s dictum that theory cannot be the slave of a party. Theory seeks truth, which, as Aquinas points out, is adaequatio intellectus et rei — conformity between the intellect and reality (ST I, I, q. 21, a. 2c).

Codevilla’s Ruling Class is hardly “in conformity with reality.” In fact, the method of its self-appointed elites in both parties is softly but firmly Leninesque:

The ruling class is keener to reform the American people’s family and spiritual lives than their economic and civic ones. It believes that the Christian family (and the Orthodox Jewish one too) is rooted in and perpetuates the ignorance commonly called religion, divisive social prejudices, and repressive gender roles, that it is the greatest barrier to human progress because it looks to its very particular interest — often defined as mere coherence against outsiders who most often know better. Thus the family prevents its members from playing their proper roles in social reform. Worst of all, it reproduces itself.

Lenin’s Party “represented” the interests not of the proletariat — a term derived from Marx’s imagination — but of the Party, which sought to gain power and to keep it, period.

Just like the Ruling Class.

The Elitist Temptation

In his 2010 essay, Codevilla’s notion of representation reflects truth, which has not fared well in the bipartisan halls of American power. Republicans regained the House later in 2010.

Did it help?

No. In a new sequel targeting “Country Club Republicans,” Codevilla points to the simple truth that the GOP leadership no longer represents the majority of the party, or even the majority of the party’s congressional majority. To dissent is to invite scorn: “The civilization of the ruling class does not concede that those who resist it have any moral or intellectual right, and only reluctantly any civil right, to do so. Resistance is illegitimate because it can come only from low motives.” (Rousseau called such “low motives” Le Volonté de Tous — what the people want, not what the all-powerful Sovereign wants for them.)

Codevilla touches a raw Republican nerve when he observes that “modern big government is an interest group in and of itself, inherently at odds with the rest of society.” In other words — specifically, those of Federalist 10 — government is a faction. Thus Lincoln’s brilliant but flawed construct — “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” — comes crashing down on the rocks of reality: to consecrate omnipotent government, Lincoln was reaching beyond the eschaton, to the perfect and loving rule of Christ (who also happens to be omnipotent). In that sense, so was George W. Bush when after 9-11 he promised to “rid the world of evil.”

Alas, that claim defied constitutional limits, justified the explosion of government power, and wrought the destruction of the GOP.

While he flogs the smug elitism of the “Ruling Class,” Codevilla quietly bypasses the neoconservatives, a profoundly scornful and self-promoting faction, so powerful that it scares the Ruling Class a lot more than the people do. But that’s because neoconservatives and the ruling class both vie for power. To the Ruling Class, the neocons are competition; to both, the people are the enemy.

Codevilla’s analysis should be read in full by frustrated conservatives seeking solid intellectual ground as well as bewildered Republicans still longing for the Reagan years. His analysis invites a discussion — OAF’s and YAF’s should have this conversation, heretofore forbidden, with their Republican friends. Ideas thus refreshed will have consequences. Codevilla calls them “revolutionary.”

Let us pray that they are peaceful.

Reprinted from the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.

This column is sponsored by the Bellarmine Forum, and distributed by Griffin Internet Syndicate and FGF Books.

Christopher Manion Archives