Russell Kirk Would Not Recognize These ‘Conservatives’

by Circle or Line

The other day, I read a disturbing column by Bret Stephens, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editorial page editor, entitled “The Great Global Warming Fizzle.” In the column, Stephens compares concern about global warming to religion and characterizes such concern as “…another system of doomsaying prophecy and faith in things unseen.”

He goes on to say:

As with religion, it is presided over by a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate.

Mr. Stephens, in one fell swoop, is equally dismissive of religion and science. What kind of hubris causes one to have no use for either the knowledge gained from empirical evidence or the faith that has pushed mankind to rise above his base instincts?

This type of egotism seems to be running rampant among those—particularly in the right-wing media—who profess to be conservative. I believe this unfortunate phenomenon is the by-product of traditional conservatism being shoved aside by a radical, libertarian-inspired ideology that is deeply antithetical to traditional Burkean conservatism.

This ideology elevates personal freedom and financial gain far above all other values, and in doing so, empowers its followers to dismiss or even belittle anything that does not directly serve those parochial ends.

One of our nation’s most authoritative conservative voices was Russell Kirk, an author and political theorist credited with giving rise to conservatism’s intellectual respectability in post-World War II America. President Reagan called him “the prophet of American conservatism.”

In his seminal book “The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot,” Kirk pointedly described how the nation deviated from true conservatism in the 1920s. He wrote:

The United States had come a long way from the piety of Adams and the simplicity of Jefferson. The principle of real leadership ignored, the immortal objects of society forgotten, practical conservatism degenerated into mere laudation of ‘private enterprise,’ economic policy almost wholly surrendered to special interests—such a nation was inviting the catastrophes which compel society to re-examine first principles.

These words are no less applicable to the situation we have today.

Just listen for 10 minutes to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Mark Levin and you will hear private enterprise exalted with the level of reverence and passion typically afforded religious belief, and the accumulation of monetary wealth promoted as the ultimate measure of human success.

Ambition is good and necessary, but as Kirk put it “ambition without pious restraint must end in failure.”

Other influential conservative thinkers, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Richard Weaver, also have emphasized the dangers of, as Weaver put it, having all other “virtues subordinated to successful gain-getting.”

When you listen to the policy focus coming from the right, such as a gluttony-driven energy policy that eschews conservation and renewable energy but favors aggressive fossil fuel production, it sounds a lot like 1960s liberalism’s credo: “if it feels good, do it.”

Any restraint on material appetites, even efficiency measures that make a dollar go further, is the enemy of a political ideology that places a premium on material gain and immediate gratification. This is not conservatism. There is nothing conservative about waste and gluttony.

Kirk underscored this when he wrote, “The American conservative will endeavor to exert some intelligent check upon material will and appetite.”

The climate debate exemplifies how the right has veered dangerously away from traditional conservatism. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, regarded prudence as “first in rank of the virtues political and moral.” It is no more prudent to ignore the extensive research and conclusions of climate scientists than it is to ignore the diagnosis of a doctor. You might get a second opinion, or even a third, but you would not dismiss the views of every doctor that rendered the same diagnosis. Nor would it be prudent to delay treatment and continue doctor shopping in search of a physician who might tell you what you want to hear.

Stephens’ views on climate are typical of those who subscribe to what I refer to as “pretend conservatism.” His views are driven by a dogma and an egotism that results in a closed mind. There is no piece of evidence likely to alter his preconceived notions.

Conservatism requires decisions to be made on the basis of a clear-eyed and unbiased analysis of fact, and an adherence to values that have stood the test of time, not emotions stemming from a rigid political dogma.

The hostility towards faith exhibited in Stephens’ op-ed is as disconcerting as his egotistical dismissal of fact. It should serve as a wakeup call to religious conservatives.

The libertarian-inspired ideology that is masquerading as conservatism today is just as dangerous to religion as the secular humanism we find on the left. Traditional conservative values are being cast aside, such as humility, reverence, responsibility, stewardship and other moral principles—most of which stem from Biblical teaching.

The most fervent adherents to this doctrine, while giving lip service to traditional values, family and religion, will only accommodate them until they become inconvenient to their more immediate goals of gain and personal gratification.

The pro-life issue is one case in point.

A pro-life position is embraced in the abstract in order to not offend religious conservatives, but these pretend conservatives are not inclined to advance the pro-life cause if it would mean a departure from the “mere laudation of private enterprise,” to quote Kirk again.

In fact, many on the right support policies that contradict a pro-life position and would result in harm to unborn children.

Mercury is a well-known toxic pollutant that bio-accumulates and works its way up the food chain. It is highly hazardous to human health and poses a particular threat to the development of the child in utero and early in life.

Industrial emissions, especially from coal-fired power plants, are the leading source of environmental mercury, but there are many so-called “conservatives” who are trying to block Clean Air Act standards that would significantly reduce the amount of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants.

One supposedly conservative Congressman even went so far as to claim—against all medical evidence—that there is “no medical negative” to mercury emissions from power plants.

Why? Apparently because the coal industry is opposed to the standards—citing cost concerns and fear that it will lose market share to cleaner, natural gas-fired power plants.

Mr. Stephens’ op-ed is just one of many examples showing that what passes for conservatism today is a far cry from the real deal. Real conservatism may not be dead—most Americans still retain its core values—but the word “conservative” is being quickly redefined by the media on the left and right to describe a radicalism that betrays traditional conservatism.

Facing so many challenges that require taking the long view, including energy security and climate change, our nation cannot afford to have pretend conservatives in the driver’s seat. It needs real conservatives who are guided by traditional conservatism’s ethic of responsible stewardship, prudent forethought, and protecting the interests of future generations.

That will only happen if we start a whole new discussion about who and what is—or is not—conservative.

David Jenkins

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