Conservatives and Liberals

I have just been reading the highly astute posting of Fr Jonathan Munn Blogday 2018: Oh! Grow up! Schoolmasters usually have experience in the shortcomings of human nature among children and adolescents who often find excuses to cover laziness and other moral failings. We are all expected to do our best in spite of all the obstacles we have in life and crosses to carry.

In response to this article and the events in the world in our times, I feel I need to grab the bull by the horns. I aim no accusations whatsoever in Fr Jonathan’s direction. He has had to deal with the so-called “liberal” ways of the Church of England and the modern education system in the same country. The issue we face is extreme polarisation essentially between two types of collectivist ideology, one calling itself conservatism and the other liberalism. They owe their origins respectively to the old order of Church and State, on one hand, and the revolutions of France and Russia against the Church and Aristocracy for their lack of concern or compassion for populations suffering from injustice and famine. Communism was fundamentally based on the theories of capital formulated by Karl Marx and refined by people like Lenin and various Russian nihilists and anarchists seeking blindly to destroy the old.

Today, in the UK, we face the probability of a no-deal Brexit, and our attitude towards it is formed by our world view – which caused us to vote “leave” or “remain” (I could not vote because I was out of England for more than fifteen years). Those two world views are essentially conservativism and liberalism, the second including various types of social democracy, socialism and commitment to green politics and ecology. The interplay of these two world views or “ideologies” has dominated the life of our country essentially since the early nineteenth century and to some extent since the days of the Cavaliers and Cromwell’s Roundheads. Sometimes, the revolutionary movement was far more fanatical in its religious ideology than those representing the old order. This is why we do need to be nuanced in our analysis and attempts to understand things.

When I speak of liberalism, I think of the noble aspirations that came out of Romanticism in the nineteenth century, seeking freedom and transcendence for the human person in a new “social contract” as Rousseau put it. To make things clearer, I refer readers to the Wikipedia article on Liberalism. Indeed, I am very much in tune with the early ideas of the French Revolution – until Robespierre took over and the guillotine did its grisly work. From a noble aspiration came a collectivist tyranny using the vocabulary of those it killed and banished.I do not wish to discuss economic liberalism or laissez-faire capitalism, because I do not understand it sufficiently well. I do however sympathise with a notion of moderate and regulated capitalism where emphasis is placed on the workers owning the means of production through cooperatives or small businesses. Distributism is an interesting idea, but I know of no successful and enduring distributist communities.

Modern “liberalism” is really the continuation of Robespierre’s totalitarian ideology rather than the love of freedom, our own and that of other people.I begin to drift away from the version of liberalism that becomes intolerant and fanatical. A later form of liberalism, as developed throughout the twentieth century, laid itself open to accusations of materialism and a lack of spiritual values. Various forms of conservatism including historical Fascism (the collective State above the individual person and his rights) believe that the liberal emphasis on individual freedom produces national divisiveness. In a religious context, liberalism tended to apply the Enlightenment to religious matters and refused miracles and the “irrational” elements of faith and spirituality. From the early nineteenth century the Roman Catholic Church and individual polemicists were condemning theological liberalism which morphed into some forms of Modernism against which Pius X fiercely reacted (see Sodalitium Pianum). Many are surprised when they discover that Fr Tyrrell’s approach was to oppose theological liberalism via Modernist methods (adapting apologetics to scientific progress).

The aspect that interests me in liberalism is the transcendence of the human person, the individual, and that person being free to enter into a social agreement with others with a mutual respect of rights. This is the antithesis of totalitarianism or systems that make the individual exist for the State.

Fr Jonathan has lived with this Jacobin kind of “liberalism” and found a benevolent conservatism in the Anglican Catholic Church, which has inherited more from the American Episcopalians than the Church of England. I have lived with intégrisme here in France amongst many traditionalist Roman Catholics and their lack of empathy or compassion with those who were not part of their exclusive society. I have settled in a kind of liberalism that formed the early aspirations of the Revolution and the Romantic reaction away from tyranny and cruelty.

This world is a difficult place to live with its lack of care or compassion. It is as unforgiving as outer space and the forbidding planets nearer our sun and further away from it. Earth with its kaleidoscope of colours is a very tiny object in this vast galaxy and universe. Foolish men have often speculated about going to colonise other planets. Even if we could get there and the chemistry was something like on earth, we as “refugees” from a world we have destroyed through our sins would not be welcome. Too much oxygen or too little of it would kill us. We also need water and organic life forms for food. Also, the aliens living there wouldn’t take too kindly to us taking their planet from them! So we would be cast again into the outer darkness where there would be wailing, gnashing of teeth, and no one to take any notice of our suffering. Do unto others as we would have done to ourselves – this is the fundamental principle of human empathy and Christ’s Gospel message. Christianity is the ultimate liberalism – but real liberalism.

These concepts of conservatism and liberalism exist and are uppermost in our minds. If I consider liberalism in the terms I have described above and with which I sympathise, I will do a little exercise of contrasting the kinds of conservatism we find in America, Europe and our own country with this liberalism (not the tyranny of Robespierre).

Conservatism reflects many aspects of natural humanity in common with many species of animals, the first being the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest. Life is a competition and winner takes all. The individual fears for his life and livelihood, and builds up a tribe so that those qualified to be in that tribe can survive. The extreme expression of this idea in America is the “prepper” who goes to live in a wild and remote place and collects an arsenal of weapons against any possible enemy. Mors tua vita mea – the exact antithesis of Christian martyrdom and the love that consists of laying down one’s own life. Many dominant humans (I will use the terms applied to animals like dogs) live by competition and winning. This instinct can be simulated harmlessly through sport, or in reality through politics and warmongering. The apotheosis of this instinct took the form of Hitler’s perversion of Nietzsch’s Ubermensch, the super race who would win domination of the world. However, conservatism comes in degrees and is not always expressed in the psychopathy of the worst criminals of history. It is not black and white – but a spectrum from one opposite to the other.

In contrast, liberalism (my kind), is self-consciously non-competitive and sees a more benign and kind world. There are bad things in the world, but humanity is essentially good and persons care for each other. The community is built through dialogue and compromise, through consultation and agreement. The aim is the common good of all and each person. It is not always easy to be optimistic, but we have to seek the good and distinguish it from evil and darkness.

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2 Responses to Conservatives and Liberals

  1. Rev22:17 says:

    Fr. Anthony,

    This chart of two world views appears to be the work of somebody of the liberal persuasion, as it presents the positive side of the liberal world view and the negative side of the conservative world view. In reality, there are positive and negative aspects to both and the snapshot summaries don’t portray either accurately. Also, many of the portrayals are not wholly accurate. I really would like to see a less biased comparison.


    • I have decided to get rid of the table, since I already recognised it as being too simplistic. After that, it’s the problem of meanings of words. Liberalism for me is the early 19th century reaction against both the old order and the excesses of the French Revolution and anything analogous to that worldview ever since. Liberalism in present-day America or the UK refers to women priests, the calling into question of norms of grammar concerning personal pronouns, what are called “identity politics”, minorities imposing their opinions and lifestyles on the majority, etc. In short, something like French postmodernism or the critical theory of Frankfurt based on cultural Marxism. It is all so polarised that a “less biased comparison” becomes impossible, as does all rational dialogue. That is basically what has struck me down as when trying to discuss with Roman Catholic triumphalists in c. 2011-2012.

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