Jerry Muller, the author of Conservatism, has given me permission to reprint an article of his that might be of interest to readers of this website, “Dilemmas of Conservatism,” The Public Interest Number 139, Spring, 2000.
Conservatism and orthodoxy
What commonly goes by the name “conservatism” in the contemporary United States is an alliance of those who hold two sorts of worldviews which are quite distinct, and which inevitably come into tension from time to time. When conservatism is defined (as it was by Russell Kirk) by the assumption “that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society,” the conceptual waters are muddied in a way that may be politically expedient but is intellectually obfuscating. For the notion that human institutions should reflect some transcendent order is shared by a variety of non-conservative religious ideologies, and was contested by some of the most significant and influential conservative thinkers, beginning with David Hume. Kirk’s definition might better be termed “orthodox” — a term which reflects its self-understanding as keeper of the true faith. Peter Berger once distinguished “conservatives by faith” from skeptical “conservatives by lack of faith,” which corresponds to the distinction between orthodoxy and conservatism suggested here.
The orthodox theoretician defends existing institutions and practices because they are metaphysically true: the truth proclaimed may be based on particular revelation or on natural laws purportedly accessible to all rational men. The conservative theoretician defends existing institutions above all because they are thought to have worked rather well and been conducive to human happiness. For the conservative, the historical survival of an institution or practice —be it marriage, monarchy, or the market—creates a prima facie case that it has served some human need. For conservatives, the very existence of institutions and traditions creates a presumption that they have served some useful function. In addition, conservatives tend to be acutely sensitive to the costs of radical change. Elimination or radical reconstruction of existing institutions may lead to harmful, unintended consequences, conservatives argue, because social practices are interlinked, such that eliminating one will have unanticipated negative effects on others….
Thus, although orthodox and conservative thinkers may sometimes reach common conclusions, they reach those conclusions by different intellectual routes.
Yet the distinction between conservatism and orthodoxy is often elided in conservative self-representations, at times because conservative thinkers may regard it as useful for most people to believe that existing institutions correspond closely to some ultimate, unchanging or transcendent truth. The recurrent conservative temptation is to declare preferred policies “self-evident” or a product of “natural law,” deviation from which can only be explained by a debased understanding. That, for example, divorce was self-evidently at odds with natural law for Catholics but not for Protestants, or that artificial contraception was self-evidently abhorrent to Anglicans in 1850 but not in 1950, might call the assured certainty of such judgments into question. That is precisely why advocates of each position strive to banish the alternative from the mental horizons of their adherents, to maintain what Peter Berger has called the “plausibility structure” of their assumptions, to reinforce the taken-for-granted quality of their beliefs. But it also creates the potential for tension between conservative analysts, who are aware of the partial contingency of moral norms — their dependence upon institutional structure which vary over time and space — and the religiously orthodox, for whom the admission of such contingency may seem tantamount to nihilism, if not heresy.
There is no necessary link between conservatism and religious belief. Devout Christians or Jews have embraced a variety of political viewpoints, including liberalism, socialism, and nationalism, while many of the most distinguished conservative theorists have been agnostics or atheists. Conservatism arose in good part out of the need to defend existing institutions from the threat posed by “enthusiasm,” that is religious inspiration which seeks to overturn the social order. At the cradle of conservatism, then, lies the recognition that the religiously self-assured can be dangerous. The critique of religious enthusiasm, which was central to Hume’s conservatism, was later extended, first by Hume himself and more emphatically by Burke, into a critique of political radicalism. When, during the twentieth century, conservative thinkers chastised communism and fascism as forms of political millenarianism, they took for granted that political millenarianism of a more religious sort was a potentially dangerous force.
Yet if some conservatives have questioned the veracity of religion, most have tended to affirm its social utility. They have made several arguments for the utility of religion: that it legitimates the state; that the hope of future reward offers men solace for the trials of their earthly existence and thus helps to diffuse current discontent which might disrupt the social order; and above all that belief in ultimate reward and punishment leads men to act morally by giving them an incentive to do so (a proposition long shared by liberals, such as John Locke or Adam Smith).
Recognition of the social utility of religion is no reflection its truth or falsity. It is quite possible to believe that religion is false but useful: in such cases, conservatives may approach the claims of orthodoxy with strategies which may be termed tact, prudence, esotericism, or noble lying. But it is also possible to believe that religion is both useful and true, as Aquinas or Maimonides maintained (though in the latter case, much of what his coreligionists regarded as true was regarded by Maimonides as superstition or idolatry). Or one may believe that religion is “true” in a more rational and universalistic sense than in its particular, historical embodiments, but that those particular embodiments are necessary to make religion accessible to the mass of citizens in a way which is less rationalist and abstract than more intellectual and intelligent versions of the faith. As Burke put it, “Superstition is the religion of feeble minds; and they must be tolerated in an intermixture of it, in some trifling or some enthusiastic shape or other, else you will deprive weak minds of a resource found necessary to the strongest.”
There are, nevertheless, intrinsic tensions in the alliance between orthodoxy and conservatism, tensions which may remain latent or become manifest depending on the political constellation. In the eyes of conservatives, the orthodox lack intellectual sophistication: Their self-assurance about the answers comes from not having thought hard enough about the questions, from not comprehending the partial or problematic sources of their views. In the eyes of the orthodox, conservatives appear as cynical, as lacking in real conviction, which they believe can only come from acknowledging the absolute source of values….
There are inevitable tensions on both sides. At some point, the orthodox tire of assurances that their program is useful: They want universal acknowledgment that it is true, and the stronger their power relative to other conservative forces, the more this will be the case. (The perceived electoral power of the Christian Right in Republican primaries, for example, made the confession of the born-again experience of Jesus Christ de rigeur among Republican presidential aspirants.) Calls of the orthodox for civil disobedience or revolution in the face of laws that they consider to be violations of morality are unlikely to find the same resonance among conservatives, as the controversy provoked by some of the contributions to First Things’ 1996 symposium on “The End of Democracy?” demonstrates. At some point, conservatives may buck at the level of implausible beliefs they are asked to affirm or abide, say “creation science” or the dangers posed by bar codes bearing the Mark of the Beast, or the repeated assurances that praying along with Pat Robertson during his television show will cure one or another physical ailment.