In a new article at Intercollegiate Review, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the current state of “idea conservatives” and their place in the broader context of American conservative thought encompassing an amazing diversity of ideological subspecies. But it is ideas and core principles, more than anything else, that informs conservatism and its various movements, despite the many fractures and fissures. Gregg makes a compelling case for rooting “conservatism’s long-term agenda” in the “defense and promotion of what we should unapologetically call Western civilization.” His article is the first contribution to ISI’s symposium, “Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can We Make it Right?” Excerpt from the Gregg article:

… as the French theologian Jean Daniélou S.J. once observed, there is no true civilization that is not also religious. In the case of Western civilization, that means Judaism and Christianity. The question of religious truth is something with which we must allow every person to wrestle in the depths of their conscience. But if conservatism involves upholding the heritage of the West against those who would tear it down (whether from without and within), then conservatives should follow the lead of European intellectuals such as Rémi Brague and Joseph Ratzinger and invest far more energy in elucidating Christianity’s pivotal role in the West’s development—including the often complicated ways in which it responded to, and continues to interact, with the movements associated with the various Enlightenments.

Such an enterprise goes beyond demonstrating Christianity’s contribution to institutional frameworks such as constitutional government. Conservatives must be more attentive to how Judaism and Christianity—or at least their orthodox versions—helped foster key ideas that underlie the distinctiveness of Western culture. These include:

  • their liberation of man from the sense that the world was ultimately meaningless;
  • their underscoring of human fallibility and consequent anti-utopianism;
  • their affirmation that man is made to be creative rather than passive;
  • their insistence that there are moral absolutes that may never be violated,
  • their tremendous respect for human reason in all its fullness;
  • their crucial distinction between religious and civil authority; and
  • their conviction that human beings can make free choices.

This last point is especially important precisely because of the difficulty of finding strong affirmations of the reality of free choice outside orthodox Judaism, orthodox Christianity, and certain schools of natural law thought. Beyond these spheres, the world is basically made up of soft determinists (like John Stuart Mill) or hard determinists (like Marx).

Read “Politics, Ideas, and the West” by Samuel Gregg at ISI.

  • Curt Day

    Why do we need to romanticize the past when talking about its Judeo-Christian roots? What did those roots contribute to the West? You listed the following

    1. their liberation of man from the sense that the world was ultimately meaningless
    2. their underscoring of human fallibility and consequent anti-utopianism
    3. their affirmation that man is made to be creative rather than passive
    4. their insistence that there are moral absolutes that may never be violated
    5. their tremendous respect for human reason in all its fullness
    6. their crucial distinction between religious and civil authority
    7. their conviction that human beings can make free choices

    But what does the history of Western Civilization reveal about the Christian roots of the West? BTW, considering the harsh persecution of the Jews throughout the history of the West, I find it difficult to say that it influenced by both Judaism and Christianity. You have centuries of European wars, empires, persecution of all who were different, and the theft of the resources of other lands. And much of this continues today.

    In addition, it seems to me that the liberties the West granted itself but prohibited from others are properly called privileges. And its abuse of others, consider the enslavement of Blacks along with its empires and ethnic cleansing of the Indians, does not show liberation and respect for all.

    Why the romanticized view of the West and its roots?