This is a dilemma I’ve often seen posed on the internet, particularly at center-right sites. The United States is a fundamentally liberal country. It was founded by deist freemasons–in an act of rebellion against their legitimate monarch–deliberately for the purpose of creating a Lockean republic. All our traditions are liberal. Since the purpose of conservatives is to preserve tradition, in America, the job of conservatives is to preserve liberalism. Thus traditionalism in an American context is shown to be logically impossible.
Needless to say, I disagree with this conclusion, but it does raise an interesting issue. What exactly are American conservatives trying to conserve? The standard right-liberal, Republican answer is that we’re trying to preserve freedom, which is a sort of American essence. But is it true that freedom is all there is to the American nation? Is there nothing more to our heritage than the right to do as we please, so long as we don’t get in each other’s way? To a conservative, the answer is known a priori. America is not constructed on a social contract based on nothing but individual rights because we are sure that no society could be thus constituted. Americans pay lip service to freedom, but freedom is not, and cannot be, the principle that orgainizes our common life. Nor is the proposition that “all men are created equal.” No, the reality of American common life is not freedom, but authority.
People in other nations may be as free as we are, but an American is someone who is subject to a particular set of authorities. The first of these is the government, whose sovereignty is divided into its federal, state, and city incarnations. Americans use Lockean theories to justify their subjection to their State, but this is just sophistry. Americans are morally bound to obey their federal, state, and local governments not because they have consented to it, even implicitly–for to withhold consent would be an immoral act–but because they recognize these authorities as legitimate. This acknowledgment of legitimacy is what makes an American an American, and it is a primary goal of conservatives to establish this sense of legitimacy on its true basis.
It’s these sort of unspoken, unchosen, compulsary “givens” that American conservatives try to identify and defend. So, for example, another taken-for-granted fact is citizenship: some people are Americans, and other people aren’t. A foreigner can only become an American if the state chooses to grant him citizenship. Americans vocally espouse the principle of treating all people equally, but our unwritten constitution endorses the principle of particular loyalty. Another given is the judiciary. America’s laws don’t just reflect the will of the current legislature, but reflect a legal tradition developed over centuries. Through precedent, this tradition is another legitimate authority to Americans. A final accepted authority is that of parents over their children. This is so taken for granted that we never mention it in discussing America’s constitution. Yet, when a child runs away from home, the police will forcibly return the child to his parents, and nobody asks how to reconcile this with our creed of “freedom” and “equality”. Wisdom makes us hypocrites, because if we were to take freedom and equality seriously–as the liberals wish us to do–it would destroy our society.
The Founders were liberals who hated tradition and piety, but since their deaths, the natural instict of a people to revere its founders has siezed upon them and created the memory of the Founding Fathers. From this word “Father”, one can see that the attitude assumed by the population is one of piety. Piety is an important part of any community, and so the conservative endorses these sentiments, but his reasons are subtle and far different from those given publicly. The public reason for revering the Founders is that they fought tyranny and established freedom and equality. These are not reasons that will recommend themselves to conservatives; nor are they the real reason the populace reveres the Founders. A true believer in freedom and equality despises piety; at most he may agree with some of the Founders’ beliefs and approve some of their actions. No, a conservative knows that piety is ultimately a religious sentiment. We feel awe for our parents and ancestors because they are the source of our being, the channel through which we were created. Every act of creation confronts us with the mystery of being; creation is where God touches the universe, and those beings that God uses as his instraments of creation become icons of Him. What the Founders succeeded in doing was to establish a legitimate authority. In doing so, they created a principle of order in the minds of their subjects. Symbolically, they repeated God’s act of ordering the universe in the first chapter of Genesis. Americans feel awe for the Founding because the moment that the nation was created and ordered is for us an iconic event. One notices that the act that receives the most reverence in the minds of Americans is not some practical decision the Founders made or some brilliant idea they had, but a purely ritual event they performed. I refer to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an event painted and eulogized countless times. These freethinkers certainly didn’t see themselves as ritualistic men, but to found a nation, they performed a ritual. Writing names on a piece of paper is something that has purely symbolic effect, but it’s that symbolic effect that was the most important thing for American piety.
One can now see the ambivalence we conservatives have toward the Founders. Seeing them as men, from the standpoint of objective history, they were traitors who deserved to be hanged. Their ideas about the origin of government were ridiculous; their encomia to freedom were reckless. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a practical anarchist who endorsed permanent periodic revolutions. If anyone were to take his ideas seriously, he would be a threat to the social order. But people don’t take his ideas seriously. Nor do they take Jefferson the man seriously. In the minds of the public, the man has been replaced by the symbol, the object of patriotic piety. Jefferson has been “digested” by the social order. No doubt he would have regarded this as a fate worse than death. To the conservative, however, this is all to the best.
What about the rhetoric that Americans use to justify their devotion to the Founding–all that crap about “throwing off the dead hand of tradition”, “creating the world anew”, of being a nation “concieved in liberty”, “founded on the proposition that all men are equal”, etc? We don’t take it that seriously. We know that ordinary Americans lack a vocabulary to express the piety they feel, so they borrow the language of liberalism to justify it. Our ultimate goal is to give them a fuller vocabulary, so that they can express their devotion to their patria without the unnecessary ideological baggage. In the meantime, we must be very careful in critiquing these false ideas so that we don’t harm the true sentiments hiding beneath them.