It’s actually the liberal Catholics, not the conservative ones, who are always trying to get back to the fifties. During most of the time since the eighteenth century, it has been obvious that Christianity and liberalism are incompatible ideals, and the great debate in Western civilization is which should triumph and which should be vanquished. “The fifties” (say 1945-1965) were a brief, historically aberrant period when it appeared that these two forces could be reconciled and work together for “social justice” and against “totalitarianism”. Liberal Catholics I know are genuinely pained by the collapse of America’s New Deal alliance. Although they take liberal positions on abortion, sodomy, and the like, they dislike these fights, and they wish they could be overcome as quickly as possible (by the defeat of the Catholic position, of course) so that America could return to the wealth redistribution fights they relish more.
Of course, the old Democratic alliance of liberals, southerners, negroes, and Catholic workers was unsustainable. The logic of modernity was against it. The Democrats have reconciled their contradictions by becoming a straightforwardly Leftist party. The logic of the French Revolution is inescapable. Some thought that America was exempt from this logic. This was the idea of “American exceptionalism”, and it also is nothing but nostalgia. The Exceptionalists believed that America is a magical land where the principle of noncontradiction does not apply, and Christianity and liberalism can live side by side and even inhabit the same minds. Of course, it was not so. The issues facing us are the same as those facing the Europeans, and there are only two ultimate positions. The Democrats are now unmistakably part of the anticlerical, Jacobin international movement.
Rather than face this logic, the Republicans have opted for a nostalgia of their own, as evidenced by their bizarre rhetorical fixation on entrepreneurs and business owners, as if they didn’t realize that in America for the last century and a half most people have been employees. It’s not that Republicans have decided they want to attack big business and free trade and return to an economy of small farms and artisans–which may or may not be a good idea, but at least starts from an acknowledgement of reality as it is; it’s more a case of pretending that the America of the age of Thomas Jefferson still exists and that the main thing threatening it is Democratic over-regulation.
Reactionaries are the ones most often accused of nostalgia, and it is no doubt true that we regard the past as in many ways superior to the present, not simply in virtue of being the past, but in virtue of being more Christian, more communal, and having a healthier appreciation for sex differences. However, we are in a key sense more fitted to our time than liberal Catholics, in that the battles of the day over contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce are the ones we want to fight, the ones that most directly touch our ideological core. We don’t think the contest between liberalism and Christianity is a big misunderstanding or a distraction from the real issues. We see it as the one ultimate issue, the war in heaven replayed on Earth. I myself have little interest in any public issue that does not touch this great debate, meaning that I see the issues that stirred publics of most previous ages as being of far lesser importance than the great contest of my own age. I am in that sense a man of my time.
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