The case for conservative introspection

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher laments the current conservative brand.

“Whenever I hear the word ‘conservative,'” he confesses, “I’ve started to associate it not with principled, commonsense, trustworthy governance, but with obstinate, reckless, closed-minded assholery.”

“This has nothing to do with the standard conservative positions on abortion or gay rights. I hold those views,” Dreher writes.

“When I was in college, and first became a conservative,” he adds, “it was the liberals who had a reputation as rigid, doctrinaire, snide, and off-putting.”

At some point, conservatives began aping the left. “Rules for Radicals” became our bible. We decided to fight fire with fire. If liberals lie, cheat, and steal to win elections — if they engage in identity politics, claim the moral high ground by playing the victim, etc. — then so must we. After all this is a war — and all is fair in war.

That may be a smart way to win political battles (though, so far, it hasn’t been), but it most certainly isn’t conservative.

Conservatism is fundamentally a humble philosophy. Here’s what I mean. It is conceited (a fatal conceit?) to believe you (a dictator, a central government — whomever) can pass good laws and create a utopia on earth. Conversely, it is humble to acknowledge that something will always go wrong — that there is always a “knowledge problem.” This is a traditional divide between liberalism and conservatism — that conservatives know their limits.

Humble people also tend to be introspective — willing to judge themselves. Along those lines, Dreher quotes the late Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schememann, who wrote that:

To change the atmosphere of Orthodoxy, one has to learn to look at oneself in perspective, to repent, and if needed, to accept change, conversion. In historic Orthodoxy, there is a total absence of criteria for self-criticism. Orthodoxy defined itself: against heresies, against the West, the East, the Turks, etc. Orthodoxy became woven with complexes of self-affirmation, an exaggerated triumphalism: To acknowledge errors is to destroy the foundations of true faith.

Christianity demands its adherents to judge themselves and to repent. This is not seen as weakness. But today’s conservatism generally stresses the opposite.

One should never admit to being wrong.

Matt K. Lewis