Hazony’s Conservativism: A Rediscovery (sort-of) reviewed
Before we go anywhere with Yoram Hazony’s Conservativism: A Rediscovery, we have to mark from the outset that what Hazony calls conservativism is nothing like what might pop in your mind as political conservativism. That is to say, Hazony is not talking about the standard Republican ideals set forth in, say, the 1980 Republican Party Platform :
Our foremost goal here at home is simple: economic growth and full employment without inflation…
the political debate in America has been conducted in terms set by the Democrats. They believe that every time new problems arise beyond the power of men and women as individuals to solve, it becomes the duty of government to solve them, as if there were never any alternative. Republicans disagree and have always taken the side of the individual, whose freedoms are threatened by the big government that Democratic idea has spawned. Our case for the individual is stronger than ever. A defense of the individual against government was never more needed. And we will continue to mount it.
This conservativism (what I will heretofore refer to as Reaganism) had an emphasis on personal liberties, the constraint of government, and economic success.
Against this, Hazony’s conservativism (which I will heretofore refer to as Nationalist Conservativism or NatCon) calls that stuff some version of “Enlightenment liberalism.” So mark that: when NatCon’s like Hazony talk about enlightenment liberalism, they are really talking about Reaganism. He also labels this “classical liberalism” and “libertarianism.” That might sound confusing to Reagan Republicans — being lumped in with libertarians — but for NatCons, these things are so close as to be plums and prunes:
Indeed, for decades now, many prominent “conservatives” have had little interest in political ideas other than those that can be used to justify free trade and lower taxes, and, more generally, to advance the supposition that what is always needed and helpful is a greater measure of personal liberty. (xvii)
Hazony’s point is that Reagan conservatives (or enlightenment liberals, or classical liberals, or libertarians, or whatever other title you want to give folks that would adhere to Republican party platforms through the decades) aren’t conserving anything.
First, many of today’s “conservatives” know very little about what it would take to actually conserve anything — that is, to propagate beneficial ideas, behaviors, and institutions across generations. (xvi)
So the central thesis for Hazony is that real conservatives — Nationalist Conservatives like himself — want to see federal power flexed in advancement of “older philosophies.” This is not the exhaustive list of how conservativism works, of course: Hazony makes clear that reclaiming what he calls “older” conservativism will require “rediscovering the history and philosophy of conservativism… the practice of conservativism… conservative government… the practice of being a conservative person and leading a conservative life” (xix). But The focus of the Nationalist Conservative movement and of this book is on political power, as the Five Principles of the Nationalist Conservative movement reveal:
Principle 1. Historical Empiricism. The authority of Government derives from constitutional traditions known… to offer stability, well-being, and freedom…
Principle 2. Nationalism. Human beings form national collectives characterized by bonds of mutual loyalty and unique inherited traditions. Nations will have different constitutional and religious traditions due to the diversity of national experience…
Principle 3. Religions. The state upholds and honors God and the Bible, the congregation and the family, and the religious practices common to the nation. These are essential to the national heritage and indispensable for justice and public morals…
Principle 4. Limited Executive Power. The executive powers of government are vested in a strong, unified chief executive (that is, the king or president) by the traditional laws of the nation, which the chief executive neither determines nor adjudicates…
Principle 5. Individual Freedoms. The security of the individual’s life and property is mandated by God as the basis for a peaceful and prosperous society, and it is to be protected against arbitrary actions of the state…
So even though the book runs all over the place in pursuit of a comprehensive conservative life (personal and national), the focused output of NatCon is that the personal NatCon lifestyle be brought to bear by national rule. The 5 Principles are all explicitly government-related, and most of the book is couched in a narrative of Marxist takeover of government. Indeed,
The sudden rise of the new Marxists presents an opportunity for a conservative revival unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. To be sure, we are witnessing a a spectacular and horrifying historical event. The potential for tragedy is obviously very great. But the extremity of this event can permit a process of rethinking that has been impossible until now. (xx)
Hazony sees blood in the water. Marxists have taken over institutions weakened since WW2 by an inordinate love of enlightenment liberalism (or Reaganism / liberal democracy). Now people are hungering for a real Nationalist Conservativism that is strong enough to re-order national life in a new (or what he would say, old) way.
I will not review the first third or so of the book, which is essentially a history of Fortescue, Coke, Hooker, Seldon, Hale, and other conservative writers. I was glad to learn of their writings. Conservative reviewers have said “is a superb and monumental intellectual history and exposition of a forgotten side of conservative philosophy.” If you want a concise rediscovery of English ideas of conservativism, then this is your book.
But I found the rubber-meets-road bits of the book to be the most wanting and thus most worthy of attention. In the context of a congregation which connects with worldly affairs through the lens of current events, their thoughts were interesting but ultimately irrelevant. Confessing that I am not a scholar in the political philosophers mentioned in this book, my goal is not to review the history of ideas he tries to present. Here is a humble view of the book from a Pastor’s perspective, one with my own parish and people in mind, with a goal to probe the meaning of this NatCon movement within the broader sphere of conservative evangelicalism wherein I swim. I cannot take up a broader review without more time and resources, so take it for what you will. My primarily focus is on Marxism, History, and, most importantly, Theology.
The selective narrative Hazony wants to present is half history-of-ideas and half actual-history, and the latter is the biggest weakness of the book. So much real history has to be left out, either by ignorance or intention, that the book ends up failing to present a cohesive argument based on actual American history. Additionally, when measured against the standards of traditional Protestant Evangelical theology, Hazony’s arguments for enhanced state power over religion are not only bad, but frightening.
I. New Marxism
What on earth is this new Marxism identified by Hazony and, frankly, lots and lots of online commentators and new people? Well, for one thing, Hazony claims it has taken over… everything:
An updated Marxism (calling itself “Progressivism,” “Anti-Racism,” or “Woke”) launched an astonishingly successful bid to seize control of the institutions that had been, until only recently, responsible for the development and circulation of liberal ideas… Indeed, by the summer of 2020, most of the important news media, universities and schools, big tech and other major corporations, and even the government bureaucracy and the military had adopted a policy of accommodating the new Marxism and advancing its agenda. (xiv)
Now, Hazony mentions Marxism and Marx several times through book, but oddly enough he doesn’t actually articulate even a superficial definition of what he sometimes calls neo-Marxism until page313. Why a proper outline of the main foil and opportunity for the NatCon movement waits until the book is 2/3rds over is beyond me, and leads one to wonder if a vague shadow as an enemy is more threatening than an actual one, but so it is.
Hazony argues that neo-Marxism is marked as follows:
their politics are based on Marx's for critiquing liberalism… and overthrowing it.
1 Oppressor and oppressed. Marx argues that, as an empirical matter, people invariably form themselves into cohesive groups… which exploit one another to the extent they are able. A liberal political order is no different in this from any other, and it tends toward two classes, one of which owns and controls pretty much everything (the oppressor); while the other is exploited and the fruit of its labor appropriated, so that it does not advance and, in fact, remains forever enslaved (the oppressed)…
2 False Consciousness. Marx recognizes that the liberal businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and intellectuals that keep this system in place are unaware that they are the oppressors, and that what they think of as progress has only established new conditions of oppression…
3 Revolutionary Reconstruction of Society. Marx suggests that, historically, oppressed classes have materially improved their conditions only through a revolutionary reconstitution of society of large — that is, through the destruction of the oppressor class and of the social norms and ideas that hold the regime of systematic oppression in place…
4 Total Disappearance of Class Antagonisms. Marx promises that after the oppressed underclass takes control of the state, the exploitation of individuals by other individuals will be “put to an end”…
The key point, Hazony says, is that “this movement uses racial and gender categories to describe the oppressors and the oppressed in our day” (315). So instead of poor/rich, as you might think with Marx, with neo-Marxist, Hazony insists it is all gender and race issues.
Hazony compliments traditional Marxism and neo-Marxism as having some appeal, that is, that oppressors/oppression do happen in free societies, and that Reaganites “believe that oppression and exploitation exist only in traditional or authoritarian societies, whereas liberal society is free (or almost free) from all that” (316). He rightly says, “but this isn’t true. Marxism is right to see that every society consists of cohesive classes or groups, and that political life everywhere is primarily about the power relations among different groups… He is also right that at any given time, one group (or a coalition of groups) dominates the state” (ibid). For this reason, Hazony sees liberals (Reaganite / enlightment liberal folks) as losing a war of attrition: “The Marxists who have seize control of the means of producing and disseminating ideas in America cannot, without betraying their cause, confer legitimacy on any conservative government. And they cannot grant legitimacy to any form of liebralism that is not supine before them” (328).
In other words, the LBTQ+ / “woke” racial agenda that Hazony identifies as being neo-Marxist will require that any “freedom-based” or “liberal” or “Reaganite” form of governance bow to them or be eradicated. How will they be eradicated? Hazony uses this term “delegitimated,” that is, by one party recognizing that the other one has a “right to rule if it wins an election.” (326). So to be “legitimate” a Reaganite/liberal government will have to bow to the LGBTQ/racially woke “agenda” (which is not exactly outlined in this book) or risk being resisted.
Hazony’s believes therefore an outright political war is required for Nationalists Conservatives to take that state power before Marxists. Liberals haven’t become wise to the Marxists “quite yet” (329) but that “liberals will have to choose between two alternatives: Either they will submit to the Marxists and help them bring democracy in America to an end. Or they will assemble a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices” (329).
I am not a Marx scholar, so I will leave the question of whether or not this is an accurate description of Marx to others, but I am puzzled by Hazony’s entire premise and conclusions in the entire chapter The Challenge of Marxism.
For one, there is no shortage of irony that Hazony seems to be indicating that NatCons are the oppressed class in a Marxist analysis. The entire chapter reads like a Marxist power analysis between social groups. I’ll just leave that there.
Second, the balance of power between Hazony’s neo-Marxists and traditional Conservatives is not some oppressor / oppressed relationship. Students freely choose schools and there are many schools that are not neo-Marxist at all. Christian schools abound. New ones start often. Conservative schools have new channels of large gobs of cash in their rejection of what they term “wokism.” Liberty University is — I cannot stress this enough — MASSIVE. Other areas of life that Hazony indicates have been taken over are anything but taken over: most goods-producing large corporations are divided between very conservative, extremely conservative, and somewhat conservative, with really media companies and big tech being consumed by DEI trainings and “woke” output. The nation itself is closely divided, with many states being wholly consumed not just with liberal Reaganites but with solid NatCon types as he has described. There is no complete takeover. Even our largest media companies are increasingly explicitly anti-Marxist! Finally, the largest and oldest institutions in America are not neo-Marxist by any means, and by that I mean the religious institutions. However much people may decry a “woke” pope, Francis has been quite traditional on abortion, sexual ethics, and LGBTQ issues. The Evangelical church sector remains the largest branch of Protestantism, and it is not only conservative in the NatCon sense but voting increasingly conservative with each subsequent election.
Third, the examples given by Hazony are rather small compared to the kind of wholesale takeover he is trying to describe. Just read:
Marxists were now strong enough to demand that literals fall into line on virtually any issue they considered pressing… the expulsion of liberal journalists from the New York Times… Woodrow Wilson’s name was removed from buildings at Princeton University… these expulsions and renaming are the equivalent of raising a Marxist flag over each university, newspaper, and corporation in turn…
Yes folks, that’s your neo-Marxist takeover: a big-city newspaper which has employed many famous actual Marxists through the years kicked out some journalists who went on to found extraordinarily lucrative and well-read journals, a university removing the name of an extremely racist president, and all sorts of other bad things that Hazony won’t take the time to describe but which indicate some massive takeover of America. The evidence of a takeover is wanting.
Lastly, the very problem that Hazony wants to fight has been fought rather successfully for a very long time with the very Reaganite (and even Democratic!) liberalism he thinks is lacking. As with the New Right media (which has made a boatload of cash), the liberal rights recognized by our Bill of Rights have made possible a fluid response within the liberal order that seems to withstand the Marxist takeover Hazony fears time and again. It is not centralized federal government National Conservativism which withstood the revolutions of the 1960’s and 70’s, but the concrete freedoms ensuring conservatives could respond to Marxism of any stripe by starting their radio stations (Rush Limbaugh), ministries (Pat Robertson), universities (Liberty), nonprofits (Family Research Council), political groups (Paul Weyrich), Seminary takeovers (Conservative Resurgence), and so on. Obdurate Evangelical institutions have maintained significant power and flexed it in significant ways outside of the paradigm Hazony sees as dominant since WW2.
Which brings us to the weakest point of the book: actual history.
As in, by trying to force real life to comport with the intellectual history of neo-Marxism / enlightment liberalism / federalism / etc, Hazony leaves out a lot of history and completely misstates other historical realities.
A first superficial point: Hazony’s claim that “by the summer of 2020… Marxists were now strong enough to demand that liberals fall into line on virtually any issue they considered pressing” (327) is denied by the reality of a raft of classical liberals who deny the neo-Marxist regime Hazony identifies and with the NatCon movement. So dissenters abide, and many continue to have positions of power of influence.
Bigger issues abound, the largest of which revolve around Civil Rights. NatCons seem to really struggle to figure the Civil Rights movement — a religious nationalist movement organized around individual liberties — and it never fits into their histories. Hazony is no exception. Listen to this, well, interesting retelling of how the Civil Rights movement went:
I admire the fact that the war against Nazi Germany, as well as the military service of over one million African Americans during the Second World War, moved Americans to repent and rid themselves of this ongoing injustice. (270)
First of all, America never collectively repented. The Civil Rights movement took the lives, blood, sweat, and toil of people motivated by a raft of reasons — religions, secular — on behalf of black Americans. There was no “ridding” of this ongoing injustice: the fight continues as the Ahmaud Arbery case, among others, reveals. Black Americans and their allies across the political spectrum (for no political group encapsulates this struggle en toto) have worked for decades to end racism and legal racial entrenchment. Explaining this away is not merely a slight to those people, it is a gash in the side of the historical argument of Marxism vs Reaganism/liberalism. The civil rights championed by MLK Jr, who was both called and investigated as a Marxist, were just a few decades later celebrated in that 1980 Republican platform:
Elsewhere in this platform, we set forth a number of specific proposals that will also serve to improve the quality of life for blacks. During the next four years we are committed to policies that will:
Encourage local governments to designate specific enterprise zones within depressed areas that will promote new jobs, new and expanded businesses, and new economic vitality;
Open new opportunities for black men and women to begin small businesses of their own by, among other steps, removing excessive regulations, disincentives for venture capital, and other barriers erected by the government;
Bring strong, effective enforcement of federal civil rights statutes, especially those dealing with threats to physical safety and security which have recently been increasing; and
Ensure that the federal government follows a non-discriminatory system of appointments up and down the line, with a careful eye for qualified minority aspirants.
Hazony’s ignorance of the complexities of Civil Rights vis-a-vis Marxism, liberalism, and whatever other title he wants to wrestle with in his intellectual history does real damage to his entire argument. Moreover, while he wants to differentiate “the persecution of blacks in the American South” from “the hardships endured by Americans of diverse national origins, or by religious groups such as Catholics and Jews” and from “the challenges face by women at the time,” the Civil Rights leaders were intensely invested in movements toward equal rights across the board.
Because the battle for equal rights does not fit into the intellectual history Hazony has laid out, he has to leave out significant leaders in American thought and politics who cut across the grain. No mention is made of Frederick Douglass, who championed religion, tradition, human rights, black rights, and women’s rights in significant measure. Theodore Roosevelt, whose speeches mingled Marxist interpretations of labor with nationalist tendencies and advanced the cause of labor rights against trusts, isn’t mentioned. How can you mention nationalism without TR? The thought boggles the mind. These men, who likely would’ve both identified with and articulated an ideal of nationalist conservativism much more coherently and effectively than Hazony, are completely ignored.
I could go one, particularly about civil rights, but the point has been made: anything not fitting the intellectual battle Hazony envisions doesn’t make the cut or, worse, gets altered. He focuses on Alexander, Burke, Kirk, Buckley, and the usual conservative standards while ignoring politicians and activists in the American context who mattered more and did more in America than those he cites.
One more egregious note: as he lays out his case for Public Religion, he says
The liberal doctrine requiring a “wall of separation between church and state” is a product of the post-Second World War period and is not an inherent feature of American political tradition. It should be discarded both with respect to majority religion and to minorities. (342)
Even the worst Baptist historian can rattle off the origin of the phrase he quotes: Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. President Jefferson was contacted by the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut specifically about freedom of religion and laws. They wrote:
Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty‐‐that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals‐‐that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions‐‐that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors; But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific.
Their concern was that the constitution did not protect against states which would make a state religion or make legislation limiting their freedom of religion. This was (and remains) a serious concern for Baptists. Jefferson responded incisively, as was his wont:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
President Jefferson may be a particular target of disaffection for Hazony, but that doesn’t give him license to recreate history here. The “wall of separation” dates back to the very debates in the creation of our union, and his suggesting it is some post-WW2 creation is misleading, at best.
Of course this brings me to the main concern of mine, which is the theology underpinning a Nationalist Conservative approach to government as Hazony presents it. Hazony takes up a strand of English religious history to define conservativism which is completely contrary to the American religious followers who became American conservatives. As VoegelinView notes,
Another thread of American historiography throws a wrench into the geographic and genealogical interpretation of American politics: Puritan and Cavalier, another famous trope that dominated American consciousness into the twentieth century… Hazony can’t offer… an explanation for how the rejection of Puritanism as part of the English conservative inheritance ends up being the geographic and genealogical root for American national conservatism since the Federalist Party dominated in the very areas where exiled English Puritanism found a home in the New World and often came from radical non-conformist stock. How is it that men of Anglican stock… ended up as American liberals while the scions of radical Puritans rejected by the English tradition of conservatism ended up as American nationalists? The ironies of America still abound.
The neo-Puritan movements of Evangelicalism have been both the most powerful in American Republican politics and the most dominant in terms of religious culture. That this movement is, at present, participating in the English tradition of Nationalist Conservativism as delivered by Hazony here is both ironic and questionable, given the theological priors of the puritan inheritors (of which I am one).
Two central problems arise: first, about the nature of the institution of church (what Hazony calls congregation) and second, about the nature of salvation.
Church is, in protestant theology, the body of Christ. Christ is the head of the body (Colossians 1:8) and the sole source of power, order, and life for the church.
For Hazony, informed as he is by “Anglo-American political tradition” (a phrase he uses over and over to refer to his Nationalist Conservativism, differences in that tradition be damned), the national adoption of religion is a moral imperative. “God and Scripture thus provide the political and moral framework what directs individuals and families, tribes and nations, toward what is true and right, while providing and overarching vision of a world of independent nations, all of them God-fearing” (196). Governments ought to support religion as one of the core tenants mentioned above, and the wall of separation is ignored entirely.
Anything different has apparently happened “after the Second World war” where “we see the emergence of a chameleon form of “conservativism” which accepts liberalism as the official framework within which the state operates, while insisting that conservative religion and morals should nonetheless be kept alive in the heart of every individual” (190). Again, the history is wrong (as I mentioned above with Jefferson), as the debate over the role and function of religion in American life has waxed and waned and, hey, even to this day I offer the Christian prayer at the local county board commissioners meeting. But, more importantly, the notion that the church needs the state to accomplish its religious purposes is contrary to Christian Scripture.
The Christian self-understanding of church is as a variously oppressed and dominant group, beginning in the book of Acts as a people scattered and carried through the Epistles as people marked by persecution. Through it all, the central operating feature of the church was/is the presence of God in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Churches had deep disagreements about various doctrines, and to the shame of the universal body of Christ, when they had power in various nations, they leveraged that power into violence to enforce doctrine. In many ways, the Enlightenment liberalism that Hazony so detests was a result of the Reformation understanding of religion as a response to the salvation by grace given by God, that doctrine could not be established by power (actual Reformed violence and power ignored here, kindly, thank you).
The idea that religion was kept alive in congregations which otherwise were not in alignment official state religions was not a post-war aberration in American history: it was part of the very founding of the nation! The Jeffersonian wall of separation was welcomed, not derided, by Baptists who had been hounded across Europe by the kinds of nationalist conservative governments Hazony might champion. Moving into the 19th and 20th Centuries, revivalism of family, city, state, and nation were viewed primarily as church functions which resulted from the work of the Spirit enlivening the dead souls of sinners. The nation could not do or encourage the work of religion in any way, shape, or form according to revivalists. Such was the place of God alone. The most a government could do is get out of the way.
The very weird “chameleon form” of religion is the one championed by religious conservatives in America for hundreds of years (not mere dozens) precisely because the theology of salvation belongs to God alone. The argument is better made, I think, in saying while a government needs good people to become Christians, no man needs the government to know Christ.
I think this is why Hazony cannot really grasp the uniquely American “striking innovation” of “the absence of any explicit mention of religion” (249). He describes this as a mistake, as “the failure to acknowledge God and religion was a mistake with lasting consequences, both for the United States and for the many nations that have taken their political cues from the American government” (ibid). Again, this is an error of history: the countries that have been closest to America have had the freest expressions of religion, going all the way to the American partnership with Morocco (compare it to most other Muslim nations). To this day the American State Department works to enhance religious freedom across the globe through numerous reports and diplomatic channels. He simply cannot seem to grasp that God does not need government to accomplish his spiritual purposes. Rather, he chooses government to enact his sword (Romans 13) as he sees fit. While Hazony holds that “whatever government does not honor is weakened by this neglect” (249), our bibles are filled with churches, families, and individuals who were hated by their governments and lived fully by the Spirit in ways most of us could never even dream.
IV. The Conservative Institution
My own take, as a churchman, is that Hazony does not understand the form and function of the church in America. We are a fiercely independent bunch, seeking our orders from God first before man or nation. Bonded as we are by loyalty to Christ and no king, we are free to critique our country, even fight it (as happened on January 6th, you might have noticed). Our commitment to Reaganite liberalism / enlightenment liberalism / whatever you might call FREEDOM (MERICA!) is not being destroyed by the neo-Marxists he sees creeping around every corner of power. American freedom allows that we receive these threats and absorbed them as the Blob might: they change our discourse, maybe shift our thinking some, but the baseline assumption of Americanism is not communitarian, rather, “leave me alone.” In the end, that thought reigns.
The conservative institution in America is not the government and never will be, not in the sense of English conservative thought which enhances government influence over religion and families. Rather, the conservative institution is and will be the Church, although folks will argue over which church. The church is that which points to tradition, the “God of our fathers,” and “the old paths.” Where people deviate from church, you’ll find in America that they inevitably end up making new things that are like church. Religion hangs over American in unshakeable ways, so that even as formal religious participation seems to wane, people still long for the divine and the numinous. As a good revivalist, I pray that the Holy Spirit will fill that need soon.
Amen, come Lord Jesus.