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The Heart of the Problem

I began thinking about a topic for today’s diary a few days ago, and was heavily leaning toward a critique of Obama’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation and/or his second inaugural address from a socially-conservative vantage point. Then came January 22, the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Pondering the tragedy of abortion led me to this question: As a country, we’re facing some serious economic and social problems–some unprecedented, even–but what’s the fundamental problem?

Is it a failure to follow the Constitution? No. That’s a big problem, but it’s not the problem. Is it a failure to stick to strictly free-market principles? Again, no. That’s not the root issue. What about a failure to protect the unborn, to defend marriage, to uphold traditional values? Nope. Those are symptoms, but not the disease itself.

Our deepest problem is this: We have abandoned our “public orthodoxy” (as Willmoore Kendall would put it), rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Progressivism has slowly been chipping away at our constitutional and moral order because the early progressives won the debate over the question, “Is our society an ‘open society,’ or do we have a public orthodoxy?” They managed to impose their answer to that question (we are an open society) on our country through key Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Engel v. VitaleAbington School District v. Schempp), and have been gaining ground–sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly–ever since.

Now, the thing is this: Every society has a public orthodoxy; there’s no such thing as a truly “open society.” Even the progressives have a view of public orthodoxy (which, it seems, they’re largely unaware of). The real divide in our country is over what sort of public orthodoxy we will have.

The progressive public orthodoxy tends toward secularism–implicit or explicit, it makes no difference; the conservative viewpoint on the matter has historically tended toward a society rooted in Judeo-Christian ways of being and doing. Only one of those is compatible with a constitutionally limited government, strong civil rights and liberties, and market economics, and that, I am now arguing, is the conservative view.

All of this may sound quite abstract, but there’s a very practical upshot: The central task for conservatives is the reconstitution of our Judeo-Christian public orthodoxy. To put it another way, conservatives need to work tirelessly to resurrect one of the necessary conditions for a free society, a government which openly respects and acknowledges its indebtedness to Christian principles, as evidenced in its public policies.

So, does that mean that Republicans need to put issues like school prayer, the public display of the Ten Commandments, and religious liberty first? You bet. Does that mean the GOP should neglect economic and foreign policy concerns? Absolutely not. But I think any victories we win regarding, for example, entitlement reform, will be no more than short-term, unless we take aim at the heart of the problem, i.e., creeping (or not-so-creeping) secularism.

Now, two things come to mind:

1. Reconstituting our Judeo-Christian-based public orthodoxy will probably take a while, so it’s not a quick fix for the situation we find ourselves in. (But are there any quick fixes to our social and economic problems anyway? I don’t think so.) This means that conservatives will have to take the long view, but that’s sort of inherent in conservatism as it is.

2. “But you can’t legislate morality!” Hogwash. Every public policy, every law, every administrative decree  involves the legislation of morality on some level. Politics is about justice, about conceptions of right and wrong (i.e., morality), and when a government makes a law, someone’s idea of what is morally right is being enforced. Furthermore, the kind of laws made sends a powerful message to citizens about what’s morally acceptable in a society and what’s not. The “anything-goes-so-long-as-no-one-gets-hurt” society has never existed, and cannot ever exist. In this sense, civil libertarianism is nonsense.

We conservatives need to wake up. We’ve largely accepted (aside from a few pockets of religious conservatives derisively labeled “theocons”) that a public orthodoxy is optional, so per “Neuhaus’ Law,” our public orthodoxy has been proscribed (in favor of secularism). In the wake of that proscription has followed nothing but broken families, increasing numbers on the government dole, out-of-control government spending, spiraling crime rates, and the encroachment of our liberties. And that’s all we’ll keep getting, unless we start fighting to restore the Judeo-Christian foundation of our common life.

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