By Robert Capehert
Beilstein already weighed-in on Jonah Goldberg’s recent column. But what interested me, and I hope my immensely fertile mind, is how much Goldberg’s point was a corrective to thinking on the political right in our time.
To understand this, one must read Goldberg’s column in its entirety. After debunking the tendency of those out of power — political conservatives, libertarians, etc. — to wallow in conspiracy theorist verisimilitude, Goldberg marches forward and attacks a popular conception of conservatism unable to dismantle progressive premises of the nature, purpose, and scope of government because, as Goldberg points out, it shares those premises.
This brings us to the flip side of the conspiracy theory — call it the redeemer fantasy: If only we had the right kind of government with the right kind of leaders, there’d be nothing we couldn’t do.
It’s been a while since we had a self-styled redeemer president. John F. Kennedy surely dabbled in the myth that experts could solve all of our problems, though much of JFK’s messianic status was imposed on him posthumously by the media and intellectuals. You really have to go back to Franklin D. Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson to find a president who pushed the salvific powers of politics as much as Barack Obama.
His presidency has been grounded in the fantasy that there’s “nothing we can’t do” through government action if we just put all our faith in it — and, by extension, in him. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, he tells us, and if we just give over to a post-political spirit, where we put aside our differences, the way America (allegedly) did during other “Sputnik moments” (one of his favorite phrases), we can give “jobs to the jobless,” heal the planet, even “create a kingdom [of heaven] right here on Earth.”
For Obama, the only things separating America from redemption are politics, specifically obstruction from unhinged Republicans and others clinging to outdated and vaguely illegitimate motives. Opposition to gun control is irrational because the “government is us.” Reject warnings “that tyranny is always lurking,” he told the graduating class at Ohio State, because a self-governing people cannot tyrannize themselves.
Much of the religious right and social/cultural political conservatism of the last 20 odd years has been of the redeemer fantasy Goldberg highlights. The problem with such a view of government is twofold. It decouples men and women from the true source of redemption; that redemption outside the carnal means of this world does in fact exist, and of a lessor importance, but still paramount secularly, such a premise is unable to dismantle the very foundation of progressive ideology.
We could say it this way: progressive ideology assumes theological thought outside historical and biblical context. Put simply, secular government as redeeming fantasy is not conservative, i.e., classically liberal. Government can (and should) do only so much. And the guidebook of those duties is enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. When it comes to those elements of life outside governmental purview — and they do exist — other authorities are to be sought.
This was behind Edmund Burke’s notion of society’s “little platoons,” mediating institutions which have authority where government and civil magistrates do not, and should not. In the 20th century, however, the mainline Protestant Church, and the neo-evangelical movement, both found much social gospel glory in the workings of government. Government was to be taken back by the “people of God” — despite the fact Holy writ is rather clear Christ’s mediation and nation is not America, but the Church where the Holy Gospel is faithfully preached and Word and sacrament is administered.
Outside such understanding, and within the culture war, conservative candidates pining for cultural conservative votes pander to such misconstrued understandings, and conflation of, penultimate and ultimate jurisdictions.
As usual, Goldberg hit a home run. And in our times of scandal and Obama administration incompetence, it is important to understand better, American conservatism goes beyond policy proposals, but in large measure concerns itself with a particular and limited view of government itself.