KR BlogBlogEthics

My Conservative Past

Maybe I was reading too much T. S. Eliot. Maybe it was the gnawing sense of living in a world out of control—but when has the world ever been in control? As it turned out, the chaos pressing on me came more from within than from without. Whatever the case, back in college I decided I wanted to be conservative. I took to wearing my brother-in-law’s hand-me-down suits. My manner—on the occasions I could escape my usual humor—became more reserved, unless, that is, we were discussing matters of doctrine; then I became fiery. I read George Will.

It was quite a departure from my romantic adolescence, when I sat by the river writing poems in the sand, scribbled letters to my idealized crush living in another state, and read the poetry of Rod McKuen, Leonard Nimoy, and William Cullen Bryant.

I couldn’t really have said at the time—nor am I sure I can say now—precisely what I meant by conservatism. It was in many ways a cultural conservatism. Partly it meant striving for a classic ideal of virtue. Under the influence of a philosophy professor, I read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics the summer after college, and reread it the following two summers after that, believing that it expresses the kind of life we all needed to get back to—never mind that I had just finished my degree at a Catholic seminary, and Aristotle’s aristocratic ideals hardly accord with the radical call of the gospel. I loved talking about the decline of our culture, a seductive thing because everything can be fitted into the narrative—whatever is good must accord with the virtues of the past, and any departure is a signal of decay. This line of thinking had all the advantages of a nice conspiracy theory—finally unprovable, but the ability to accommodate anything; and I got to be one of the “good guys” simply by talking about the downward spiral of our world.

But I found that I couldn’t connect with other conservatives I met, and my friendship group continued to be mostly lefty and progressive people, nor did I want it otherwise. Maybe it was because I’m slow on the uptake that it took me years to realize that on the American scene, whatever else conservatism might mean, a deep and abiding belief in the virtues of the free market is central. That was something I could never embrace. I had read the church’s social teachings, going back to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, that every worker deserves a just wage, which should not be left to the whims of an unfettered market. Pope Leo said that he believed in a free market of sorts, though one that is well regulated; human dignity demands as much.

Maybe I came to this realization while watching William Buckley’s Firing Line and hearing the host appeal once more to the free market as a solution for a given problem and realizing that, neo-Aristotelian or not, I couldn’t go there. Probably Aristotle couldn’t either, though I dare say for reasons different from mine.

I’m not much of an Aristotelian anymore, though I continue to be devoutly Catholic; I guess some would call me a lefty Catholic, one who believes that the church needs women priests and should recognize LGBTQ marriages. It’s not that I’m naïve enough to believe the church will officially accept these things in my lifetime or anytime soon. But I do tend to think that much of the best progressivism comes out of a deep tradition and that the best tradition is one that keeps surprising its adherents, one that keeps subverting itself. Who knows what the church or the rest of the planet might look like a thousand years from now?