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Becoming a Conservative ... and After

Frank Freeman

I can point to one weekend when I went from being an apolitical born-again Christian to a being a born-again Christian conservative. That was the weekend, in 1979, when Francis Schaeffer’s film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race was presented at my university, Texas A&M. Francis Schaeffer, the founder of the L’Abri movement, was a Christian intellectual in the tradition of CS Lewis and Os Guinness, his most famous book being The God Who is There (1968). In this film series, Schaeffer proclaimed that abortion, infanticide and euthanasia were the most important issues of our time. And one of the stars of his film was the future surgeon general of Ronald Reagan’s administration, C Everett Koop, who had an Amish beard and always wore a bow tie. The only scene I remember was one in which Koop stood on a beach covered with a million plastic baby dolls heaped upon one another, and said that since Roe vs Wade, over a millions human beings had been killed by abortion.

It was at this point my conservatism became conscious of itself and linked with the Republican party, because it was against abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. They, Republicans, also spoke about God more and didn’t seem to be ashamed of him as the Democrats (except for Jimmy Carter) were. Franky Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer’s son, in his memoir Crazy for God (2007) wrote about how his father and his film (Franky was the film-maker) threw down the gauntlet politically and that at first neither party wanted to deal with it. He even says the Democratic party, because of its Catholic working class heritage, could have become the pro-life party but that the feminist movement countered that. And so the Republicans took up that issue and ran with it, getting the votes, for a long while now, of traditionally-minded religious voters.

Texas A&M was a traditional conservative school and while there, besides seeing Schaeffer’s film and hearing a lot of pro-Reagan beliefs, I also discovered a reading room where I could study in peace and quiet, away from the study carrels and occasionally frisbee-throwing yahoos in the new main library. This reading room was in the old library and it had a sofa, a couple of long wooden tables and two walls of books devoted to conservatism. Here were books by William F Buckley Jr, Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek etc. I didn’t have time to read these books but when I had to take a break from my own studying I would get up, walk around and sometimes go over and dip into them. The room was a memorial room for an alumnus who had donated the books to the school. The only title I remember clearly is God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” (1951) by Buckley, though I never read the whole thing. From what I can remember, his book is part memoir of his undergraduate days at Yale plus an argument that many of the professors there taught with a liberal relativist materialist philosophy (socialist too) that was at odds with the philosophies and values of the parents who were paying for their sons and daughters to go there. It brought howls of protest but I wonder how liberal progressive parents would feel if most of the schools available to them were ones in which mostly conservative scholars taught?

But after Texas A&M I went to Boston to get a master’s in English. At A&M, though conservative, I had also been, at times, afflicted by doubts and sometimes even mocked the conservatism around me. In Boston, surrounded by liberals, I became more conservative. I don’t know if this is the writer’s personality or just mine, but what galls me is not so much the party line but an unthinking party line, not seeing the other point of view. I did go to some sort of leftist meeting with a fellow graduate student, a lesbian feminist; there was a presentation about Nicaragua and the Sandinistas. I can’t remember anything about the presentation, but I remember saying to my friend, “Where are all the workers?” The only people there were eggheads like us. She smiled. What an odd couple we were, the lesbian feminist and the Republican Christian; I guess we were both True Believers; and yet the odd thing was I think we were both more open-minded than most. I didn’t go to conservative meetings but I bet she would’ve gone to one if I’d invited her.

What especially galvanised me, though, was a book I read at this time: Poisoned Ivy by Benjamin Hart, son of Jeffrey Hart, a regular columnist for Buckley’s journal, National Review. I think it was my generation’s God and Man at Yale. It described how a group of young conservatives clashed with the Dartmouth College administration over the journal, The Dartmouth Review. The way I remember it, Hart and his fellows, who included Dinesh D’Souza, lately under fire for his less than stellar family values, poked fun at the 60s counterculture-now-administration: they questioned the authority of the dominant liberals and the liberals tried to censor them. When liberal students would protest on some issue, these guys would have a tea party, dress in white suits and play croquet. What’s wrong with western civilization, they said. We like it fine. So did I, I guess. I gobbled the book up and subscribed to National Review and read some of Buckley’s books, and Russell Kirk’s. I didn’t have much time for politics, I was working on an MA in English but I liked to dress in tweeds and tie. I had always been a big CS Lewis fan and I was devoted to the work of TS Eliot (still am), both a Tory (as I understand it) and modernist poet. I converted to Catholicism, and most of the Catholic writers I admired ‑ Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh ‑ were conservative in their politics. Graham Greene wasn’t but though I admired his writing, I doubted his orthodoxy. I loved François Mauriac’s books too but did not know he was on the left side of French politics and I’m not sure if it would’ve made any difference if I had. He would have seemed, along with Greene, the exception.

I realise now that because my adolescence had been delayed I was undergoing a psychological rebellion of sorts. I started smoking cigarettes (Parliaments, of course), drinking, and I disputed with teachers who were big on Theory. And since I was in a liberal progressive environment, I rebelled against that. But I have to say, conservatism, as espoused by the writers I have mentioned, made sense to me: that we had to conserve our Judaeo-Christian culture, that politics was a necessary evil and government should be limited, that liberals sought Utopia through politics, that they thought life would progressively get better if we instituted the right policies, that social virtue could be planned. Whereas conservatives said government was there to protect people and let them go about their lives under the rule of law. That change should be slow and organic, growing out of the past, not breaking violently with the past. And since, on moral issues such as sexuality and abortion, euthanasia, the Republicans supported traditional values, I stood with them. I didn’t think much about social justice or the environment, although Reagan’s secretary of the interior, James G Watt, who, it was said, wanted to have golf courses in Yellowstone Park, was an embarrassment.

Now twenty-five years have gone by and I’ve married, had four children and find myself Independent, and voted for Obama this last time around. I find myself still leaning right on most “moral” issues but leaning left, and harder, on social and environmental issues. I can’t fully support either party. What changed? Part of it is personal circumstances, I guess, the passage of time. You become less idealistic (less a True Believer) as you grow older, as Thoreau says (I’m paraphrasing) the young man sets out to build a castle while the middle-aged man finally settles down to build a modest shed.

So I became less idealistic but I also questioned just how conservative Conservatism really is. It doesn’t appear to want to conserve the environment, and it seems to me it places money and the GDP above families and family values. I think the Republicans hijacked the pro-life movement; I don’t think it’s really accomplished much on that score. And then as far as a Christian conservatism goes, well, there is a lot more in the Bible (as well as in the Catholic Church’s social teaching) about helping the poor, the alien, the widow, the orphan, more in fact about social justice issues (a whole lot more, in fact) than there is about sexual morality. There are passages about the latter, as there are about lying and gluttony and other sins of appetite, but there are many more I come across in fairly steady Bible-reading over the years, about social issues. I’ve come to think that emphasising individualism and capitalism over community and justice is not really conservative, it’s just conserving the wealth of the wealthy.

Another vivid memory comes to mind: I was in a seminary (for two years I thought I might have vocation to the priesthood) and Pope John Paul II came out with an encyclical (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987) that criticised the East for repressive governments and gulags but also had very harsh words for the West, attacking it for using so much of the world’s resources, for its greed and culture of death (not just abortion but capital punishment), its lack of social justice and values. I read the encyclical before going to a panel discussion, one member of which was the conservative Catholic writer George Weigel. At one point someone said something about how harsh the pope had been with the West. I had been heartened by this criticism, not because I agreed with the so-called Blame America First mentality, but because I thought it was part of the business of the Vicar of Christ to be a prophet and to call all countries to account for their failures. And I thought too that the pope had criticised the West rather severely. Weigel shook his head and smiled knowingly. He knew the pope personally and could assure us that the pope was pro-West. I can’t remember all he said but I remember a feeling of anger rising in me and I wanted to stand up and say, I read the encyclical and that’s not what it said. But I didn’t. Perhaps that was my first step back, though, toward the middle ground.

The appeal of conservatism in the US seems to me to be due to partly a nostalgia for the 50s and early 60s, when things were booming and when things were seemingly stable, whites were on top, black and other minorities could move up but slowly; men and women knew that their roles were ‑ men were primarily the breadwinners, women the homemakers. Most people believed in some form of Judaeo-Christian religion. You knew where you were. The 60s cracked all this open and conservatism arose to slow down, if it could, the speed of the changes and at times the very changes themselves. So conservatism is partly nostalgia for all this.

But part of it is also a genuine belief in what has been called the permanent things, right and wrong and the idea of individual and communal freedom. Conservatives don’t want federal courts and/or bureaucracies telling them what to do or believe. They have a deep attachment to the idea of state’s rights. States should have the right to say whether abortions can be performed within their borders, whether same-sex couples can marry, and whatever else happens within their borders. There is a genuine feeling that in 1973 the Supreme Court rammed the legality of abortion down the nation’s throat and that the courts are doing the same now with same-sex marriage. It doesn’t help the cause of course that one of the pet issues in the past was that states had the right to allow slavery.

I remember being in the lunchroom of a bookstore near Boston in the late 90s and talking with my co-workers about some political controversy. Maybe it was just the election (Clinton vs Dole) and even though I tended to agree with my co-workers at the time I started feeling angry at their unthinking party line and how they thought of anybody between the east and west coasts as ignoramuses. I said something to the effect that, you know, guys, there are a whole lot of people that live in Texas and Nebraska and Missouri who are very different from you and think very differently from you. And they really are sincere. My liberal progressive co-workers stopped for a moment and stared at me. So what, their look said.

And it works the other way around although I have to say in my experience, which is limited I admit, that conservatives are more open-minded and less prone to want to censor others than liberals. I have often found a bitter edge to some liberals that I find it hard to account for. They really hate George W Bush; they hate anyone who disagrees with them. A former professor of mine, now a friend, says that in the English Department where he works, the rancour of the liberals for the conservatives continually astounds him. I think WH Auden was onto something similar when he mentioned that many progressive friends of his conducted their love lives like fascists and when he called the gay lobby “the homintern”.

I have often wondered if this phenomenon happens because in general conservatives are more religious people. They have their faith to fall back on, whereas many liberals have often, it seems to me, made politics their religion. That is what will save us, these people think. I do, however, have to also acknowledge that many conservatives hate Obama as much as or more than liberals hated Bush. A racial component to this hatred is obvious.

As far as the most recent mid-term elections go, I’m not sure I have anything original to say. It seems to me there is a pendulum in our politics that swings back and forth, both in the short term and the long term (or there are two pendulums that sometimes coincide and sometimes don’t) between conservative and liberal. The swing right in the mid-term elections, aside from the pendulum effect, can also be accounted for by the economy not recovering as fast as people would like, and by the debacle of the Obama's healthcare roll-out. I’m not sure the influx of cash into the campaigns due to the Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision affected the elections because according to things I’ve read, the Democrats spent as much as the Republicans.

Perhaps though the swing right here is partly for the same reasons as the renewal of fascist sentiment in Europe (especially Greece) only in a milder form. Conservatives say the Democratic politicians are predominantly lawyers, the Republicans, businessmen. Do you want lawyers or businessmen running your government? Our Republican governor in Maine is touted as a “businessman who gets things done”. Well, I’ve got an idea. How about having some statesmen and women, whatever their background, dedicated to the common good, not that of other lawyers or businessmen. Some point out that Americans tend to be Republican on a national level (government doesn’t solve the problem, it is the problem, as Reagan said) but Democratic on a local level (everyone wants a piece of the pie). These mid-term results are not unusual for the US, in fact this is usually what happens ‑ the part opposing the part in power usually does better at the mid-terms. However, the scary thing for me is that the two Republicans who are now going to be the chairs overseeing environmental committees in the House and Senate are both a disaster as far as climate change goes. The new House chairwoman, from Alaska, doesn’t think it’s our fault at all, and the Senate chairman has been denying climate change for twenty years.

I have slowly moved leftward over the years, which doesn’t look good for me if Churchill’s dictum is true, that if you are not a liberal when young you have no heart but if you are not a conservative when older you have no brain. I remember in a political science class at Texas A&M we had to read a book called Gideon’s Trumpet (1964) by Anthony Lewis, no conservative. One point of that book was that the American system was set up so that, in a sense, it would not work too smoothly. You would have three separate branches that would balance each other. There would have to be compromise. Give and take. The problem now is that this idea of not working smoothly has gone too far. Republican strategy, led by Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, during Obama’s terms, has been almost totally obstructive. And now they are leading efforts to make it harder to vote: is there anything less American?

1/12/2014

Frank Freeman’s poetry has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Tiger’s Eye, The Aroostook Review and The Axe Factory. His book reviews have appeared in America Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, Commonweal, The Literary Review and The Rumpus, among others. His story “The Snowstorm” can be found in the current St. Katherine’s Review.

 

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