American Conservatism versus Pope Francis

Pope Francis leaving after La Messa del Crisma, 17 April 2014
Photo by Emilio Villegas via Wikimedia Commons
(MarketWatch) -- Then the Federalist, a conservative website, waves a red flag warning: “Don’t Pick Political Fights With Pope Francis.” Why? “Conservatives have everything to lose and nothing to gain from getting mad at Pope Francis for his public comments on homosexuality, global warming, free speech, and more.” 
Yes, conservatives warning Republicans: Don’t go to war with Pope Francis, you will lose. He’s got an army of 1.2 billion faithful worldwide including 78 million American Catholics. Francis will win. 
A huge army. More important, Francis has a direct link to a heavenly power source. As the 266th descendant of the first leader of Christians, St. Peter, the pontiff will be touring America this fall... 
read more here
Before you read the rest of the article, please read my comments here. This story is bound to really upset some American conservatives, and simultaneously fill many American progressives with glee. Putting aside the emotional reaction, please keep in mind that the columnist makes some good points. (1) Lord willing, Pope Francis will come to America, and he will likely speak about many of the things addressed in the article. (2) American conservatives will likely attack him for some of these things. (3) In doing so, American conservatives will be effectively attacking the word's most powerful and influential religious leader, and this is a losing game. They can't win. (4) American progressives will score a huge political victory, leaving American conservatives looking rather obsolete, close-minded, and somewhat anti-Catholic, or at least irreligious. All of this just in time to kick off the 2016 election cycle.

This essay is addressed to my politically conservative friends out there, particularly those in America.

Dear politically conservative friends; you can't win by challenging this pope. However, I will tell you now how to role with the punches that are soon coming with Pope Francis' visit to America, and limit any victory political liberals (progressives) might score. If you want to know, read on and take notes. If you don't care, click that back arrow button right now and move on to the next blog.

The first thing you have to understand is that Catholic popes have never been capitalists. Nor have they ever been socialists. Nor are they something in between. Rather, Catholic popes (for the last 120 years at least) have held to their own economic ideology based entirely on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you want to know what that is, simply read their social encyclicals, going back 120 years. Or if you don't have time for that, you can do a cursory review of an economic theory developed from their teachings. It's called distributism, and it is opposed to both capitalism and socialism. Check out the Wikipedia page on distributism for more details on that. What is distributism? Well, in a nutshell, it's micro-capitalism, meaning that popes believe that the best business is small business. Business should be run by families, independently, as much as possible. Large factories and industry should be owned by the workers as much as possible. The idea here is that each and every family should have as much stake in private business as possible. Ideally this would be small family-run independent business in most cases, but in those cases where large business is necessary, those businesses should be worker-owned cooperatives. Beyond that, the economic philosophy of the popes would include public ownership of those things that the public holds in common, such as water supply, natural gas supply, electrical grids, parks, law enforcement, fire departments, etc. In addition, the popes advocate a strong sense of social responsibility for the poor, weak and voiceless. This includes an absolute prohibition on abortion, along with strong financial support for mothers in a crisis pregnancy, as well as ongoing support for the children of crisis pregnancies. The popes do not dictate how this support should be provided, but only that it be provided effectively for EVERYONE who finds herself in this situation. Likewise, the popes support the poor, as well as migrants (aliens legal and illegal), calling for society to help them as much as possible. It's exactly the sort of thing Jesus would call for. You get the picture. Calling this position "communism" or "Marxism" or "socialism", as some conservative talk-radio hosts have done, is a losing proposition. For it is to call Jesus Christ himself these things. Over the last year, as American conservatives continue to do this, they have only successfully alienated Catholics (and other socially conscious Christians) from the Republican Party and the conservative movement in general. It's a losing battle. The only way to win is to STOP doing this.

The second thing you need to understand is that whether or not you agree with the theory that man-made carbon emissions are creating global climate change, and yes it is just a theory, it is nevertheless a theory commonly accepted by most of the world and the scientific community. Now the scientific community and the world may be wrong, but that doesn't change the fact that the majority still accept it. That means that for now anyway, conservatives are stuck with it. Conservatives have been attempting the battle this theory for the last 20 years, and the only people they've managed to convince are themselves. This is a losing battle, and here is why. Even if all the science behind man-made climate change is wrong, that still doesn't change the fact that burning oil, in the form of gasoline and other carbon fuels, pollutes the air. It creates smog, which is indisputably toxic to humans, animals and plants. (If you don't think smog is toxic, then you're not living in reality and I can't help you. Move on to the next article please.) So even if the science behind man-made climate change is wrong, to oppose it in favour of burning more fossil fuels, is to unwittingly come out in favour of smog! Now the average progressive may not be able to succinctly articulate that, and I find that most can't, but nevertheless the message is still there subconsciously. You can't win on this one. Everybody hates smog. Nobody will back you on this. People want to get rid of it, and some people look to the theory of man-made climate change as one more good reason. They figure that even if the science is wrong, the political move to reduce carbon emissions will help to eliminate smog, and that's a good thing. This is especially true if you live in major population centres, such as Los Angeles or Mexico City, where the toxic smog is so thick that it has actually reduced the functional lung capacity of all children living there, according to medical studies. Any attempt by conservatives to counter the pope's move against carbon emissions will result in conservatives looking like they are in favour of smog. You can't win this one. It's a losing battle, and a big one at that!

So here is how you conservatives role with the papal punches and come out ahead in the end. You must change.

No, I'm not talking about changing into progressives. What's the point of that!?! I'm talking about change in the form of becoming MORE conservative not less. Here is what I mean. Currently, the popular form of conservatism promoted in the United States (and embodied by the Republican Party as well as the Tea Party, etc.) is post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism. What!?! Yes, you read that right. The conservatism typically promoted by radio talk-shows, blogs and print media is post-Enlightenment Liberalism, or what is more commonly called "Classic Liberalism." Yes, American Conservatives are LIBERALS, in the most classic sense. By that I mean the kind of Liberalism that starts with John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Then it continues through the industrial age to its logical outcome in Laissez-faire capitalism, robber barons, and monopolies. It finds its conclusion in the objectivist libertarianism of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig Von Mises. Its chief proponents today are conservative talk-radio show hosts. As a student of history, let me make this perfectly clear. Post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism has seen its glory days. It saw them over a century ago. It is now on the decline, and the jabberings of radio talk-shows in America are its dying gasps. The rejection of post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism on economics, otherwise known as "capitalism," came about in two forms. The first was atheist, or humanist, in nature and took on the forms of Marxism, communism, socialism and fascism. The second was religious in nature, and took on the forms of distributism, Christian-democracy, and social-market economics. The latter of these, the religious push-back was launched by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. While the atheist or humanistic push-back has proved to be an utter failure, the religious push-back has seen remarkable success. It is ironic that most American liberals (progressives) oppose what is essentially Post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism. The political positions they usually adopt, as typically embodied in the Democratic Party, are only socially liberal (on such issues as abortion, homosexuality for example). Economically speaking, American liberals are neither conservative nor liberal. They are, in fact, just reactionary, adopting both the religious and humanist push-back against Post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism. This explains both their astronomical successes and monumental failures in the 20th century.

Throughout the 20th century, the religious push-back took on many forms, and even in the United States became embodied in such things as: antitrust laws, child-labour laws, minimum-wage laws, the 40-hour work week, worker cooperatives, credit unions, small-business alliances, trade unions, etc. However, it should be pointed out that while these manifestations are relatively new, the principles behind them are actually centuries old, much older than post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism. When American conservatives call themselves "conservative" they must ask, what is it specifically that they are trying to conserve? Is it merely the principles of post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism as embodied by well-known atheist Ayn Rand and agnostic Ludwig Von Misses? (Both of whom took strident positions against the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, and both of whom have been heavily promoted by American conservative talk-radio shows.) Or is it something a little more conservative than that?

Maybe the type of conservatism Americans should more fully embrace should be something a little more conservative than what post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism has to offer. Maybe American conservatives should embrace something a little more firmly rooted in Christian history and theology. Maybe it's something a little more, dare I say it? -- medieval. Ah yes, those dreaded "Dark Ages," happily named so by the children of the "Enlightenment." Isn't it a bit telling, and humorous, that those who would name their own period of history the "Enlightenment" would subsequently name all previous periods of history the "Dark Ages"? It's the epitome of both pride and prejudice if you ask me. However, most historians agree that those dreaded "Dark Ages" of medieval history weren't so "dark" after all. In fact, following the immediate troubles in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the continent that would later be named "Europe" experienced an explosive period of economics, education and civil rights unheard of in previous eras. In comparison to medieval times, the days of the Roman Empire were the real "Dark Ages." A continent ruled by Christian leaders, for all of their faults and shortcomings (and there were plenty), was still infinitely better than an empire ruled by brutal Pagans. The Romans were brutal to be sure, and if you have any doubt about that, go ask just about any Jew who is knowledgeable of his people's history. Jews have suffered much under the pogroms of medieval Europe, but it is nothing in comparison to the absolute slaughter of genocide committed against them by the Pagan Roman Empire and the Racist Nazi Reich, neither of which were Christian by any stretch of the imagination. (The Roman Empire pre-dates Christianity, and the Nazi Reich was an overt rejection of traditional Christianity.) As primitive as medieval times were by today's standards, they were a massive leap forward in all areas of human development, compared to previous eras. We often judge medieval times by our plush 21st century standards, with a hefty dose of Enlightenment prejudice to boot! But is this fair? Can we really judge an entire epic of Western history on such standards? It was the cradle of our modern civilisation. Everything we enjoy today we owe to our medieval ancestors. These were the people who brought us out from the Pagan tyranny of the real "Dark Ages" under the Roman Empire, and into what we now know as the modern world! It is telling that Americans know so little of medieval times. Aside from the caricatures they typically see in movies and television, they really know nothing of it. The average American Protestant couldn't tell you anything about Church history between the late 1st century and the early 16th century. That's fifteen centuries of missing history! That's fifteen bloody centuries! FIFTEEN CENTURIES! One-Thousand-Five-Hundred YEARS!!! Has there ever been another people with such historical amnesia? I suspect a good part of the blame could be laid on the doorstep of America's public schools, but I also suspect that a greater part of the blame could be laid at the doorstep of many American Protestant churches. Conservative talk-radio show hosts are no help either. For them, history only began 240 years ago, with the founding of the United States. For them, the "greatest hope for humanity" is our national Constitution and Declaration of Independence, not the Saviour Jesus Christ who died for our sins. It seems to me that anyone boasting of the name "conservative" should think long and hard about what it is he is really trying to "conserve." Many good things came out of the Enlightenment era (1650 - 1790), but a lot of not-so-good things came out of it too. It was a period or rebellion against traditional Christianity, ultimately culminating in two violent revolutions. The first was the American Revolution, or the American War of Independence, which was the more moderate of the two. The second was the French Revolution, which was the more radical of the two, and more clearly embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Is this conservatism?  No!  This is liberalism in the most classic sense. The Enlightenment was about rejecting traditional Christian ideas. The post-Enlightenment era (1790 to 1914) was the fruit of this experiment. During this time private industry gradually moved away from family-owned businesses and into massive corporate empires. It was a time of monopolies and robber barons. It was a time of extreme economic growth, punctuated by large market booms and recessions, of which the later were particularly hard on the poor. By the turn of the 19th to 20th century, the Western world was defined as a two-class society of haves and have-nots. With the adoption of antitrust laws, which broke up corporate monopolies, the modern world began a century-long rejection of post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism which is still going on today.

So what kind of conservatism should Americans embrace? Should it be the type of conservatism promoted on talk radio and the blogosphere, in which a post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism is the standard. We typically see this with calls for the abolition of government regulations on business, labour laws, minimum wage, antitrust laws, etc.  The cry often heard from the American conservative Right is "get rid of government!" and "we don't need any government laws and regulations."  What do they mean by this?  Are they advocating a return to the post-Enlightenment era? In a word -- yes. All one needs to do is read the writings of the authors they say inspired them, and they promote on their blogs, television and radio shows. Chief among them are Ayn Rand and Ludwig Von Misses, both of whom freely acknowledge their disdain for Christianity, and their belief that Christian morality and ethics are the greatest things holding back progress.

The following are a variety of quotes from Ayn Rand from various sources, including interviews and her own writings. The works of Ayn Rand have been promoted by conservative talk-radio shows for decades in the United States. Even a former Republican Vice Presidential nominee, a Catholic no less, made one of her books required reading for his office staff.
'Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the non ideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the non-ideal, or virtue to vice.' -- Ayn Rand, Interview with Playboy Magazine, March 1964 
'The kind of sense of life that produced the [papal] encyclical “Populorum Progressio” . . . was not produced by the sense of life of any one person, but by the sense of life of an institution. The dominant chord of the encyclical’s sense of life is hatred for man’s mind—hence hatred for man—hence hatred for life and for this earth—hence hatred for man’s enjoyment of his life on earth—and hence, as a last and least consequence, hatred for the only social system that makes all these values possible in practise: capitalism.' -- Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, page 304 
'The ideology that opposes man’s enjoyment of his life on earth and holds sex as such to be evil—the same ideology that is the source and cause of anti-obscenity censorship [is]: religion.' -- Ayn Rand, The Ayn Rand Letter, III, 1, 3 
'If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.' -- Ayn Rand, Faith and Force, A lecture delivered at Yale University on February 17, 1960
The following are quotes from Part IV, chapter 29, of Ludwig Von Mises' book Socialism. It should be noted that when Mises says "liberalism" he is referring to post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism, otherwise known today in America as "conservatism" or "neoconservatism."
'The expectation of God’s own reorganisation when the time came and the exclusive transfer of all action and thought to the future Kingdom of God, made Jesus’s teaching utterly negative. He rejects everything that exists without offering anything to replace it. He arrives at dissolving all existing social ties.' 
'One thing of course is clear, and no skillful interpretation can obscure it. Jesus’ words are full of resentment against the rich, and the Apostles are no meeker in this respect. The Rich Man is condemned because he is rich, the Beggar praised because he is poor. The only reason why Jesus does not declare war against the rich and preach revenge on them is that God has said: "Revenge is mine."' 
'This is a case in which the Redeemer’s words bore evil seed. More harm has been done, and more blood shed, on account of them than by the persecution of heretics and the burning of witches. They have always rendered the Church defenceless against all movements which aim at destroying human society.' 
'It would be foolish to maintain that Enlightenment, by undermining the religious feeling of the masses, had cleared the way for Socialism. On the contrary, it is the resistance which the Church has offered to the spread of liberal ideas which has prepared the soil for the destructive resentment of modern socialist thought. Not only has the Church done nothing to extinguish the fire, it has even blown upon the embers.' 
'The fate of Civilisation is involved. For it is not as if the resistance of the Church to liberal ideas was harmless. The Church is such a tremendous power that its enmity to the forces which bring society into existence would be enough to break our whole culture into fragments. In the last decades we have witnessed with horror its terrible transformation into an enemy of society. For the Church, Catholic as well as Protestant, is not the least of the factors responsible for the prevalence of destructive ideals in the world today.' 
'Priests and monks who practised true Christian charity, ministered and taught in hospitals and prisons and knew all there was to know about suffering and sinning humanity—these were the first to be ensnared by the new gospel of social destruction. Only a firm grasp of liberal philosophy could have inoculated them against the infectious resentment which raged among their protégés and was justified by the Gospels. As it was, they became dangerous enemies of society. From the work of charity sprang hatred of society.' 
'Now independent production does not tolerate any spiritual over-lordship. In our day, dominion over the mind can only be obtained through the control of production. All Churches have long been dimly aware of this, but it was first made clear to them when the socialist idea, rising from an independent source, made itself felt as a powerful and rapidly growing force. It then dawned upon the Churches that theocracy is only possible in a socialist community.
Is this the kind of "conservatism" that Christians should embrace? Some would argue that the religious beliefs of these intellectual leaders within American conservatism have nothing to do with conservatism itself. I say hogwash! There is a reason why their books are promoted by conservative talk-radio and blogs. It's precisely because these intellectual leaders in American conservatism are the architects of a political philosophy that is at its heart the antithesis of Christianity. They didn't make these quotes as a side note, some obscure beliefs they had apart from their economic views. Rather, they made these quotes precisely because of their economic views. They were thinkers! They took the economic philosophy they supported to its most logical conclusion, and unlike most people, they weren't afraid to say it or write it. If unapologetic support of Laissez-faire capitalism led them into opposition of Jesus Christ and his Church, then so be it.

Yet, like so many other radical philosophies, it cannot survive on its own. It must wrap itself in the cloak of "God and country" to gain the support of the vast majority of people who would otherwise recoil in horror if they knew what it was really about. This is the job of America's talk-radio shows, blogs and conservative print media. They take the grotesque and make it palatable. At its heart, American conservatism is post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism, and that is a philosophy of absolute individualism. So intimately tied with the development of the United States during the 19th century, this post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism (or absolute individualism) was simply dubbed "Americanism" by the popes of the Catholic Church. This is not the kind of "conservatism" that any Christian should embrace.

So what kind of conservatism should Christians embrace, particularly those in America? As I said above, we look to the principles and ethics of medieval times as our guide. We look to the code of Chivalry, the Canon Laws of the Catholic Church, and the rights given to women and peasants as examples of the overarching mindset true Christian conservatives should have. Surly we can never go back to such primitive simplicity, nor would we want to, but we can extract the good from the bad, take the lessons we need, and move forward in our own time. We are not alone in this. The Catholic Church has spent the last 120 years trying to develop a moral plan as demonstrated in the social encyclicals of the popes. The economic model of distributism, formulated by those who sought to implement the social encyclicals of the popes, serves as another guide. Indeed, this is no novelty. Such ideas have, in the past, made their way into the mainstream of American political thought. American antitrust laws, minimum wage laws, child labour laws, the 40-hour work week, credit unions, trade unions and cooperative corporations where all created with distributist solutions in mind. The popes continue to move forward in this, extracting the best from Christianity's medieval past and applying these principles in practical solutions for the modern world. This is conservatism -- true conservatism!!!  It is a conservatism based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which gives preferential option for the poor, small business and families. It is a conservatism that is more at peace with nature, seeking to "conserve" the resources and planet God has given us. It is a conservatism that shares many common goals with some of today's liberals, without embracing their destructive humanist views on collectivism, sex and family. It is a conservatism that champions the little people, and gives them a fair opportunity to provide for themselves, independent of big business and big government. It is a conservatism not seen on America's political spectrum in decades. It's the kind of conservatism that does not see Pope Francis or the Catholic Church as a threat, but rather a natural ally in the war against atheism, hedonism, greed and godlessness. That's the kind of conservatism Christians should embrace. What should we call it then? Call it what you like. Call it "Christian Conservatism" or "Traditionalism" or "Distributism" or just plain old "Chivalry." It doesn't matter. What matters is that Christians reject this post-Enlightenment "Classic" Liberalism ROT that is commonly marketed as "conservatism" these days by many American bloggers and talk-radio show hosts. It's time for conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, to rethink who they really are.


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Yvette said…
Much good food for thought here.
The Lab Manager said…
Associating Mises, with 'conservatism' or 'neoconservatism' based on a handful of quotes is crass ignorance.

I like your blog, but that one is just plain wrong. I can understand your dislike of Ayn Rand, but lumping her and Mises (from one book no less!) is nonsensical.

For me, 'conservative' is just another brand of statism. If conservatives were Misesians, Ron Paul would have won hands down.

I like your idea of self employment or family owned businesses, but let us be real here, any government despises independent people especially if they have lots of personal wealth. Entrepreneurship is not promoted in public schools along with many other things that would be detrimental to creating a good peon.

Despite what a pope claims, no country has any obligation to overrun itself with illiterate illegal immigrants. I'm sorry their economies are not good and they are suffering, but moving them to America won't resolve some core issues their cultures or political systems have that created their situation.

And man made global warming has already been proven a fraud and the scientist who promoted it have some explaining to do. By endorsing global warming, which is just another money grab by government, the pope will be promoting poverty.
Thee Exile said…
I used to identify as a "conservative republican" because I believed that they represented Faith and Family but, they really don't. I believe that you're right - it's time for "conservatives" to really take a long hard look at their political allegiances and do some thinking. They might want to delve deep in to history and find out where the terms "right wing" and "left wing" came from. (Think French Revolution). It is time to abandon both wings.