Heather Mac Donald’s Conservative Crack-Up

Joseph M. Knippenberg

August 1, 2006

Last week, Heather Mac Donald, whose writing I’m far from alone in admiring, contributed a strange little essay to a symposium organized by the editors of The American Conservative. Purporting to speak for “skeptical conservatives”—whose loudest contemporary spokesman thus far has been Andrew Sullivan—she pleaded for a big tent approach to conservatism. “[I]t should be possible,” she insisted, “for conservatives to unite on policy without agreeing on theology.”

Fair enough.

But Mac Donald has an odd way of showing her affection for her supposed political allies, the religious conservatives. For example, she says that skeptical conservatives (would it be fair to call them skepticons?)

find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today. Our Republican president says that he bases “a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions” on his belief in “the Almighty” and in the Almighty’s “great gifts” to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty’s actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless.

“The presumption of religious belief,” she continues (reminding us of “the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it”), “does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith.”

By this account (which, by the way, would not have been out of place in, say, The Nation), religious, er, “conservatives” aren’t really conservative. They’re reckless, self-contradictory, and don’t play well with others. Indeed, since it is, according to Mac Donald, possible to be conservative on the basis of reason alone (though perhaps she’d be willing to add something like sober prudence), it’s hard to see what “value” religiosity adds to conservatism:

Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer’s. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others.

I’m sure there are religious conservatives who need to be reminded that they have political allies who don’t share their faith and that some of these allies are very sharp cookies who bring a lot to the table. But Mac Donald hardly provides the sort of gentle reminder likely to produce this recognition. Rather than build or repair bridges, she dynamites them.

Here’s what she might have said if she were serious about her concluding admonition about uniting on policy without agreeing on theology. She might have acknowledged, for example, that religious people bring a great deal of moral energy to the conservative movement. They have first principles derived from Scripture and faith in God’s providential care. The principles are in most cases not self-applying or self-executing. They have to be applied by decent people soberly taking into account the concrete circumstances they face. Neither the religious nor the skeptical, merely by virtue of their faith or of their skepticism, have the sound practical judgment necessary to act decently and effectively in politics.

There’s a common ground: a mutual search for workable solutions to the problems we face. No gratuitous criticism or backbiting, just arguments about how to accomplish our common goals.

Of course, it would help to prepare that ground if Mac Donald understood a little more about the religious thinking she’s apparently quick to dismiss. Take, for example, this statement:

Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or “natural law.”

The scare quotes and the equation with “mystical precepts” suggest to me that she doesn’t understand natural law (or, for that matter, its reformed Protestant counterpart, “common grace”). Natural law is neither mystical nor irrational. You don’t need to believe in God to accept it or to have access to it. Indeed, when Mac Donald says that skeptical conservatives “do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others,” no proponent of natural law would disagree with her. God, so the argument goes, gave all human beings, not just believers, a rational, not faith-based, capacity to understand what’s right… at least at a very general level. Her very affirmation of the golden rule is, then, evidence of natural law.

The issue is, as I said earlier, in the application, which is where Mac Donald’s professed skepticism might arguably offer her an advantage. Believers, she might contend, spend more time searching for God’s will than examining the particulars of a situation. Some may indeed pray rather than think. But most that I know pray before they think. Their prayer is not for God to speak to them by means of a burning bush or some mystical voice, but constitutes rather a recognition of their own finitude and fallibility. Recognizing that they need it, they ask for God’s assistance. Prayer, in other words, is an expression of humility, which is skepticism’s first cousin.

There’s another common ground, a resource in the religious tradition on which skeptical conservatives can seize. Religious and skeptical conservatives are equally finite and fallible, equally incapable of being masters of the universe. Of course, because we’re all finite and fallible—we’re all, dare I say it, sinners—we’re all prey to delusions of grandeur, thinking we know what we don’t really know and control what we don’t really control.

Mac Donald would be better served by reminding us of the cautionary note sounded last year by historian Wilfred M. McClay in his fine essay in Commentary on “Bush’s Calling”:

Optimism is, in most respects, a political strength, and an appropriate way for democratic leaders to present themselves to the public. But just as individualism needs the constraints of religion and morality, so optimism needs the ballast of memory and a sense of the tragic to give it resiliency and depth. There is a reason why the Christian tradition distinguishes between hope, which is considered a theological virtue, and optimism, which is not. Conservatism will be like the salt that has lost its savor if it abandons its mission to remind us of what Thomas Sowell has called “the constrained vision” of human existence—the vision that sees life as a struggle full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas, involving people whose noblest efforts often fail, sometimes miserably so.

Rather than condemning or ridiculing her fellow conservatives, Mac Donald ought to recognize that she needs them as much as they need her. Argument and criticism are fine. Those who have faith in God surely need to be taken down a notch, but so do those who seem to have faith above all in themselves.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.