The Conservative Rebellion. Richard Bishirjian. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015.
In The Conservative Rebellion, Richard Bishirjian warns that a “visionary politics” which extols a vision of America bringing liberty to all corners of the world will lead to the rejection of politics altogether in the United States:
“. . . the failure of the symbolism of such policies leads to a general revulsion against all politics, and the search for the non-politician, the outsider, the uncorrupted one, to lead the national life. He in turn will reassert the idealism of the “true” American tradition, the pursuit of policies because they are right (to the exclusion of ones in our national interest). And the cycle of ideological rejection of political reality begins anew.”(96)
Since the author wrote this analysis before the meteoric rise of Donald Trump to nominee of the Republican Party for president, it is tempting to consider these words as the stuff of prophecy. The Donald has successfully presented himself as the “non-politician, the outsider, the uncorrupted one,” at least in the eyes of the Republican voter base, precisely because he has never held political office. This independence from the special interests who control a corrupt and dysfunctional political system enables him to “reassert the idealism of the ‘true’ American tradition” (or “make America great again”). Of course, Trump would not have succeeded in creating this image of himself had it not been for the disastrous “visionary politics” of the Bush-Obama era, which rejected the “national interest” of America in favor of policies that sought to impose social engineering at home (Obama) and abroad (Bush).
How did America come to this point? Richard Bishirjian is more than qualified to answer this haunting question. As a long-time contributor to Modern Age, student of philosophical giants such as Eric Voegelin, and onetime adviser to President Ronald Reagan, Bishirjian has had a close up view of the ebbs and flows of the American conservative movement within the post-World War II era. The answer which he gives is unique since, unlike the myriad of both academic and media analysts studying the current conservative crack-up, Bishirjian is a man of politics and philosophy. His political path “recalls a twenty-year period—from the presidency of John F. Kennedy to the presidency of Jimmy Carter—in which my fellow Conservative Rebels and I participated in the Rebellion.” (6) His philosophical path included graduate study under the tutelage of Voegelin and others (Gerhart Niemeyer and Stanley Parry) who inspired him to discover “classical philosophy as an intellectual mode of [what Voegelin called] ‘existence in truth.’” (7) Despite the disparate nature of these paths, they both constitute the essence of the post-World War II “Conservative Rebellion.” What is the nature of this revolt?
This rebellion attempted to replicate the “restorative force that gave shape to the War of Independence and the Founding of the American Constitution.” (25) Yet the new conservative rebels of the Cold War era, who viscerally rejected the growing intrusions of the liberal administrative state that emerged in full force during the New Deal era, were hampered by challenges that the American Revolutionaries could not have envisioned. Whereas the men of 1776 “did rely on an Enlightenment consensus that gave them the political ideas used to justify their rebellion,” Bishirjian and his comrades at arms “realized that the Enlightenment contained the seeds of deculturation of the Western Christianitas and had to be replaced.” (26)
Why exactly did the Conservative Rebellion have to go beyond the Enlightenment? And, what exactly would replace it? Would this conservatism actually conserve anything which is traditionally American? I emphasize this last question because Bishirjian devotes a great deal of discussion to what has been wrong with America for a very long time, long before the rise of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In his discussion of the “five paradigms” of American political history, Bishirjian draws heavily on Voegelin’s “articulations of the realm” in order to show how the original intent of the Founders and Framers (which the first two paradigms put into practice) has been betrayed or distorted for the past 150 years (thanks to the third and fourth paradigms).
The first paradigm was embodied in the Declaration of Independence, which symbolized the rebellion of the colonies against the English crown. The second paradigm was represented in the Framing of the American Constitution in 1787 in Philadelphia. These two paradigms also built on the “unwritten constitution” of the colonial era, which emphasized the need to restrain political authority. (144) These periods represent the apogee of the traditional American commitment to limited government, despite numerous attempts, as noted by Bishirjian, to read into these paradigms radical agenda which reconstruct politics in a manner that would shock the Founders and Framers.
Sadly, the successful creation of constitutional self-government was derailed (to use another Voegelinian term) by the next two paradigms of American political symbolization. In the third paradigm, President Abraham Lincoln managed to sow “the seeds of future disorder” by fashioning a “civil religion” that, despite his intentions, blazed a trail for later progressivist attempts to use executive power to refashion the body politic. (4) Once again, the Enlightenment is the culprit: “the revolutionary impulse of Jefferson’s Enlightenment reasoning, mixed with Lincoln’s new nationalism, emboldened by concentrated federal powers and fueled by civil war, sowed the seeds of a revolutionary fourth paradigm.” (4) Additionally, America’s Protestant heritage, with its powerful millenarian tendencies, provided enthusiastic support for this new missionary politics.
Yet Bishirjian is careful not to place all the blame on the sixteenth president for later eruptions in American politics. Lincoln’s role was “transitional,” after all (5). Whereas Lincoln drafted a “civil religion” with strong biblical allusions, it was not the same as the “political religions” which emerged in the fourth paradigm (despite the fact that Lincoln employed this term during his famous Lyceum speech). “Civil religion is the articulation of national purpose in religious symbols. Political religion is an ideology that rejects reality and seeks to replace it with a this-worldly salvation.” (137) It was left to Woodrow Wilson, the creator of the fourth paradigm, to bring about the most radical derailment of constitutional government in American history. Wilson’s dream to make the world democratic reflected a dangerous idealism which “introduced an era of permanent revolution in which America sought to revolutionize world politics.” (5) This fateful version of visionary politics has inspired numerous Progressives (Kennedy, Johnson) and even faux conservatives (Bush 1 and 2) to fight wars for democracy that replace reality with fantasy (or, to use Voegelin’s terms, with a “second reality”). Only the fifth paradigm, the Conservative Rebellion, will restore order and sanity to the American regime.
Much of Bishirjian’s discussion here will resonate with conservatives who have always opposed ambitious plans to reconstruct the world through the use of American firepower. It is also hard to imagine a more conservative principle in foreign policy than this statement: “it is not a moral obligation of the American people to die so that others may realize their nationhood.” (28) Although Bishirjian is one of many voices to target the neoconservatism of the Bush 2 presidency as a radical extension of Wilson’s attempt to immanentize the global eschaton, this critique perhaps cannot be repeated enough in the light of persistent attempts by many establishment Republicans to gloss over the disasters of the second Bush presidency while they blame his successor for all that is wrong with American foreign policy today.
What is more problematic (at least to this reader) is Bishirjian’s often Procrustean determination to force American history into his framework in a manner that does not always accurately reflect the American conservative experience. The haunting question which he poses is: did America’s traditions ever have a chance to fight successfully the ideological challenges of our time? The answer, if I understand Bishirjian accurately, is probably “no” because its two most important traditions, the Enlightenment and Protestantism, are part of the problem, not the solution. For this reason, America must paradoxically go beyond America to save itself.
Does America have what it takes? “Americans, like the ancient Romans, are a practical people: we are ‘doers’ not ‘thinkers,’ and unlike the ancient Greeks, philosophy does not easily come to us. Thus, faced with a regime [the Soviet Union] governed by an ideological program of world domination, it was, simply, too difficult for most Americans to understand the nature of the threat.” (54) With this generalization, Bishirjian insists that the Enlightenment, the one philosophical tradition in America which has been around since the Founding, is insufficient for helping Americans deal with the ideological challenges of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If anything, the Enlightenment has only made matters worse. The greatest document of the American Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence, was used by Progressives to replace Christianity with a new secular religion which “promotes a redemptive purpose of the American regime,” namely to bring freedom and equality to all peoples in the world. (126)
Here Bishirjian is perhaps caught in a contradiction of his own making. If the Enlightenment is all bad, isn’t the American regime, the product of the Enlightenment, fundamentally flawed from the start? And, if that is the case, why defend it at all? Instead of addressing this problem, Bishirjian prefers to focus on the most toxic creation of the Enlightenment, the secular religion of Progressivism: “this secular, immanentist ideology successfully challenged the fundamental principles of the American regime, the philosophy of limited government of the Founding Fathers of the Constitution of the United States, transformed the American nation into a ‘Christ Nation,’ and put the American people at risk to even greater ideologies such as Nazism and Marxism.” (99) Still, the problem which Bishirjian’s analysis must address is: how should Americans save this Enlightenment heritage while, paradoxically, going beyond the Enlightenment?
One way which Bishirjian suggests is to downplay the importance of the Enlightenment. He urges his fellow Americans to reject a “monocausal, Enlightenment, interpretation of the War of Independence.” (127) For this reason, Bishirjian takes dead aim at Leo Strauss and his followers for advancing this secular interpretation of the Founding, without sufficient reference to its Christian origins. As every reader of Straussian scholarship knows, it is a credo of this movement that the Founding was secular to the core, the triumph of Locke’s natural right philosophy. Like many other conservative readers of Strauss, Bishirjian will have none of this. “There was, frankly, much more going on before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord than the sound of the turning of pages of Locke’s Second Treatise.” (128)
Although Bishirjian admires Strauss and duly credits him with reviving the field of political philosophy in the post-WW 2 era, he clearly plants his flag in the Voegelinian camp: “Strauss’s examination of natural right ‘doctrine’ would have been seen by Voegelin as a philosophical ‘derailment,’ a term which Voegelin used to express the eclipse of philosophy grounded in experience.” (129) While Bishirjian is quick to point out that neither Strauss nor Voegelin should be faulted for what their conservative followers have done in their names (122), Voegelin still gets the better of this argument because, in Bishirjian’s view, Straussianism “had adverse consequences when that doctrine morphed into a political religion.” (120) The Straussian attempts to secularize the history of the Founding have provided an ideological (and theological) rationale which is similar to the Progressivist dream of promoting a redemptive purpose for the American regime. This purpose is to export the natural right ideals of universal freedom and equality to all human beings, a “visionary politics” which Voegelin would have condemned. (In fairness to Strauss, this politics probably has more to do with the scholarly activism of the late Harry Jaffa than his mentor.) Although Bishirjian’s interpretation of Straussianism as a wholly secular political hermeneutic is not original, it certainly has merit. Still, one does not have to be a Straussian to suspect that Bishirjian is perhaps too quick to dismiss the Enlightenment tradition at the heart of the Founding.
If the recovery of the Enlightenment, then, is not a sound option for the restoration of a decent politics, should Americans try to resuscitate their other great tradition, Christianity? If Bishirjian is right, that all depends on the type of Christianity in question. As a conservative, Bishirjian opposes any political movements which reject “the Christian faith that defines civilization in the West and seek a millennium in this world.” (9) Yet he also cannot abide “that condominium of millenarian Christians and Neoconservatives” (7) who support the political religion of exporting democracy hither and yon. What is the best Christianity for America? It turns out that it is not a very American one. Although at times Bishirjian laments the displacement of evangelical Protestant Christianity by Progressivism in the twentieth century (102-3), the only version of the faith which captures his deepest sympathy is a Christianity that is firmly wedded to classical Greek and Roman political philosophy. Without the recovery of this ancient tradition, Christianity can go badly off the rails: “The Christian mystery of the Second Coming is deformed into egophanous certainty of a secular faith in the this-worldly success of the ideologist’s own project for reconstituting reality.” (69) Building on his assumption that there have always been radical (immanentizing) tendencies in a de-Hellenized Christianity, Bishirjian draws a straight line between early modern Protestants and late-modern secular radicals. “Puritanism was converted by progressive thinkers to secular ideological purposes, and became a part of the fabric of America as a permanently revolutionary ‘Christ-Nation.’” (104)
To say the least, these claims are open to scrutiny. As Leo Strauss contended, the secular political philosophies of modernity (including the Enlightenment but also the Machiavellian Renaissance) have more to do with the drive to bring Heaven down to Earth than anything genuinely Protestant. My main concern here, however, is how Bishirjian can square his analysis with America’s traditions. The brute fact is that the shaping of America’s soul has always been grounded in a Protestant foundation, long before the Founding. Yet the Christian tradition which Bishirjian most favors is Catholic, since it still retains a semblance of the old Aristotelian wisdom. The only authentic “Western Christianitas” which deserves recovery is the Roman synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem. (162) The problem with this revisionist historiography is that the kind of Catholic political philosophy which Bishirjian celebrates here had almost zero influence on America’s politics, including its conservatism, until well into the Cold War era and even then mostly within academe. Additionally, most American Catholics voted overwhelmingly for liberal Democrats until the Cold War era. Only after the fateful meeting at Yalta, which sanctioned the Soviet occupation of historically Catholic nations in Eastern Europe, were many (although certainly not most) Catholics moved to vote Republican for the first time in their history.
This problematic treatment of America’s political origins, both liberal and Protestant, comes to a head when Bishirjian presents a rather revisionist treatment of that great conservative rebel Ronald Reagan, whom he admires as “an extraordinary man and a gifted conservative political leader who intuitively worked through the political implications of the disorder of the West and shaped a practical, uniquely American, philosophy of politics.” (84) Oddly enough, Bishirjian ignores Reagan’s own deep indebtedness to what the historian Mark Noll calls the “Christian-Enlightenment marriage,” that unique synthesis of Protestantism and classical liberalism, which forged the American identity that Reagan so eloquently celebrated. Reagan’s praise of heartland virtues such as hard work, thrift, piety, and patriotism constituted the ideals of this identity. It is also a safe bet that Reagan was more influenced by Milton Friedman than by Aristotle.
In blaming every president from FDR to Bush II (including Ike) for embracing progressivist rhetoric about America’s universal mission (98-99), he omits Reagan’s own usage of this language when the president in 1982 famously predicted the successful “march of freedom and democracy” which America’s defeat of communism would usher forth. The fortieth president also defended the Vietnam War as a “noble cause,” a conflict which Bishirjian considers to be an example of Wilsonian visionary politics. (28) The Gipper, perhaps more than any other post-WW 2 president before Bush II, also utilized biblical language for political aims, a tendency which Bishirjian attributes to presidents whom he dislikes, such as Lincoln and Wilson. (131) (Reagan, who deeply admired Honest Abe, would have likely been taken aback by Bishirjian’s critique of the sixteenth president.) It was during the Reagan era, after all, that the GOP became heavily dependent on the Religious Right for votes. Finally, the massive build-up of the American military during the Reagan era arguably created the preconditions for a projection of American power on a global scale that eventually fed neoconservative appetites for empire-building after the Cold War. In short, it is unclear how even Reagan can somehow emerge unscathed from Bishirjian’s overarching dismissal of the two traditions that made America, including Reagan’s own brand of conservatism, possible.
I began this review with reference to the rise of The Donald. Although Bishirjian wrote this book before Trump’s ascendancy, I suspect that he does not see crude cults of personality as the precondition for a conservative revival even if he may sympathize with Trump’s call to put the national interest first and avoid costly military interventions around the world. Can the remnants of the Conservative Rebellion, then, provide a third way between the Scylla of populism and the Charybdis of Progressivism? With the utter fragmentation of the GOP in full view, it is hard to see how conservatives can hope to revive their cause in the political sphere. Bishirjian is also too intelligent to advocate a simple return to traditionalism in an age which is increasingly hostile to such a call. It is far from obvious that most Americans even desire a return to constitutional government. As Bishirjian suggests in the final pages of his work, conservative men and women will have to keep the rebellion alive by rediscovering the truth that “a higher aspect of our humanity is shaped by the transcendent God.” (163) Amidst the mounting wreckage of political religions contrived by the Left and Right, the simple humility implicit in this faith may be the last, best hope to reject the ideological arrogance of the present age.