Without Religion, New Book Contends, Conservatism Doesn’t Exist

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Conservatism has a long and storied history. It evolved with various times and places, and adapted to fit the needs of rising generations. But one thing has remained consistent in conservatism throughout the ages, says Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation.

Conservatism and religion are inextricably linked, Hazony says. He defines conservatism as “a political standpoint that regards the national religious traditions as the key to maintaining and to strengthening a nation” and says that American conservatives need to reawaken to that reality.

Hazony joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his new book “Conservatism: A Rediscovery” and explain why religion can’t be separated from conservatism.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Doug Blair: My guest today is Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation. He’s also the author of the new book “Conservatism: A Rediscovery.” Yoram, welcome to the show.

Yoram Hazony: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

Blair: Of course. Well, I want to talk about your book a little bit because the title is so interesting, a rediscovery of conservatism. But before we get into that specifically, let’s start defining our terms. What, to you, is conservatism?

Hazony: Well, conservatism is a political standpoint that regards the national religious traditions as the key to maintaining and to strengthening a nation. In the United States, it’s appropriate to talk about the Anglo-American conservative tradition. Different countries have different traditions of conservatism, and they’re not all alike.

I would say, as a general matter, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that politics begins with the free and equal individual and political obligation arising from consent, if that’s your worldview, then you’re probably not a conservative; you’re probably a liberal.

If the place where you start is from the existence of a certain nation which has traditions, like a religious tradition, a linguistic tradition, constitutional traditions, that have historically bound the various parts of the nation together, if that’s your starting point, then you’re probably a conservative.

Blair: It sounds like these traditions can almost apply in different places. In India, there would be a different form of conservatism, maybe based around Hinduism and a national language like Hindi, whereas in France, it would be connected to Catholicism with the French language. Is that an accurate take?

Hazony: Yeah, I think so. Marxism and liberalism are universal theories. Like the Enlightenment rationalism that they spring out of, they claim to be true for all people in all times and places, without regard to how they grew up or what they were taught or what they believe.

Conservatives see that as being extremely unrealistic. They begin looking at the world empirically and come to the conclusion that human beings are born into families and tribes and nations and religious traditions, and that these are not the same, that they are unlike one another. Anglo-American conservatism is going to be different from conservatism in India or in Arabia or in Russia or in China.

Blair: The title of your book is “Conservatism: A Rediscovery.” Why does it need to be rediscovered?

Hazony: Americans have slipped, especially after the end of the Cold War, but maybe even earlier than that, have slipped into a worldview in which conservatism just is liberalism.

You hear these kinds of things in Washington and in conservative circles all the time, that “we American conservatives, what we’re conserving is liberalism,” or that conservatism is a branch or a species of liberalism, all sorts of things, whose purpose, in the end, is to sow confusion.

This wouldn’t be more than just an intellectual curiosity, except for the fact that the United States in the year 2020 has moved into a period in which the hegemonic liberal discourse that dominated America since World War II has collapsed.

Not to say that there are no more liberals running around, but the assumption that you could rely on when I was growing up and when you were growing up, we could rely on the Democrats and the Republicans to be some kind of liberal, and that assumption no longer holds.

The moment that The New York Times started firing senior employees for being liberals, the moment that Princeton University took Woodrow Wilson’s name, the great liberal icon, off of the buildings of the university, where Wilson had been president, America moved into a different world, in which liberalism is now a minority worldview. It has given way to a woke neo-Marxism, which is making its own bid for hegemony.

On the right, we see different kinds of ideas contending with one another to be the champion of what the right is going to say in response to this shocking cultural revolution that we’re living through.

At this point, I think it’s crucial to be able to distinguish between liberalism and conservatism, because if you think that conservatism is liberalism, then you are signing onto that ideology which just collapsed.

If there’s one thing that we know about liberalism at this point, is that in the two generations that liberals dominated America, they were completely unsuccessful in figuring out a way to transmit liberalism so that it would be conserved and transmitted across generations. We did that experiment. It failed. It’s over.

People who see what’s coming and want to know what went wrong, they need to say, “Well, maybe liberalism is what went wrong.” That certainly is a large part of my book on conservatism, is tracing the way that liberalism pushed conservatives out.

If you want to know anything about a life of conservation and transmission, either as an individual or as a family, at that level, or at the national level, you need to go back. You need to examine the great Anglo-American conservative tradition of thought, and you need to start applying it in your own life. This is going to require restoration because the things we’ve inherited are liberal, not conservative.

Blair: If we’re trying to restore an old conservative order, we’re trying to restore a lot of these things that have been lost, where do we start? You mentioned that people need to start doing this in their own life. Where would be a good place for them to start?

Hazony: I think people can ask themselves honestly whether the life they’re leading is a conservative life, whether it’s a life of conservation and transmission. For most people today, even if they identify with the word conservative, the answer is simply no.

I think you look around your immediate surroundings and you realize that most young people today are having trouble getting married, so they keep putting it off. They’re having trouble having kids. If they’re married, they’re having trouble staying married. They are not particularly impressed with the importance of things like studying Scripture, keeping the Sabbath. They don’t think that they need to be part of a congregation in which the great inheritance is actively being handed down.

If that’s the way you’re leading your life, then you’re a big part of the problem. If a society does not consist of individuals who devote their time and energies to conservation and transmission, then you can’t expect the nation to be able to do it. The nation just consists of the various groups of individuals within it.

The book is definitely a call for people to examine their own contribution to the cultural revolution. If you are not focused on, “What do I need to do in order to make sure that the great tradition is going to be handed down to my children?”, if you’re not focused on that, then you’re not really leading a conservative life. In the book, I offer suggestions for how to begin leading a conservative life.

Blair: I want to go back to something you’ve talked about a lot, which is the role of religion in conservatism. Specifically, it sounds like, in the West, that Anglo-Judeo-Christian values that are essential to conservatives to function, a lot of people in America today will say that a secular society can exist, that there is a form of secular conservatism that can work. It sounds like you might disagree with that assessment.

Hazony: Well, like I say, I think that was tried. America was explicitly a Christian nation, a Christian people, up through World War II.

What I mean by explicitly is that this was said time and again by the American Supreme Court, and American presidents regularly spoke about it. FDR and [Dwight D.] Eisenhower still were of the age and the generation where they understood America was a Christian nation, and they were some version of Christian nationalists.

For FDR, he never tired of saying that democracy grows out of Christianity, that America’s worthy constitutional traditions grow out of the religious tradition. That was commonplace. That was just something that was generally believed by political leaders on all sides up until the Second World War.

After the Second World War, Americans shifted. There was a change from what you can call Christian democracy to what came to be known as liberal democracy. The term liberal democracy wasn’t really in use much then, but by the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, intellectuals, both Marxists and liberals, had begun to use the expression liberal democracy to give the name to the new secular neutral state that was supposed to have come into existence after the Second World War.

We have a pretty clear experiment that lasted 60 or 70 years, in which the religious foundations of the society, the biblical foundations, which had always been there, were banished.

The most obvious indication of this was the shocking banning of God and prayer and the study of Scripture from schools across the United States. That happened in 1947, or it began in 1947, with the Supreme Court’s Everson decision, which, for the first time, declared a separation of church and state to be an integral part of the American Constitution and imposed it on all 48 states.

So we’ve done the experiment, we’ve lived in that kind of supposedly neutral state, and what we see is that when you send children every day to school, in which talk about God and reading the Bible and what you’re supposed to get out of the Bible and its place is the basis of our civilization, when you send kids to school every day that way, they don’t come out Christians and they don’t come out Jews. They come out with this tremendous vacuum.

Lots of people thought that vacuum was just fine. They didn’t understand that vacuum is completely unstable.

Now, if you look around America, I think anybody can just open their eyes and see that that banishing of Christianity and the biblical foundations of America created a vacuum, and in that vacuum, all sorts of terrible things have grown. America is clearly moving toward dissolution. The only question is whether people are willing to learn the lesson and move fast to turn it around.

Blair: To play devil’s advocate for a second, one of the things that the left will often claim about America is that we are this multicultural—I think the term now that they’ll use is a mosaic, where you have all these different cultures that interact with each other, and those people might come from various parts of the world.

There could be Indians from India, there could be Chinese people from China, there could be French people from France, and they all come together and form these things.

From what you’ve been saying, that there is a conservative faith tradition that exists in all those countries that are pretty disparate in terms of where they would come from, so is the concept of America, in the sense that it can exist in that form of, say, a mosaic, just fundamentally flawed?

Hazony: Well, it can exist, but the thing that you’re describing, a multinational entity which has many different nations and many different peoples living under a single government but without mutual loyalty binding them to one another, that’s called an empire. We have a lot of experience with empires in recorded history. Empires are always dictatorships.

There’s no such thing as a democratic empire. There’s no such thing as a dozen different nations, a dozen different peoples going to the ballot box in order to determine who’s going to get to be the president for the next four years, and then peaceably moving on.

In fact, I think when you look at the recent elections in the United States, at least the last two presidential elections have been contested in such a way that—I don’t know what the numbers are, but 30%, 40%, 50% of Americans thought that each of the last two elections were in some way illegitimate, that they were not free and fair elections, and they led to an illegitimate government.

This is rapidly moving into the situation that you’re describing, all sorts of groups of people who aren’t loyal to one another, don’t recognize the traditions of the country as being particularly important, and in the end, if nothing changes, that will decay into civil war and possible subversion from overseas, and it’s going to end up one way or another with a dictatorship.

Now, I don’t think that that’s inevitable at this point, but it’s inevitable if people keep pushing the idea that diversity is our strength.

Diversity is your strength when it’s diversity internal to a single nation bound by ties of mutual loyalty. All nations are internally diverse. Sometimes you can make it a little bit more diverse. The question is, do the bonds of mutual loyalty that tie these different groups in society together, are they fraying, are they exploding, or is there active work being done to strengthen them?

My book is basically about the question of restoration, repentance, and restoration, and the question of what you’d need to do if you actually wanted America to survive this. The simple answer is a national religious tradition of some kind. It can be tolerant, it can be ecumenical, but the bottom line is that there has to be something that is going to unite people.

Now, I understand that, at the national level, it’s going to be very difficult at this moment to get lots of Americans behind this, but at the level of the states, I think the situation is very different.

There are still many states in the United States where you could get a Christian majority or a pro-Christian majority, which could consist of all sorts of people who don’t necessarily see themselves as Christians, but they can take a look at the woke neo-Marxist government that’s coming and say, “Look, a biblical restoration, a Christian restoration is simply better for all of us, and so I’m going to lend a hand to making that happen.”

I think there’s lots of states where that could happen, and that’s the step that needs to be taken now, aside from people at the personal level.

When you get to the political level, we have to be thinking in terms of experiments at the state level of ending the separation of church and state and creating a Christian public life which offers a biblical moral and political framework that is powerful enough to oppose the neo-Marxism, which, otherwise, is just going to win.

Blair: Now, as we begin to wrap-up here, I’m curious—a very dire prognostication there. You mentioned that there are some states that are probably willing to do this and probably willing to go to that standard. Do you believe that there are certain states that other states should be modeling themselves after? What specifically are those states doing from a legislative perspective that the other states in the union should be emulating?

Hazony: There are good things happening in some of the red states, but I think that this needs to be pushed further. I think that until you have governors saying explicitly that separation of church and state is not a part of the traditional American Constitution, that Everson in 1947 was wrongly decided, and therefore Bible can return to the schools and the public life can be based on a broad Christian and biblical foundation, until you’re hearing that explicitly and seeing it explicitly, you have not changed the direction of the United States.

Like other conservatives, I’m excited and happy and thrilled to see some of the governors pushing back on some of the worst excesses of woke neo-Marxism, but there’s no chance that that’s going to be enough. You can’t fight something with strictly a negative view that, “No, we don’t want to go that far.” You can only fight an idea with an idea. The idea here has to be conservative democracy or Christian democracy.

I’ve seen some of the young Christian writers in the last few weeks embracing the term Christian nationalism. All these terms, they all refer to the same basic idea, which is that there needs to be a restoration of the idea that the Bible is the basis of public life. It can be tolerant. It can be ecumenical. What it cannot be is simply a negation of woke neo-Marxism. You can win a couple of battles that way, but in the end, there has to be something positive that gives the framework for life in the United States or in Britain or in other countries. That’s what we’re waiting to see.

Blair: Well, hopefully we can move in the direction where we start to bring back a conservative mindset to this country.

That was Yoram Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation. He’s also author of the new book “Conservatism: A Rediscovery,” available now wherever books are sold.

Yoram, thank you so much for your time. Very much appreciate it.

Hazony: Sure. My pleasure. Thank you, Douglas.

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