Many decry the need for labels in political discourse, but the labels themselves remain useful, helping us to describe reality. For example, the distinction between conservatives and liberals, between Right and Left, though overly schematic, remains significant. While it may well be true that most people in today’s United States think of themselves as somewhere in the middle, politically speaking, that does not dispose of the problem. If we understand the center geometrically, as a point without dimensions, we must once more differentiate between left-centrists and right-centrists—in other words, between liberals and conservatives. The differences between them can be fuzzy but they are nevertheless real, and the two groupings certainly have a history, possibly even a nature.

As to history, the distinction between the Left and the Right appeared in the course of the French Revolution, and even today conservatives continue to harbor doubts about that revolution while liberals continue to view it with nostalgic enthusiasm. Other distinctions may be said to follow from this first crucial one: conservatives excel in seeing the dangers of Communism, but may be slow to understand fascism; liberals well understand the evils of fascism but can be curiously blind about Communism.

The most striking difference between liberals and conservatives, however, concerns religion. Conservatives tend to believe, liberals to doubt. To be sure, atheism is almost coeval with human thought. (The Bible tells us, after all, that “The fool hath said in his heart: ‘There is no God.’ ”) One does well, however, to distinguish between atheism as a permanent possibility for individuals and atheism as a political force, even as Edmund Burke did in his Thoughts on French Affairs:

Boldness formerly was not the character of Atheists as such. They were even of a character nearly the reverse; they were formerly like the old Epicureans, rather an unenterprising race. But of late they are grown active, designing, turbulent, and seditious.

To say that atheism became fashionable is to say that it was espoused by political movements, and these political movements originally belonged to the Left exclusively (it was not only enemies of the revolution, like Burke, who made this linkage, but also most of its friends, including Marx). In the 19th century, liberals and radicals came to view religion simply as superstition and to opt publicly for mankind’s emancipation from it. They equated religion with fear and began to think of freedom from fear as a basic freedom. When Hobbes in Part IV of the Leviathan wrote of “the Kingdom of Darknesse” he was referring, overtly at least, primarily to the Catholic Church, but the phrase soon came to signify the whole realm of religion. The Left, marching under the banner bearing the magic word “Enlightenment,” promised to bring relief from that darkness, and in so doing can be said to have forced the Right into a defensive posture. The Right now hoisted a banner bearing on it the word “Tradition,” thereby engendering certain difficulties in the relationship between conservatives and religion which have not been resolved to this day.




Conservatives, as lovers of tradition, praise the old, that which is hallowed by time and usage; conservatism’s detractors have a good point when they define a conservative as someone who is against anything being done for the first time. Conservatives identify the old with the good. But it is a lot easier to tell what is old than what is good.

Thus, again and again conservatives are embarrassed by the fact that tradition seems to preserve rather promiscuously (or at least incoherently), carrying down to us childish superstitions as well as the loftiest of themes. Transmitting so much, it also transmits much that is contradictory, and one is often unable to decide among rival traditions, at least not without leaving the plane of the traditional.

Nor does the difficulty end there. Conservatives soon discover that they are not the only ones seeking to justify themselves by an appeal to what is old. The partisans of the French Revolution, in judging and condemning the ancien régime, took their bearings by something even more ancient—they appealed to Nature. Taking Nature as their standard, they understood it as prior to human artifacts, the state of Nature in their view preceding the state of civil society, just as natural rights precede civil rights. As they understood it, Nature was the uncreated creative force.

But what then differentiated Nature from God? Contrary to what one might expect, conservatives have not excelled in answering this question, or even in dealing with the dilemmas it poses. Instead, they have resorted to various strategies, all more or less unsatisfactory. They have tried, for example, to distinguish between left-wing worshippers of Nature and right-wing worshippers of God. But whereas there may have been a moment when such a distinction generated insight, as time passed it served more to distort reality than to illuminate it. Eventually the Left abandoned Nature as a standard in favor of History, and one could then find about as many conservatives who were Nature-oriented as those who were God-oriented.

Even when it pointed to real divisions in the real world, the distinction proved unfortunate. After all, common sense tells us it is ludicrous to try to comprehend Nature as a left-wing phenomenon, even as it seems stupid, as well as blasphemous, to consider God a right-wing phenomenon. Where, then, does that leave conservatives?

Occasionally, they have argued for a synthesis of the part of our heritage stemming from Jerusalem—God—with the part stemming from Athens—Nature. But just as, on closer inspection, most syntheses turn out to be imperfect, with one or the other component clearly dominant, so too does the synthesis between Jerusalem and Athens. That is why so many great thinkers of the past have been able to use Jerusalem as a stick with which to beat Athens or Athens as a stick with which to beat Jerusalem.

Occasionally, conservatives have argued that the differences between Athens and Jerusalem may be real but they do not matter all that much for practical purposes. Yet it would be easy to show that it can matter quite a bit on a daily basis whether we take our bearings by a rational Nature or by a holy God. Moreover, it will not do to pretend that there is no difference between Nature’s God and God’s Nature. Jerusalem and Athens share an idea of transcendence, and what they have in common goes a long way, but it does not go all the way. And where one does find salutary agreement along the way, one is forced to note the absence of any firm and unique grounding on which conservatives might base their heritage. Thus, in the United States both liberals and conservatives admire the Declaration of Independence and claim it as their own, and it is by no means obvious that conservatives have a better claim in this respect than liberals.

In their general contests with liberals, conservatives do not always fare as well as they might. On the level of political practice one must remember that the label affixed to them by John Stuart Mill caught on and still haunts conservatives today: they became known as “the stupid party.” On the level of political theory one must ponder the fact that in the last analysis Edmund Burke, the patron saint of conservatives, strikes one as less profound and less philosophical than his adversary, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the patron saint of the Left. In our time thoughtful conservatives have conceded as much.

One suspects that conservatives could improve their reputation as well as their perceptions by rethinking some of their views on religion.




Such rethinking might begin with an appreciation of the inevitable tensions between religion and politics. When the sea of faith recedes we may have to face nihilism, but it does not follow from this that harmony accompanies the sea of faith at high tide. Our nostalgic dreams of a harmonious past do violence to the past, encourage a general sappiness of mind, and detract from our ability to deal with the present and the future. Probity and prudence both dictate that as nearly as possible we remember history as it really was. We must, then, in thinking about religion, not fail to think about such things as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the machinations of popes against kings and vice versa, the ferocity of religious wars. We must heed Machiavelli’s implicit linking of piety with pious cruelty.

Some who do heed the historical record argue that the basic tension is not between politics and religion generally, but between politics and Christianity in particular. To this end they dream wistfully of a civil religion that might replace Christian universalism. What they frequently have in mind is the ancient polis in which the gods who were worshipped were the gods of the city.

However, the most authoritative work on the religion, laws, and institutions of the city of antiquity does not altogether support these dreams of harmony. The great 19th-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges in his masterly study, The Ancient City, understands religion as “the constituent principle of the ancient family,” and the interests of the family need not coincide with the interests of the polis. Dissension unto death can be present even when the family in question is the royal family. The quarrel between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’s Antigone—about whether obedience is owed to the gods or to the city—serves as the most enduring example of this truism.

It may nevertheless be true that Christianity exacerbates the conflict between religion and politics. The historian of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, argued that Christianity destroyed “the greatness of Rome,” leading to its decline and fall. Discussing the religious scene before the advent of Christianity, Gibbon writes, somewhat wistfully:

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers, as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

It will be noted that in this passage of surpassing eloquence Gibbon distinguishes between the truth and the utility of religion. Conservatives owe it to themselves (and not only to themselves) to meditate on the complexities attending this distinction. Is religion true because it is useful? Is religion useful because it is true? Might religion be both false and useful?




Confronting these and kindred questions, one chances upon another area of inquiry that conservatives have not excelled in investigating. Sometimes instinctual conservatism too blithely asserts the usefulness of religion on the ground that it, and only it, makes men good. That assertion should crumble in the face of the first decent atheist—and many conservatives do in fact know many decent atheists, as well as indecent believers—but it has managed to survive all empirical evidence.

A common stratagem among conservatives consists of denying not the decency of the atheist but his atheism, contending that the decent may well be believers without knowing they believe, the proof of their belief being their decency. It scarcely needs to be said that such reasoning (if one can call it that) does not honor conservatives; nor does it attempt to understand atheists as they understand themselves.

A more estimable line of argument maintains that religion is useful not because it makes human beings good but because it makes them happy. This contention, too, runs into the difficulty posed by the happy atheist. Moreover, conservatives must be careful in pursuing this train of thought lest they uncover an altogether problematical—at least for them—distinction between being happy and being good.

Conservatives have a better case when they consider social and political life as a whole. From this vantage point there is no need to deny the existence either of non-believers who are virtuous or of those who attain serenity without belief in God. We now have enough historical experience with secularism to declare that the waning power of religion in modernity has not made people either happier or better, let alone happy and good.

As for history, those of the irreligious party who decry the monstrous deeds committed in the name of the Christian God must come to terms with the crimes committed by the godless in our century. The pious cruelty of the past has yielded to the impious cruelty of the present, and in this respect at least we moderns have outdone the ancients. Neither Inquisitor nor Crusader can match the crimes perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin within the living memory of many of us.

It may be objected that in the United States we need not beat our breasts about the crimes of Stalin and Hitler. After all, we did our share to defeat Nazi Germany and to contain the Soviet Union; if such a thing as a decency index for the measurement of societies could be constructed, we would not have to fear comparison with any Age of Faith. On the other hand, few would claim that we in today’s United States have been especially successful in our pursuit of happiness.

Let us for a moment try to conceive of what is well-nigh inconceivable: the Soviet Union transforms itself overnight into a thoroughly benign regime, no longer threatening us, and our own economic system can suddenly deal flawlessly with poverty, business cycles, and the budget. In the unlikely event that these things came to pass, would we even then become happy? We would not.

In the last analysis, then, the argument for the utility of religion proves powerful. Our virtues surely need various kinds of buttressing and may even need cosmic support. It remains as true as ever that man does not live by bread alone, that we need spiritual sustenance, that we seem to be reverential creatures, in need of something above us, to which we can bow down in good grace. We may agree then that religion is useful because it fills a human need that nothing else has proved able to fill.

But once we have agreed about the utility of religion, we must still face the disquieting possibility that it might be useful even though it is false—and the even more disquieting possibility that it is useful because it is false. Plato’s Socrates calls such salutary or nurturing myths noble lies; Nietzsche calls them holy lies.

Conservatives have no great trouble admitting that false religions may lead to true morality. It is not particularly disturbing to think of, say, a pagan tribe whose God of the Wind teaches the virtue of gratitude. The trouble comes when conservatives are asked to question the truth of their own religion.




In some respects conservatives side with the philosophers. Exaggerating considerably, one may say that the whole tradition of philosophy is strong in praising the utility of religion and weak in claiming truth for it. One thinks of the medieval Arab philosophers Averroes and Avicenna, of Machiavelli’s treatment of Moses, of Hobbes, Locke, and their successors. All these thinkers praise the usefulness of religion; but their tributes to its veracity betray a certain absence of conviction.

Even when philosophers think about God with all due seriousness, the God they are pondering is more likely to be some kind of a cosmic force or prime mover than the biblical God. How does one adore a God who resembles, say, electricity more than he does the source of all mercy and justice? How does one pray to such a God? Considerations of this sort led the French scientist and Christian religious philosopher Blaise Pascal, after a mystical experience in 1654 in which he beheld a vision of intense light, to the determination to devote his life to the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.”

In addition to Pascal, there is also Martin Luther’s argument with Erasmus on the subject of faith versus reason. Pascal and Luther together offer powerful testimony to the effect that philosophy tends toward non-belief. Moreover, they take to task a number of thinkers who cannot be excused on the ground that they had no opportunity to hear the good news from Jerusalem.

As citizens of the United States, we should pay special heed when men of the stature of Luther and Pascal bring the whole tradition of philosophy under the suspicion of atheism. Time has cast no veil over the origins of our country, which were decisively influenced by the teachings of that tradition. No wonder, then, that the pronouncements of the founders on religion sound more prudential than enthusiastic. Here is George Washington, for example, in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure—reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington here—and elsewhere—says much more about the utility of religion than about its truth, and most of the other leaders of our revolution echo him in this respect. In private they may well have speculated more boldly than in public about the possibility of a self-subsistent morality, but they appreciated the role of religion in producing civility. They surely opposed a frontal assault on the fund of faith bequeathed to them by puritanism, though in hindsight we may wonder whether they were sufficiently concerned about its depletion.




Writing in the middle decades of the 19th century, Tocqueville found America’s fund of faith to be in sound condition. His testimony counts for a great deal among conservatives, but liberals too claim Tocqueville for their side. As it happens, Democracy in America contains more than enough insights to go around, but in this case conservatives are probably right in thinking Tocqueville one of their own. He reassures them by writing of affinities between religion and democracy, by demonstrating the role religion plays in shoring up the two great principles of liberty and equality, and above all by showing that the separation of church and state can be beneficial to both.

Yet Tocqueville too causes us to wonder about the strength of his religious belief. We do not quite know what he means by Providence, for example, and we cannot help noticing that in crucial passages he too emphasizes not the truth of religion but its usefulness.

But the 19th century’s most portentous statement about religion comes from Tocqueville’s younger contemporary, Nietzsche, who in Thus Spoke Zarathustra announced to the world that “God is dead.”

The primary meaning of that statement is that religion has lost its power over human life, its social force. Thus a proof of God’s existence would not refute Nietzsche, and a proof of God’s nonexistence would not corroborate him. What Nietzsche meant to teach us was that the utility of religion was at an end because the belief in its truth was at an end.

A variety of forces had conspired to produce a decisive turning point in human affairs, according to Nietzsche. The “higher criticism” of the Bible initiated by Spinoza had made the acceptance of revelation immeasurably more difficult. Christianity had developed a conscience so strict and tender that it turned on Christianity itself. Modern science had painted a persuasive picture of a chaotic universe. Not only was God dead; all gods were dead, all transcendent truths and standards.

One does not refute Nietzsche’s pronouncement by pointing to the persistence of belief; Nietzsche never doubted that. Nor is one done with him if one can show that belief is not only widespread but pervasive. In Gallup polls, well over 90 percent of all Americans profess a belief in God. but those results say nothing about the depth of the belief Americans profess.

In our century, many a celebration of religious revival has turned out to be premature as the revival in question has turned out to be quite shallow. In today’s America, we are more likely to be surprised by a prominent man’s religious fervor than by his atheism. And believers are more likely than in the past to keep their belief compartmentalized, so as to assure us that for the most part they are just like everybody else. In other words, unbelief sets the tone for belief.




Too many conservatives have failed to come to terms with Nietzsche’s thought, dismissing it as an embarrassing attempt to outflank them on the Right. But the challenge he represents will not go away.

Nietzsche went far beyond Burke, who held out the hope of a time when atheism might cease to be fashionable. Nietzsche postulated an irreversible loss of naiveté in Western civilization. To put the matter crudely, he argued that the cat of atheism was out of the bag. The meanest capacities could now learn that religion was a myth, and when a myth is exposed for what it is, it can no longer serve to provide a unified horizon.

Too many conservatives whose own belief is weak or nonexistent, who will privately admit that religion is “for the troops,” continue to try to teach the catechism to those troops, forgetting that the latter have by now been thoroughly exposed to the Enlightenment and its lessons.

One can also say that too many conservatives expose their own superficiality when they pretend that the truth of religion does not matter much because man is simply a religious animal with religious needs. If God is dead, or if He never existed, and man is nevertheless a religious animal, we must face the abysmal truth that man is so structured that reality can offer no fulfillment of his highest hopes or deepest yearnings. Man then is the animal that must hallucinate to be happy. But at this point conservatism ends and nihilism begins. If man is the hallucinating animal, the world is a chaos. But conservatism’s fundamental assertion has always been that human order is part of a cosmic order.

Psychologists of the phenomenological or existentialist persuasion might accuse conservatives of practicing denial when it comes to Nietzsche’s thought, and they would have a point. It would probably be more precise to say that conservatives simply think of religion as their own and therefore recoil from any perceived threat to it. They may not appreciate Nietzsche properly but they understand correctly his call for a candid atheism. Nietzsche asks them to surrender something near and dear to them, so they turn away.

The same proprietary interest in religion makes conservatives reluctant to admit that today religion is very often on the other side politically. Leaving aside the thorny question of whether the current upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism counts as left- or right-wing, there is the Anglican Church in Great Britain, which is in many respects to the Left of the conservatives, and Latin America’s liberation theology, with its avowed Marxist tendencies. As for the United States, it is not just the Moral Majority that is fueled by religious enthusiasm, but also the efforts of Jesse Jackson.

Instead of thinking in terms of Right and Left when it comes to religion, perhaps we should try to distinguish between traditional religious movements and apocalyptic ones or, as Irving Kristol puts it, between orthodoxy and gnosticism. But then we must wonder whether conservatism has assessed gnosticism any more profoundly than it has addressed the much larger question of the truth, as distinguished from the utility, of religion. Until conservatives grapple with that larger question, their defense of religion will continue to be open to challenge, and the genuine affinity they have for religious belief will remain without a proper intellectual foundation.

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