It is the drafters of the Freedom Conservatism principles who appear adrift in the American tradition and a sea of relativism.
The author has a Ph.D. in American history, a juris doctorate, and is familiar with many signers of the “Freedom Conservatism” statement and associated institutions. While The American Postliberal does not typically publish anonymous essays, we believe that the position of the author and their viewpoints are worth sharing.
To much fanfare, a group of libertarian think tank leaders, journalists and politicos recently put out a new set of principles for “Freedom Conservatism.” Avik Roy, the leader of the initiative, stated this was meant to be the new “Sharon Statement” for our day, with the National Conservative’s Statement of Principles as the clear target. (The “Sharon Statement” was a set of “timeless” conservative principles of economic and personal liberty signed in September 1960 by the Young Americans for Freedom on William F. Buckley Jr.’s porch. Roy has outright claimed the mantle of Buckley-Reagan conservatism and deemed National Conservatives and other non-Freedom Conservatives to be the “authoritarian right”). Unsurprisingly, this statement was followed by a litany of dismissals from the National Conservative and Postliberal Right for its rehashing of staid, placid ideas. Oren Cass’ response was particularly devastating, saying of the statement that the signers had a brand and a logo, but what they lacked was “anything to say.”
The secular vapidity is one of the foremost criticisms of the statement. Indeed, somehow a statement of ten “conservative” principles, which included freedom of conscience, America’s “promissory note,” our nation as a “city upon a hill,” and liberty had not a single reference to God. However, what has been explored in less depth was the degree to which these Freedom Conservatives misunderstand the inheritance they are claiming. As Andrew T. Walker rightfully points out, the original Sharon Statement was forcefully clear that the freedom referred by conservatives was based in Godly creation and ordination, not the universal equal rights of Millsonian relativism.
To understand just how far the statement is from the American tradition, it is worth briefly considering the essential philosophy of the man who wrote the Sharon Statement, M. Stanton Evans. Evans, as Steven Hayward recently captured in his biography, is an understudied pillar of the modern American conservative movement, having not only written the “Sharon Statement,” but helped found the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and the National Journalism Center and spent critical years in the 1960s as an editor at National Review.
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Evans was without question an advocate for “fusionism,” the melding of traditional conservatism and libertarian free market economics usually associated with fellow National Review editor Frank Meyer. However, Evans himself was clear he was no libertarian or classical liberal, as he outlined in his 1964 essay, A Conservative Case for Freedom. Evans believed that, “the libertarian, or classical liberal, characteristically denies the existence of a God-centered moral order, to which man should subordinate his will and reason. Alleging human freedom as the single moral imperative, he otherwise is a thoroughgoing relativist, pragmatist, and materialist.” The conservative, on the other hand, he argued did “not share the authoritarian’s readiness to coerce his fellow men into virtue, but neither does he share the libertarian’s commitment to freedom at virtue’s expense” because while the conservative believed man should be free, he did “not believe being free is the end of human existence.”
Evans thought that the “right choice is the terminal value” and freedom merely instrumental and a “subsidiary value” because economic and political freedom per se were not moral because “only willed human actions have moral content, and freedom dictates no particular actions.” Evans understood that classical liberals, whom he called “Manchesterians,” alleged that man’s self-interest would flourish under a regime of freedom and would be sufficient a sanction to keep liberty intact. They believed this because they also affirmed the natural goodness of man because they saw the state as the source of evil against the “unfettered individual” and they had faith in “progress” as the product of free men, linking material success with moral virtue. Evans rejected this view of man, which he said at the extremes made the modern libertarian a “philosophical anarchist” and “free-enterprise Utopian” against the conservative view that men were not to be trusted because they needed to be restrained given the “destructive tendencies” of a fallen humanity.
Evans was, in this respect, not alone. As Charles Kesler wrote in the Claremont Review of Books earlier this year, “The political drama of Buckley-Reagan conservatism lay not in the formulas of fusionism, handy as they were, but in the rollicking political battles that the nascent conservative movement fought—and by which it defined itself—against the liberal ‘establishment.’” Buckley admonished President Eisenhower in 1959 for encompassing the “blandness of Modern Republicanism” which made “intellectual and political resistance to the continued liberal offensive…all but impossible.”
Similarly, the preeminent conservative theorist of the 20th century, Russell Kirk, wrote seventy years ago in The Conservative Mind that after the Civil War, Americans became consumed by Emersonian self-reliant atomistic individualism and as a result, “few peoples have been so complacent about evil in their midst as have the Americans since the Civil War, and no people have been so ready to deny the very existence of evil. Twentieth-century America presents the spectacle of a nation tormented by crime, urban vice, political corruption, family decay, and increasing proletarianization.” Conservatism, Kirk reflected, could not exist anywhere “without reverence for dead generations” and the “incessant movement and alteration of life in America, the absence of true family continuity” united to tempt Americans to ignore the past.
Consider, too, the preeminent conservative theorist of the Cold War period, Wilmoore Kendall, who was William F. Buckley Jr.’s mentor at Yale and one of National Review’s early editors. Liberalism, wrote Kendall, was by its principles revolutionary because it sought to overthrow the established social order through the egalitarian principle (not to be confused with the founding principle of equality), as the “revolution must go on and on forever, since if you are in the business of making people equal there is and can be no stopping-place; revolutionary, finally, because the job cannot be done by a government of limited powers—any more, to use James Burnham’s phrase, than you can use an automobile to dig potatoes.”
Finally, Buckley himself, on who’s porch the Sharon Statement was signed, wrote in Up from Liberalism in 1959 that liberalism had “effected a revolution” once logical positivism provided it with a metaphysical base and that the consequence of this instrumental view of life was that contemporary Western thought was “no match for Communism because it is not a redemptive creed” and lacking a “program expressible in other than gross material terms…attempted alchemical experiments on democracy” to grant it the status of the Virtuous Society.
The content of the Sharon Statement flows naturally from Evan’s view of the purposes of government, the nature of man, and the relationship between freedom and virtue. From the outset, its signers declared that they desired to affirm “certain essential truths” and foremost “the transcendent value is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” They were clear that the single greatest threat to American freedom was Communism, an evil force that could not sustainably be co-existed with. Today, it appears that Whittaker Chambers was right to worry that the deeper threat was not the Cold War but the rise of secular, progressive liberalism in America that would mirror the atheist totalitarianism of the Soviets with the power of “Man without God.” As Chambers wrote in A Letter to My Children,
Freedom is a need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom…history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.
This is the essential danger of the Freedom Conservatives’ imagination of an ultimately misunderstood conservatism. Their update to the principles of 1960 is suggestive that Chambers was sufficiently pessimistic, showing the underlying presumption of a group signers who did not think the presence of God necessary is precisely that American conservatism can exist without God. As Daniel Mahoney succinctly put it in the American Mind, “A freedom that cannot name and vigorously resist moral nihilism for what it is, risks becoming all creed and no country.”
It was Buckley himself who said, “There is no conservative political manifesto which, as we make our faltering way, we can consult, confident that it will point a sure finger in the direction of the good society.” Today’s postliberals and National Conservatives rightly take umbrage with the Sharon Statement embrace of market libertarianism, but they too should keep in mind the Christian ontology which, while ultimately misunderstood, underscored Evan’s imagination. It is, however, the drafters of the Freedom Conservatism principles who appear adrift in the American tradition and a sea of relativism. We are left to ask, if one does not know how and why they stand, how do they know they are not sinking?