This is no longer your father's American conservatism. Who gets to define it in 2021?
A Guide for the Overwhelmed
How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation
By Timothy S. Goeglein and Craig Osten
(Regnery Gateway, 2019)
Conservative Americans know that much is wrong in and with our society. Unfortunately, threats to our way of life are coming from so many directions, and affecting so many institutions, beliefs, and practices, that it is easy to feel overwhelmed. What can a citizen do when his communities and fellow citizens are constantly bombarded by criticism and invective? How are Americans to provide a coherent, effective response to those who hold in contempt everything traditional—from the natural family, to the work ethic, to public respect for religion, to local self-government? How do we respond to those who judge what most Americans hold dear to be wrong, if not evil, and who use positions of power in government, the arts, education, and both old and new media to teach our young people to be ashamed or resentful of who they are and from whence they came?
It would be foolish to claim that there is one central issue or plan that can “take back America.” Our cultural crisis is too deep and widespread for any simple solution. But it is possible to help people sort out the dangers they face and realign their thoughts, feelings, and actions so they may better resist encroaching tyranny and restore the fundamentals of decent character and functioning communities.
Timothy S. Goeglein and Craig Osten have crafted a road map that can lead us back to our traditional lives of family, faith, and self-governing freedom in our local communities. Their book does not offer any simple list of policy prescriptions. Instead they provide a kind of how-to guide for rebuilding, not America as an abstract whole, but our lives in a culture that is deeply sick.
Goeglein and Osten break down the task of restoration into fourteen areas, culminating in a final chapter on “restoring America.” Topics range from religious liberty to civility to “the concept of the gentleman.” Each chapter begins by briefly laying out a central problem. For example, the authors argue that our Constitution has been undermined by judges and politicians who push the notion of a “living constitution” as a means of securing the progressive policies they desire. As important, the authors cite specific, telling instances of cultural abuse. In medical ethics, for example, both our liberty and our commitment to a culture of life are undermined by increasing pressure on doctors to act against their conscience in procuring abortions for any who want them.
American progressives have effectively combined ideology and political activism to undermine our society’s fundamental norms. American Restoration is strongest when its authors describe how this combination has empowered the state and harmed American persons and communities. In the chapter on the family and social capital, the authors remind us of the great progress made by African American families before Lyndon Johnson’s destructive Great Society discouraged family formation and fostered dependence on government programs.
The “war on poverty” was no simple scheme to give money to those in need. Rather, it was a coordinated effort, using government programs and national organizations, to “free” poor people and especially African Americans from the natural family and local charitable institutions. This was accomplished in part by substituting federal assistance for familiar and local support, and in part by denigrating traditional family structures. The result, as we know too well, has been a staggering increase in violence, crime, poverty, and educational failure affecting African American communities in particular and Americans more generally.
Sometimes the issues addressed in this book are legal (as in “restoring the Constitution”), sometimes moral (“restoring the culture of life”), and sometimes they border on the philosophical (“restoring America’s founding principles”). In their placement within the book and in their general character, the authors’ chapters emphasize the connections between cultural and political issues. Thus, the chapter on religious liberty is followed by medicine and medical ethics, then the culture of life. In each chapter a traditional American understanding of the issues gives rise to recommendations that are general in policy terms but specific in their call for each of us to order our soul before working to restore order in the commonwealth.
The authors strive—perhaps a bit too hard in some instances—to be ecumenical in their examples, authorities, and language. At a time when conservatives, and their own brand of religious conservatism in particular, face blistering criticism for their lack of “inclusiveness,” Goeglein and Osten seek to present no sharp or even hard edges. Still, they do not hide their Christian convictions. Quotations from the Bible are numerous, well chosen, and aimed at making specific points. In addition, the authors are clear that standards of virtue are rooted in an understanding of God’s will. Yet this inclusiveness has intellectual limits. It is notable that Goeglein and Osten do not reference natural law—their book is written in an evangelical Protestant mode.
Of particular note is the chapter on restoring “the concept of the gentleman.” Here the authors’ faith and convictions are on full display. A gentleman is “a man who is strong, under control, and under the authority of his Master, Jesus Christ, who provided the perfect example of what it takes to be not only a man, but a gentleman in the truest sense of the word.” This statement, issued after a cushioning “it has also been said,” is a reminder of each man’s place in the social order as husband, father, and member of his community. For the authors, a gentleman is both a product of and an utter necessity for a healthy culture within our Western civilization.
The Model Gentleman
The gentleman has become hard to find because Christianity is in crisis, because so many families break down or never form, and because, more generally, there are fewer and fewer good male role models for our sons to follow. The gentleman is essential to the maintenance of solid families and true respect (as opposed to hypocritical posturing and sexual predation) for women. He cannot be replaced by the male feminist, let alone the state.
Obviously, the model of the gentleman—Christian or otherwise—will garner derision from the cultural left. This is where authors like Goeglein and Osten face their greatest challenge. How do gentlemen restore a nation of faithful persons and communities governing themselves according to traditional moral precepts in the face of sustained, even violent hostility from ruling elites?
Goeglein and Osten choose the route of determined civility. Careful to tread lightly in many ways, the authors nevertheless argue that the natural family, the work ethic, public respect for religion, and local self-government are both traditional and good in themselves, hence essential for Americans to lead satisfying lives. Their target audience is religious folk seeking to reorient themselves to face hostility at school and work, on campus, and in the public square. Their goal is to help such people get their own houses and souls in order, to forge stronger alliances and communities so they may win the battle of ideas and restore our national character and society.
Politically, the goal is largely negative—to stop the federal government in particular from undermining our fundamental, natural associations either directly or through its support of hostile elites. The good news from this perspective is that the real work of cultural restoration is up to the people. And when freed from the heavy hand of political and cultural “correctness,” the people retain the means and the instinctive desire to carry out that work.
But the bad news is as serious as it is undeniable. However tolerant and respectful, dissent from the new cultural orthodoxy today is taken and treated as a campaign of hatred and oppression justifying extreme measures to restore the radical consensus. Elites rejecting the American tradition, Western civilization, religious faith, and even the idea of the person as something more than a collection of desires-of-the-moment have controlled the political and cultural heights for several generations, and have no intention of ceding power or ending their program to “fundamentally transform” our society and people. They have shown disdain for the most rudimentary elements of social order and fair play by supporting antifa thugs in the streets, cancel culture in the workplace and on social media, and increasingly brazen attempts to subvert the political process. Civility is insufficient in the face of force and fraud.
Obviously, even to suggest that civility is no longer enough is to risk being branded a defender of violence and oppression. But when an indignant tweet elicits the epithet “Nazi,” we already are far removed from a time of sensible public discourse. In such times, attempts to stay on the right side of the arbiters of good taste is a doomed, counterproductive endeavor. We must, then, dispense with calls for a virtue our elites value only as a restraint on those they seek to rule. We remain constrained by eternal, natural norms, but no longer by the constitutional morality that once bound political opponents. We are less in the position of debaters on a stage than of families returning from a long journey to find their homes, churches, and public square taken over by usurpers determined to remain and rule. Under such circumstances, even Christian gentlemen have a right and a duty to defend what is theirs. Goeglein and Osten properly lay out the morals we must serve, but we must serve them vigorously, by suing, boycotting, and challenging in every forum available those who have turned our public square into an open sewer of bigotry and vice.
Bruce P. Frohnen is professor of law at Ohio Northern University’s College of Law. His most recent book, with Ted V. McAllister, is Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul.
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