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Do big tents go anywhere?

Evan McLaren notes that I mostly deal with grand issues and tend toward a “big tent” approach, at least among right-wingers, and wonders whether that makes sense.

I think my approach has been helpful theoretically, for getting an overall understanding of issues. If you give free play to a lot of different concerns, and don’t try to impose order on them too quickly, you’ll get a better understanding of what all is in play. I think conservatives in general have been stronger on hot-button issues than grand theory, so maybe my approach has something to add.

The approach does have its limits. If grand theory matters then it matters. In particular, if there’s no common ultimate standard to appeal to then we can all agree that the advanced liberal state is a problem but very soon discussions turn into agreements to disagree and proposals for common action break down.

In the end I think Catholicism has to be the system of thought that integrates it all. It provides the only systematic way that makes sense to me for thinking about highest standards and relating them to life and the world. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

Of course I get complaints from every direction about everything I talk about:

  • Christians who aren’t Catholics complain about Catholicism. I usually just repeat the standard arguments of Catholic apologists.
  • Non-Christian non-secular types complain about Christianity. Again I usually just repeat standard apologetic arguments.

    One complaint from people sympathetic to Integral Traditionalism and the European New Right is that Christianity is exoteric not esoteric, so it’s implicitly universalist and democratic and it got us where we are today. ENR types also complain that it’s monotheistic and transcendentalist so it disenchants the world and everything in it, with the same result.

    Here the answer is that there has to be some universal principle of cosmic unity that’s at least somewhat knowable and publicly discussable for rational thought to be possible. If you’re worried that the knowable discussable universal principle is going to eat up everything else so that each particular thing becomes a boring instance of the same old universal rule then the best way to counter that is through the doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and Transcendence. Those doctrines put mystery at the heart of everything and mean that every particular thing matters and has open-ended possibilities. I suppose it also helps if you have a more complex idea of rationality than formal logic plus scientific method, for example if you include evaluation and the ability to recognize patterns as part of rationality.

  • Secular right-wingers, especially those who say the sky is falling and something has to be done right now, complain that Catholicism isn’t a policy you can just adopt. In addition, people today often understand Catholicism to require pacificism, open borders, and a big welfare state. So it’s at best useless and at worst harmful.

    The answer is that any political society has preconditions. If you think there are big problems you won’t get anywhere unless you look at the preconditions for something better and take them seriously on their own terms. You have to give up the view that politics or for that matter utility is the highest standard. That’s the level on which we should approach Catholicism.

    Also, if you view Catholicism as a precondition—as a general understanding that defines the world overall rather than a this-worldly policy blueprint—then you become free to consider every possible concern on its merits. If open borders is a problem you can say why it’s a problem, how it relates to other problems, and what to do about it.

  • Respectable people complain that I don’t like inclusiveness and some people who don’t like it go in troubling directions.

    The answer is that it really is a problem to turn inclusiveness and nondiscrimination into supreme moral principles. Family life requires masculinity and femininity so people have to think of them as different and that has to make a practical difference. And abolishing all separations and distinctions among peoples gives you a lowest common denominator culture. That’s not a culture at all or at best a very debased one. As a practical matter it’s going to mean that money, spin, impulse, advertising, therapy, bureaucratic regulation etc. become the basic principles of social life. Is that really going to work in the long run?



As a trad-con confessional Protestant (Calvinist), I actually see nothing to be gained from arguing over doctrinal points; you have your Roman Catholic worldview, and I have mine. But, must it needs be, that never the twain shall meet? I know Abraham Kuyper, in times past, was able to build a coalition between traditionalist R.C.s and Calvs, and in recent times, there have been people like “Fr. Jape” (New Pantagruel), who have been sympathetic to the likes of David Koysis (“Byzantine-Rite Calvinist”), finding common ground in ways of looking at contemporary developments. Notwithstanding your commitment to the R.C. worldview, how optimistic are you, regarding the possibilities of finding common ground with trad-Prots and trad-Eastern-Orthodoxers? I’m inclined, like Serbian Orthodoxer Srdja Trifkovic, to find hope in the prospect of an “anti-ecumenical unity”, on political matters, between the three main Christian traditions, whilst maintaining our distinctives, obviously, in theological matters. I’m just not sure how to approach this, in terms of building an effective anti-ecumenical yet decidedly “mere Christianity” political coalition; how do we find that common ground, to work together effectively, without minimizing our differences?

I’m convinced that, given our times, whilst we may wish for a single-worldview way out of our current problems, the only way forward will be one that is broader than that yet still tightly focused. But how to implement that practically, I have no idea. Things were quite different in Kuyper’s day.

There’s no perfect answer.

Religious people take ultimate goals seriously and they aren’t exactly the same for the three groups. Ultimate goals matter, as a way of focusing thought, effort and devotion if nothing else. You can’t downplay them too much or you lose that focus and then you get nowhere.

For all that there’s certainly a lot of common ground in a period in which left/liberalism is as strong as it is today. Trad RCs, Prots and EOs have a generally similar understanding of man and the world and therefore of politics. They oppose state absolutism. They favor substantial independence of local and informal institutions. They accept the traditional moral understandings that support the functioning of such institutions. They think public institutions should support those understandings when appropriate. They think the public order should somehow recognize its connection to the divine order.

All that means that a very broad range of practical alliances is possible. Since politics is the art of the practical, we should pursue them. The other side has its problems too, and it’s quite possible that if we do our best they’ll do worse and we’ll make headway, maybe a lot of headway. Not everybody can lose.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Your site keeps me coming back precisely because it deals with the broad, foundational issues more than the specifics. We’re all quite familiar with conservatism as a laundry list of policies, but reading your site is the first place I’ve seen it articulated as a coherent philosophy in its own right.