Well, I guess it really depends on what you mean by “neoconservatism.”  It’s Sam Tanenhaus’ description of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, one of his choices for the best five books on American conservatism.  His list caught my attention—notably, his willingness to include fiction on his list (and fiction for its own sake, not because it gives insight into Joe McCarthy or Buckley).  I don’t have my copy of Mr. Sammler’s Planet on hand, but I can say that I like this choice very much.  Despite my wariness about the label “neoconservative” (it seems almost meaningless anymore), something of that impression struck me, too, when I read the  novel.

But the neoconservatism of Mr. Sammler’s Planet is almost accidental, and hardly that version which gave us Iraq/Iran/etc. hawks in the last decade.  There have always seemed to be two neoconservatisms: that of the 1970s and 1980s, concerned, as is Sammler (and, to various degrees, Herzog, Charlie Citrine, Chick, etc.) with the seeming decay of society—or at least its changes, and ability of the human being to adapt to changes that seem to run on their own energy; and the neoconservatism that strikes one more as Wilsonianism on steroids than anything else.  (Maybe it could be put like this: in the earlier incarnation, the demon was already inside the gates; in the present, it must be kept outside at all costs.)  I will be honest: I have never found the former, as a social critique, unappealing.

All this talk of neoconservatism and Mr. Sammler’s Planet risks pigeonholing Bellow’s work as something it was not.  He was a writer with an agenda, to be sure: but that agenda was nothing more than to describe and diagnose society as he saw it.  An old but excellent review of the novel says it well: “Saul Bellow is pre-eminently the novelist of man-in-culture, man swimming in an ocean of ideas in which he often feels near to being swamped.”  Whatever such neoconservatism there is does not come from the fear, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “that [the moral degeneracy of modernity has made] the West was too decadent to defeat Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”  Artur Sammler is a man who survived the Holocaust but not unchanged, only to discover that the world in which he now lives is not the same as that for the sake of which he struggled to survive.  The verities of his life before rupture—the verities he wanted to live for—no longer exist.  (But it is the world he has: it is, after all, Mr. Sammler’s planet.)

Rather than having its roots in anything political, the critique, at its core, is something far more Faulknerian:

I read in The Wall Street Journal about the melancholy of affluence, “Not in all the five millennia of man’s recorded history have so many been so affluent.”  Minds formed by scarcity are distorted.  The heart can’t take this sort of change.  Sometimes it just refuses to accept it.  (Humboldt’s Gift, p. 3)

The problem with modernity in Bellow’s novels is this: its curses and its blessings are essentially indistinguishable, and neither could exist with the simultaneous presence of the other.

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I know he’s probably sick of everyone talking about him by now, but E.D. Kain’s recent talk about abandoning the conservative label began to remind me about a similar moment his colleague William had a few years ago (not leading, in the end, to a permanent abandoning of the word), which sent me looking through a bunch of old posts to see my responses to him, and to see what my own struggles with labels looked like then.  What William wrote then, I think, deserves being quoted again:

Conservatism, broadly construed, is dedicated to a certain kind of story about our political life, just as the liberalism is dedicated to its own story. To say “I am a conservative” or “I am a liberal” is to endorse a story. And the mainstream of the conservative movement, right now, is advancing a certain interpretation of that story.

So what do you do when the genre turns ugly? You don’t stay silent; you tell a better story. You take the various codes and tropes, and you learn how to make them compelling again.

You reclaim the word by reclaiming the genre.

Changing it through telling stories, through reclaiming the genre, makes it (to my ear) sound easier than it probably is.  But I don’t mind that.  It’s reassuring—it doesn’t seem impossible.

The story that needs to be rebutted is that which has come out of the weird afterlife of Buckley’s invocation to “Stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’”  While from a certain perspective it’s admirable just as was Hektor’s defense of Troy despite knowing it would inevitably fall.  Society changes; someone has to caution—someone has to lay the gadfly.  But this requires one to accept that yelling, “Stop!” is an act doomed to failure.  History will not stop because it cannot stop.

Without that realization, when the image lapses into dogma, the problem arises, as I’ve said before:

Standing athwart history means standing outside of history.  Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live.  Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves?  (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”)  And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).

The story that needs to be told now, after all, is one that has already been told.  In that regard, I suppose, we’re fortunate.  It’s the story of Jack Burden’s hard-won wisdom in the beautiful closing paragraph of All the King’s Men:

We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among the trees as soundlessly as smoke.  But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

(N.B.: This post is primarily a thought experiment.  For the sake of that experiment, I occassionally take things for granted. — JLW, 4/6/09)

Scott Payne’s “Twenty-First Century Conservatism” is well worth a read, even if you wind up disagreeing with all of it. While I’m more prone to staying way up high in the ether and not really wanting to muddy my hands with how all this abstract stuff, you know, applies to politics, he goes there, or makes a start of it, which is helpful. Among his points:

Critically embrace tradition: a conservatism of the twenty-first century doesn’t need to cut is umbilical cord to tradition altogether, by my lights. In fact, conservatism’s connection to tradition is potentially one it’s strong points in a world increasingly loosened from any moorings. But conservatives need to find ways of embracing those traditions with a critical eye and be prepared to let go of traditions that no longer make any sense. This post by Will Wilson that keep going back to on engaging self-reflective traditions is the key here and I keep waiting for Will to pick that line of thought back up on move it forward a couple more yards, but it’s somewhere to start. This links in to some degree with my comments around culture and is, in many sense, a more full-bodied approach to reform in this regard, but I think there is a whole separate project and element to the ideology at work here that speaks to one of the core planks in conservative identity, so I’m loathe to mash the two together.”

There’s a danger in a self-conscious tradition, and a tradition in which it’s acceptable to toss off a limb for the sake of the whole — traditions, in addition to being billion-headed rabbis (not letting that analogy go, folks), are like starfish: limbs re-grow after time. (But a limbless tradition, like a limbless starfish, is less likely to survive: it’s probably more a danger with tradition than a starfish.)

The problem, on the other hand, with an ossified tradition is that it has ceased to live and lapsed into reflexive (more or less) dogma. An ossified tradition fails because the existence of a tradition within history inherently causes changes to the circumstances of that tradition — and that can necessitate changes to the tradition itself. To borrow (again) from Eliot’s imagery, the creation of a new work of art, by its existence, alters the relation of all previous works of art within the tradition to one another, even if imperceptibly.   Any tradition that is not dying or dead is a living tradition.

Or, to pull in Bringhurst (because I’ve been reading him):

“A myth is a theorem about the nature of reality, expressed not in algebraic symbols or inanimate abstractions but in animate narrative form.”

and,

“Because mythologies and sciences alike aspire to be true, they are perpetually under revision. Both lapse into dogma when this revision stops. . . . Where they are healthy, both mythology and science are as faithful to the real as their practitioners can make them, though evidently neither ever perfectly succeeds.”  (Robert Bringhurst, “The Meaning of Mythology” in Everywhere Being is Dancing)

Though not a perfect analogy, reading “myth” as “tradition” works to an extent. In a sense, the tradition is a theorem about the nature of reality, or how we should behave within reality, expressed through and on account of the acquired wisdom of prior generations. “Acquired wisdom”: it is human, not infallible. Burke was never a Tory, and that’s not irrelevant.

The danger lies in irresponsible revision of tradition to make it what we want, rather than understanding that for the tradition to be relevant and effective — for it to survive — it must speak to the moment. “Eipe kai hêmin” says the Odyssey’s narrator, invoking the Muse: “Speak to us in our time.”

The prime issue in matters of tradition and the critical re-thinking thereof is gay marriage. Scott links to this post of Conor’s, which lays out very nicely the Sullivan-esque “Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” I want to reframe that argument in terms of what I’ve been saying — to demonstrate how that argument is not a “revision of tradition to make it what we want” but a necessary political adaptation of the tradition to allow continued relevance.

It goes into matters of truth and form. (I don’t like the use of the word “truth” there — it’s misleading, in its way. The type of distinction I want to get at is better described as that of “poetry” as the essence of a poem, and “verse” as the form of it.) Marriage, as a political/societal tradition has at its core the truth that it is essential for society that family units be officially bonded and recognized, and that children, if at all possible, be brought up in families (death can be a circumstantial complication here, however). The form that the tradition stipulates is a man and a woman. Society, however, has moved away from that form, and – if divorce rates are to be allowed to speak their meaning – away from the idea of marriage in any form as much more than a legal contract. (My opinion of divorce is hardly Catholic, but when divorce rates are at 50%, it’s hard to make the case that marriage hasn’t been devalued somehow and that the stability of the nuclear family has been jeapordized.)

The move to make, such thinking would say, would be to alter the form to better preserve the underlying truth within society. That is to say, expand marriage to include same-sex couples, but make it clear in doing so that it is not because marriage and family mean whatever we want them to mean, but because of the importance of family in stable form to society.

And this all leads up to my objection to the idea of removing government from “marriage” altogether and calling everything a civil union. It defeats the purpose of expanding marriage to defend marriage and the nuclear family: in fact, it only devalues the idea of marriage by having the government declare that, for all political and society purposes, marriage is nothing more than a contract. Understanding marriage as something divorced from family (this should not be taken as saying that a valid marriage must produce children, or somesuch thing) is far more damaging to marriage, and certainly more against the tradition than altering the traditional form of marriage.

I used marriage as an example of how the logic of this understanding might work – disagreement with its appropriateness on this issue particularly shouldn’t be taken to mean that it is, generally, inapplicable.

Another caveat: I’m talking here purely about the tradition in political/societal terms. None of this applies to religious or religious/societal understanding of tradition, but the religious tradition and the political tradition oughtn’t be allowed to merge. The Pope need not compromise because of popular sentiment – there’s a strong case that he shouldn’t (but I’m not Catholic, so I’m staying away from actual Catholic issues; he just works as a nice example). One is about the relationship among humans, and the stability of society, and, because of this, is far more mutable; the other is about the relationship between man and G-d (and only after this the relationship among men) and because of this far more immutable.

Wrestling With The Is

March 24, 2009

I see now that I’m not the first person to point this out, but Washington Monthly has an interesting take up on the short-lived life of Culture11 (Rod gets the h/t because I saw it there first).  Before saying something myself, I want to point out two things.  First, from the article itself:

“What Culture11’s editors got right was the observation that, regardless of what you think of the world as it is, you can’t figure out how to wrestle with it until you understand what’s actually happening in it.”

 And then this, from Rod’s discussion of the article:

“As Claes Ryn put it in a penetrating TAC essay, organized conservatism finds itself wrecked today because it abandoned the culture, and taught itself to see the culture only in political terms.What we’ve turned into is a slightly more sophisticated, somewhat more secular version of Joe Carter’s Christian “shit-counters.” And see, this goes back to yesterday’s discussion (which I tried to launch, but which, like every homosexuality-related thread on this blog, gets taken over by the grinds) about why churches and social conservatives have got to find some way to articulate the old verities, the permanent things, in a way that’s compelling to people in this culture. You can’t just stand there and yell, “No!” at whatever the liberals throw out there, and expect that to change minds and win hearts.” [emphasis mine — JLW]

Reminiscent of any famous conservative line from a famous conservative writer?  Pace William F. Buckley, standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!” ought not be the underlying principle of any conservative politics.  It’s a good quip, and as such, I don’t think you can claim in good faith that it was meant, as phrased, as a philosophical principle, but still — standing athwart history yelling stop can’t work, and cannot work because we live within history.  While the man who sees his calling as yelling, “Stop!” may be filling a needed role, it can’t be more than a role, and he as well as others need to accept that he will always appear somewhat like Kubrick’s Major Kong in his final moments on camera in Dr. Strangelove.

Standing athwart history means standing outside of history.  Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live.  Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves?  (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”)  And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).

I don’t pretend to do more now than come at a particular aspect of what it must do, but I see it as important: it must appreciate.  The teaching of others — and learning ourselves — of appreciation of culture, and tradition: of what-is, and what-was — though by doing so we vivify the what-was and it remains the what-is.  Cultural prizes, from Homer to Chartres to Keats to those of the present day, are not past so long as they are appreciated and understood and prized.  But the last cannot happen without at least the first, and an effort made toward the second.  The cultural tradition is a living tradition: so are the political, and moral, and religious traditions of our lives; but I can better talk about it in terms of culture.  All of those discussions, of course, are different, but not so much that they can’t be understood by analogy.

“Our post-modern generation is beginning to understand this.  It is beginning to see that in the process of establishing his autonomy and gaining mastery over the instruments of living, Western man has managed to lose his grasp of the meaning of life, his control over the dark destructive forces within himself and society.  In gaining — or rather in trying to gain — the world, he has come very close to losing his soul.”

And, leading up to a proclamation of “the essential homelessness of man”:

“We stand confounded, perplexed, consumed with anxiety.  Everything has become problematical, everything has turned into meaninglessness, absurdity, nothingness.  But that everything is our existence, our very life.

“What does it all signify?  It signifies that, deceive himself as he may, man is never entirely at home in the natural universe of which he is part — and he knows it.”

Judaism and Modern Man, pgs. 8 and 15, respectively

Just sayin’.  His definition of “post-modern” is awfully similar to how PomoCo wants to define it.  And you should see him talk about contemporary–albeit to the 50s–psychiatry: if Tom More had the same occasionally over-the-top syntax and diction, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it in a Louisiana accent.

Admittedly, I’m not that far into the book, but at the rate I’m making margin notes referring to Lawler, Percy, etc., I’m inclined to thing there’s some sympathy — if nothing else — there.

Ramesh Ponnuru to a classmate of mine, Matt Zeitlin: “Aren’t you that impetuous young whippersnapper?” It became a different kind of funny when I realized that’s actually the name of his blog. He seems to do a better job of being a blogger than I do, which isn’t hard, considering that I still don’t know how I feel about this as a medium. (This also means that Northwestern’s undergraduate-political-blogging output is something like 1/10th or so of Yale’s: look out, you Mafiosi, here we come!)

This is all by way of saying both, “Hi, Matt! (And if you can’t decipher the initials, I’m the Classics major in that course on Modernist poetry.)” and “I actually sort of know this guy who I’m about to take issue with.” Now, while I’ll confess that National Review‘s “Top 25 Conservative [insert-culture-item-here]” lists tend to leave me at least vaguely puzzled, and while I don’t remember much of Master and Commander other than it was long, I enjoyed watching it, but have never desired to do so a second time, I don’t think his critique of their interpretation quite works. He writes:

“I shouldn’t have to explain why a state – which is a set of legal and institutional arrangements designed (ideally) for the mutual advantage of its citizens – shouldn’t adopt the values of a war ship. The fact a certain set of values and assumptions makes sense in a institutional setting where the goal is to kill and destroy is a good argument for why they don’t make sense in society at large.”

Now, what was in the NRO blurb was this:

“It imagines the [H.M.S.] Surprise as a coherent society in which stability is underwritten by custom and every man knows his duty and his place.”

The problem here is that the goal of the H.M.S. Surprise, at least insofar as most of the movie is concerned (this is, of course, based on a hazy memory) is not “to kill and destroy” so much as it is to survive. It’s a warship, yes, so destruction has something to do with its purpose, but the threats it faces come less frequently from the French than from nature and chance. And in those instances too-perhaps those instances in particular-custom and duty play important roles in survival

So if one looks at the film from a different angle-where it is not merely the story of a warship in pursuit, but also a ship, housed and run by a society in miniature doing its damnedest to stay afloat, you needn’t limit the lessons and attitudes that allow it to do so to an aircraft carrier; when the Surprise is a ship trying to stay afloat, it becomes (just like that!) an allegorical society/government in miniature. And such an allegory has its value to conservatism – I refer you to this passage from Oakeshott’s “Political Education” that I’ve basically used this entire post as an excuse to quote:

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

It is, of course, the situation in which the Surprise finds herself. And it may well have been that Miller’s write-up would have been better suited to reference Oakeshott (but then again, referencing Oakeshott means you expect everyone to have read him; and I’d daresay Burke sells more books – then again, I don’t know that I’d expect an Oakeshott reference on the Corner too often). But I digress. The point isn’t that I can close-read Master and Commander to fit my politics; it’s that the movie happens to parallel Oakeshott’s metaphor quite well: which is to say that it expands it into over two hours and lets us watch it in living color. In times of crisis, society survives by relying on what it knows, or at least knows best; but understanding some semblance of order and structure; by behaving within bounds that have already been tested by history. And,

“If the doctrine deprives us of a model laid up in heaven to which we should approximate our behaviour, at least it does not lead us into a morass where very choice is equally good or equally to be deplored.”

So the promised “no-holds-barred intellectual debate” between Ramesh Ponnuru and Rick Perlstein over the question, “Has the Hour of Conservatism Passed?” was not nearly as “no-holds-barred” as my e-mail inbox seemed to promise, probably due to the fact that “conservatism” was never actually defined.  Perlstein, in many senses, recounted Sam Tenenhaus’ case about movement conservatism from a somewhat different perspective; Ponnuru countered with the usual.

I suppose I was disappointed in that it didn’t touch on anything that might revitalize conservatism — or any discussion other than the usual boilerplate of where it might have gone wrong.  Perlstein gave a brief introduction to Kirk’s “6 canons” but a recognition of limits was very quickly glossed over — there wasn’t much space (or time) in the room for consideration of a Bacevich-type critique; and even if not that particular angle, an angle that is something more than either party’s talking point(s) is needed for the conversation about conservatism to be effectively meaningful.

But then again, I also suppose that I was never expecting the intellectual issues to be solved in a single two-hour session in that creepy lecture hall at Northwestern with portraits of former presidents and board chairmen peering down on us (and mauveish panelling).

But afterwards, I was chatting briefly with an acquaintance much more involved in the campus political scene than I.  He’d sent me a link to this article, by Christopher Lasch, about a week ago; and there, we agreed, would be a good starting place for the discussion (a part of the discussion, at least) of where conservatism goes now.  So I present the link, with the only comment that it was written in 1990 — which makes it seem rather prescient.

I’m going to try to put together some more descriptive/cohesive thoughts on conservatism, writing, and reporting over the weekend, but for now I’ll point you toward William Beutler’s take on it from way back in May, or at least this paragraph, which is the point I particularly want to channel:

“The reaction is usually to set up an alternative forum which is defined as being explicitly conservative. The problem is that these alternative organizations often operate inside a bubble which their “liberal” counterparts do not. This can be the case beyond journalism as well. On the web we can see this very clearly: The non-partisan but in some ways “liberal” Wikipedia has been answered by the conservative-minded, low-quality Conservapedia.”

If nothing else, it seems that C11’s shuttering has reopened discussion of conservatives and reporting — not merely about politics, but about culture.  So there’s your silver-lining for the day.
***
In his C11 post-mortem, Joe Carter answers the question I spent five months pondering: What’s up with that name?  And why is Google unable to help me figure it out?

“In case you hadn’t heard, LibertyWire was our original name. But it didn’t fit. Even if we were to be a political site, LibertyWire didn’t convey the type of site we wanted to become. As William Beutler said, the name “sounds like an Associated Press for Ron Paul voters.” So we searched for a new name. And searched. And searched.

Choosing a domain name is a tough task; choosing a domain name that suits a crew of hardheaded and opinionated writers is nearly impossible. The suggestions ranged from the horrible (Voxtale) to the bland (MainStreetScene) to the what-were-they-thinking (The Confabulum(!)). I had been kicking around the idea that we should be focused on 11 key areas of culture (which became our 11 categories), so I suggested “Culture11.” We didn’t hate it, which was consensus enough. It was short, easy to remember, and – most importantly – the URL was available. Culture11 we became.”

I tried writing this last night, but it wasn’t clicking.  Not only am I incapable of writing two non-obits/non-elegies back-to-back, but what’s to be said in memorium has been said better than I could hope to.

I always viewed Conor’s essay, “Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism,” as something of a manifesto for the site.  The fate of Culture11 in particular notwithstanding, the piece remains true.  What conservatism needs now is more journalists, broadly defined, not activists.  I say “broadly defined” because I want to include the full breadth of form that could be included in this very apt definition of his (emphasis mine):

“Unless colleges and journalism schools start assigning Burke, Hayek, Friedman, and quite a few others, the answer depends upon whether the right is willing to invest in talented young people who understand conservatism and libertarianism, but whose foremost loyalty is to investigating their world and conveying whatever they find.

Perhaps it’s arrogant for a would-be writer to go about proclaiming that what we need now are “writers” — but that word alone kind of misses the point.  If a general conservatism is more right than wrong, then the recording and transmission of what we see in the world around us should prove that point.  Showing, not bloviating, is the way forward.  And — lest we forget that the title was composed of words (well, a word and a number) — it establishes culture.  The “culture wars” are the wrong wars in our society because they are a fight between “cultures” rather than a fight to retain and further establish the beautiful one we have, and the tradition underlying it.

That essay, and a week-long spate of pure energy crackling out of PoMoCo last fall, pushed me into getting started with this writerly experiment you’re reading (a form I never imagined using and at a time I would have never imagined beginning), and, like many others, gave me my first opportunity to see my writing published.  I’ll always be grateful for that, even if I wish I were more satisfied with the piece.

Paul Dean, reviewing Geoffrey Hill’s critical writings in December’s TNC:

“If language is fallen, yet can be God-bearing, has it been redeemed, and if so, how? Was language, too, saved on Cavalry? (That is not a flippant question.)”

Though I’m not exactly of authority to hazard a response to that question in its particular form, I’ll do it anyway: If language is fallen, I wouldn’t place the fall in connection with Original Sin (as Hill, apparently, does) or, more specifically, with “the serpent’s use of specious argument to win Eve over” (as Dean does). Babel, rather, seems the proper setting for its (literal) Fall: the Fall involved punishment, but language was not punished until after Babel, when it was made imperfect and scattered out of a unity.

Of course, I have trouble with what I’ve just been saying, mostly because language of “the Fall” and “fallenness” isn’t something I’m perfectly comfortable with. They are, to my ears, inextricably linked with the idea of Original Sin-and therefore, like it, not Jewish terms. I understand them, of course, and have developed an aesthetic appreciation of the concept – I have to if I intend to live within the Western literary tradition (and have to if I intend to appreciate so many of the works on any meaningful scale). But to truly believe the language, one needs (I think) a Christian sensibility.

My preference is to couch discussion of post-Edenic existence in terms of loss, not fall. Between that and a (more Jewish) belief in an inherent imperfection in man (a state caused by not being divine, or The Divine, rather than resulting from a Fall), there’s enough common ground that I can read (for example, since his book is on my desk as I’m writing) Peter Lawler and sense that we agree on the present state of man’s fallibility and imperfection, while disagreeing on how he got there and where he’s going from there/how he’s getting out of it.

So I would say that language is less Fallen than humanly imperfect; that its fall from the peaks of Babel represents not a Fall but a brokenness — a loss, if you will, of wholeness.

And if we’re going to talk about the merits of the term “Judeo-Christian tradition,” or, more specifically, a Judeo-Christian political tradition, it stands to point out that the two traditions define the origins (and therefore the particular nature) of man’s imperfection differently. Such differing opinions regarding the meaning of the expulsion from Eden and the validity of Original Sin/whether we are specifically fallen, are not negligible, and any common conservative politics (as opposed to worldview or disposition), or (more aptly?) dialogue of conservative politics in/for a shared arena, can’t be established without some sort of contingent superstructure built (precariously?) above it – though that structure may merely be acknowledgement of this difference.

(I suppose you could argue that a similar endeavor is required for non-religious conservatives; though I wonder whether background in the Christian/Jewish/other tradition wouldn’t play an important role here – possibly so much so that merely being a non-religious conservative from the Christian tradition would provide more common ground – on this single matter – than if one were religious but coming from the Jewish tradition.)