With the dust now settled from incumbent Justin Amash and challenger Brian Ellis’s acrimonious Republican 3rd District primary race, it seems time to reflect on the dominant political temperament of West Michigan and the need to refresh its unimaginative conservatism. No one seriously believes that Amash won’t hand his Democratic opponent, Grand Rapids businessman Bob Goodrich, a brutal flogging come November. The 3rd District has only elected one Democrat in the past century, and then only for a measly single term.
While Ellis was anything but a breath of fresh air, his campaign against Amash – needlessly vitriolic though it was – served to remind those with eyes to see that the Republican party’s internal disagreements have been upgraded from a friendly spat to blood sport. But to what end? As I wrote back in June, the Amash/Ellis throwdown could have been a chance to rethink what conservatism is for; instead it degenerated into a distracting debate over how much slack to give the “free market” over and against the Leviathan state. Any sense that the West Michigan conservatism should think of the common good in a robust, three-dimensional manner never appeared on the horizon.
And why should it? West Michigan conservatism has long been dominated by a Calvinistic Weltanschauung which, whether intrinsically or by way of ideological corruption, places a gross premium on worldly measures of success. Accompanying that outlook was, at least at one time, a core set of social values intended to uphold familial and communal life, though such concerns have started to fade into the background with the political left’s apparent victory in the so-called “culture wars.” The strong evangelical presence in the region has largely worked to uphold the conservative status quo, and other smaller denominations, such as Amash’s own Eastern Orthodox church, have fallen into line.
The Catholic church, with its rich social magisterium and longstanding warnings against the excesses of both socialism and capitalism, should, it seems, serve as not only a check on an overly individualistic and materialistic conception of political life, but as a wellspring of conservative renewal. Sadly that is not the case in West Michigan where the Catholic vote is split between those who remain convinced that the Democrats can effectively uphold Catholic socio-economic principles and others who, no doubt out of frustration with the left’s identity-politics obsession, hitched their wagons to bland mainline conservatism decades ago.
Indeed, Grand Rapids is home to the well-funded Acton Institute, a primarily Catholic-operated think tank dedicated to the sort of quasi-libertarianism congenial to tea party candidates like Amash.
None of this appears to bode well for the future of West Michigan conservatism, but all is not lost. Mixed within the Christian denominational framework of the area, to say nothing of non-Christian and non-believers whose theological-philosophical outlook inoculates them from both mainline Republicanism and tea party orthodoxy, are pockets of resistance and renewal.
At the academic level for example, Calvin College Professor James K.A. Smith, writing recently in The New York Times, reminded readers that while Christianity was not diametrically opposed to the capitalist system most conservatives genuflect before, the Christian tradition – Catholic and Protestant – remains concerned with justice and dignity for workers as well.
Last month, two Catholic laymen speaking as part of St. Isidore Catholic Church’s Fortnight for Freedom event – the newly retired United States Magistrate Judge Joseph G. Scoville and independent scholar Leonard W. Grotenrath, Jr. – delivered powerful lectures which addressed the marginalization, if not the myth, of religious freedom in America. While conservatives may continue to pay lip-service to the (instrumental) value of religion, it remains a good thought best kept behind closed doors, far away from the public square and certainly well beyond the possibility of directing socioeconomic policy in a humane manner.
There is still further intellectual reflection to be done. As it stands, powerful embedded interests pull the levers on West Michigan’s Republican machine and not even a purported “outsider” like Amash, who is aiming for a third congressional term, is beyond its reach. That is not a cause for despair, however. One of the surest signs of the political rot that can give way to revitalization is complacency, and for too long self-satisfaction with the myth of progress and the “American dream” has been the hallmark of conservatism, as if either of those ideological constructs don’t represent a revolution against what sober thinkers in soberer times would have recognized as part of the common good.
Don’t be fooled by the fashionable tea party narrative, either. Rather than staging a counterinsurgency against “insiders” and “crony capitalists,” the tea party represents a regression to the economic liberalism of the 19th century and its disordered faith in a marketplace unchecked by government oversight and background rules intended to offset the social costs of monopolization, pollution and worker exploitation.
For a frank discussion of what can become of common resources like water and air when left in the hands of the ostensibly benevolent market, look no further than last week’s Brunch with Bridge column by Rich Robinson. Centralized government is not the answer to all of life’s problems, but it is hardly an unqualified evil either.
At some point there will be a need for action, but right now the hard and heady work of outlining the principles of a new conservatism for West Michigan and, in time, the nation must press ahead. True freedom is a gift and it is incumbent that we exercise it wisely. Reason and revelation provide us with the principles to do so, if we have the courage to rely on them. To paraphrase and modify a line the great 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin would often say to his students, let us remember that God did not create this world for individualistic free-market ideologists alone; the rest of us have a right to live here, too.