There’s more to conservatism than genuflecting before ‘free markets’

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.

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Sun, 08/24/2014 - 12:58am
As a rather older observer of the W Michiganscene, I would think that the the Amash/Ellis smack down was principally a battle on the golf course. It was hardly the struggle for the soul of W Michigan conservative values. On this latter point, the regions conservatism splits east-west, a class break between the wealthy, golf course conservatives of the east and their powerful money networks, and to the west the religiously fueled social conservatives -- an extension of the older rural vote polity. This is approximately the difference between the Second and the Third Congressional seats. (The GOP decision to divide Kent County, to split the urban area by transferring Kentwood to the western side of the political region, obscures this fundamental east-west split). As to the Amash/Ellis battle, both are sons of wealth differing generationally and where they live. Ellis was a proud member of East Grand Rapids, old money, the kind that belongs to the Cascade CC. Amash is from Cascade township, living on the Watermark CC (a new-ish development); in a word, new money. Old money v new is the better explanation of the acrimony -- Ellis' final appeal was that he was basically a good and honorable man ( unlike his upstart opponent). While many had hoped that Ellis would articulate a more moderate version of conservatism of the kind of the previous two representatives, Paul Henry and Vern Ehlers, They went away disappointed. Ellis did not carry the fundamental religious convictions of the the former. What we have here is less a split than the waning of the long-standing conservative Calvinist community that had nurtured so many exemplary leaders.
Gabriel S. Sanchez
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 10:09am
Harris, Thank you for your thoughts. I am, admittedly, likely younger than you are and I spent nearly a decade away from West Michigan in my 20s. My "menu of concerns" is less about going back to some "good old days" of West Michigan conservatism (though there were certainly some good things there) and more about broadening what it is we ought to be conserving or, to use more contemporary parlance, valuing. In a way I am probably looking backwards and forwards, eyeing the principles upon which just political communities were, historically, built and hoping that those same principles, through the proper exercise of prudence, can be put back into play again.
Barry Visel
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 9:57am
Sometimes (if not often), my first reactions to something are not always right, but I want to share my first reaction to this article and the first comment, and see what others might think. I admit I rarely vote for democrats, but I'm not comfortable with republicans either, and this article helps me understand why. Both the article and first comment seem to combine religion with government...I always thought they should be separate...and I'm more convinced of that the older I get.
Gabriel S. Sanchez
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 10:04am
Barry, I don't know what you mean about "combining religious with government," though there's certainly no advocacy for a "confessional state" here. However, I reject out of hand the idea that people should somehow divorce themselves from their religious beliefs in everyday life because there happens to be a dominant, secular, prejudice in the air right now. As you will see, I spoke of reason and revelation -- two wellsprings of Western civilization which we ignore at our own peril. Although I didn't cover it in this piece, the (contestable) claims of some to be "areligious" in their socio-political affairs doesn't fly with me. Secularism comes packaged with its own creed, dogmas, and hierarchy of goods. Though a committed secularist and a committed Catholic, for instance, lack a certain common grammar on the level of revelation, they do share a common grammar on the level of reason (or at least one would hope they do). Where things begin to break down substantially is when individuals are enchanted by such philosophically dubious orientations as materialism, naturalism, and radical existentialism (historicism). Then it becomes much more difficult, though not impossible, for reasoned discussion to move forward. Thank you for your thoughts.
Barry Visel
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 1:53pm
Obviously people should not divorce their religious beliefs from everyday life (a basic premiss of our freedoms). But, they should not expect government to implement those beliefs on others. My perspective is that Conservatives/Republicans need more separation between their religious beliefs (or what they think their religious constituents believe) and the business of running our government...that's all.
Gabriel S. Sanchez
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 6:30pm
Fair enough. I am just not sure what you see as problematic with regard to what I've outlined here.
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 7:28am
I was probably too unclear about the religion and government aspect of the initial post. One of the most interesting political characteristics in West Michigan has been the influence of the Dutch immigrant community, and with it, their particular theological dispositions. These dispositions were at once conservative but also socially engaged, neither fundamentalist nor conventionally mainline Protestant; similar to and sympathetic to the social teaching among Catholics, but more institutionally grounded. In its political expression, moderate, most often on the Right. Paul Henry and Vern Ehlers both exemplified this broader tradition. So too did State Senator William Byl; the best current expression of this older tradition is Rep. Winnie Brinks, herself a Calvin grad. In the east-west divide in Kent County, this political thinking was definitely of the east side, more communitarian and certainly broader in social scope -- it is a position that has largely disappeared among present Republican politics to the regret of many. The concerns of economic elites and of the role of economic individualism, the hallmark of current conservative fare, are at a distance from this tradition. (The Acton Institute reveals this tension, at once championing economic elitism while trying to also reclaim this older Dutch tradition -- another story).
Hector Solon
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 12:23pm
Nice piece... hard to write about these topics without a reference to Dick & Betsy DeVos or Erik Prince (Blackwater) a major funder of the Action Institute, or Dave Agema, but it will do. The good people of West Michigan need to wake up to the continued slide of their GOP politics away from their CRC (and Catholic) roots, particularly in terms of poverty vs greed. Betsy's "May God Richly Bless You" has lost ground to a now out-of-control MI "Tea Party" fashioned by Koch funded neophytes like Scott Hagerstom & Jack Hoogendyk, to name a couple, following their "Free Market" heroes and paid political careers in the "Industry" of being conservative, an industry by the way, largely funded out of West Michigan. You might like this piece on the Southwest Michigan crowd: "De onversneden Filistijnen: Pernicious and Pugnacious Michigan Tea Party Philistines..."
Christina Jeffrey
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 2:29pm
Do you think your attack on the Acton Institute is fair? It has been around a long time and done much good - glancing at the latest things on the website, I do not get the impression that AI is out of sync with traditional Catholic social teaching on the goodness of man and the blessings of entrepreneurial efforts. I commend the following article to you for your consideration: May the good Lord bless us and keep us, may He let his Face shine upon us and His wisdom enlighten us, and may He continue to hold us in the palm of His hand.
Gabriel S. Sanchez
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 6:29pm
Christina, I am quite familiar with the Acton Institute, its publications, and the speakers/thinkers it promotes. While I would agree that it attempts to position itself with the Catholic Church's social magisterium (and, from there, the social thought of other conservative Christian confessions), its commitment to economic liberalism, individualism, and the economic-political ideology of the so-called "Austrian School" renders it outside the bounds of what Catholicism teaches. I know that they would disagree with that assessment, but there are a myriad of detailed critiques out there of Acton's libertarian commitments and the fact that economic liberalism is not compatible with Catholic Social Teaching.
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 1:39pm
Heady big words for one that appears to have an academic intellect with no apparent real grasp of the battle at hand. This community does NOT want to go back to the academic social liberal 'conservatives' of Henry and Ehlers. Both were RINO's that voted the opposite of most fiscal *and* moral conservatives (the biggest voting block in this area). How we ever elected Gerald Ford I don't know as he was one of those RINO republican's that frustrated the majority of the people that had to vote for him. He meant well, but lacked a central moral conscience to ground him... I am personally glad that the establishment Cascade Country Club elite got a bit of their hat handed to them in Amash's victory. No, Amash isn't ruling with a religious fist. That doesn't belong in government. Knowing the difference between right and wrong does below - and Ellis's brand of 'take care of my buddies' conservative wasn't going to pass the muster - no matter how much money his buddies put into his campaign. As to the 'social justice' conservative approach you academics seem to think social justice means handouts and more money from government. The best social justice we could provide for the poor would be mandatory work for their income - with free education to help them better themselves. Generational dependency is killing our nation and if we don't change the fundamentals to a work-for-welfare program - we will bankrupt ourselves and much of the world with us...
Gabriel S. Sanchez
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 2:21pm
Mr. WhiteGuy, I confess that I am having a hard time following your argument here and how it applies to anything I said. Nothing in this article was a call for a "return to Ehlers," though I understand that there are some who do long for the "good old days" of his past tenure. Amash is hardly an upstart; he comes from money and lives in Cascade Township. However, his financial position really isn't of interest to me. His adherence to the barking-mad tenets of "Austrian Economics," to say nothing of his libertarian politics, is of considerable interest -- and considerable concern. I can't get over the irony that a guy who is embedding himself in Congress would try to paint others as "establishment guys." At what point does Amash cross that line? And when he does cross it, will he ride off into the sunset or will he try his hand at being a Washington lobbyist? One wonders. There is no evidence that social safety net programs -- which are a minor expenditure compared to many other things on the yearly governmental budget -- will bankrupt the United States or the world. That's ridiculous hyperbole.
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 11:26pm
Well said. Thank you.
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 3:46pm
Honestly, I don't grasp the point you are trying to make. You decry Amash' brand of conservatism but then you go on to say "all is not lost" and appear to advocate some sort of Catholic social compact for the "common good". It is all quite incomprehensible but let me make a few points. First, conservatism, as the belief in the free market and the opposition to increased power in the hands of governmental elites, is not antithetical to the "common good". On the contrary, free markets create economic opportunities that provide the foundation for all to climb the proverbial economic ladder. Without those opportunities, those on the lower end of the economic scale will remain there with little hope of achieving any modicum of success. In addition, apart from the economic strengths of a free market, Arthur Brooks points out that studies have clearly shown that persons who live in countries with a free market are "happier" (as measured by their own responses) than those in countries with economies dictated by a central government. To the extent that "common good" is measured by the "happiness" of people, free markets win hands down, contrary to what the popular culture would have us believe ("we are victims of exploitation by the rich"). Second, you seem to suggest that people like Amash want to return to 19th century liberalism with virtually no governmental regulation. That is a false dichotomy between "progressive" policies or hardly any government at all. All the Ted Cruz-type conservatives are saying is that we cannot afford a federal government with a nearly $18 million debt and mounting. The federal government needs to be reduced in size so that we stop mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren who will, if nothing is done, be the victims of economic stagnation at best and Greece-like debt problems at worst. I am not a big fan of Amash. I did not vote from him in 2010 or 2012 because I thought he was immature and "not ready for prime time". However, after six years of out of control government spending and huge increases in the federal debt, I voted for him this year. I and many others did so to seek a conservatism that does not accommodate the failed spending policies of the past (by both Democrats and Republicans) but seeks a new path to recalibrate the role of the federal government and government spending. You are more than free to disagree with that approach but at least frame the issue in the proper way. it is really about how much government and how much government spending do we want. it is not about some vague and ineffable notion of the "common good".
Gabriel S. Sanchez
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 5:32pm
Willie, With respect to your first paragraph, this is probably not a good forum for discussing the realities of markets and what they can, and cannot, achieve, especially under present conditions. I am not dismissive of markets and, in fact, much of my formal academic writing deals with the utility of market-based regulatory approaches over-and-against other, alternative, mechanisms. Moreover, I am not a supporter of command-planned economies, nor am I in any sense a socialist. However, that does not mean I have to buy into the false either/or whereby one has to either embrace free-market capitalism or some form of state-planned economy, like socialism or communism. I believe there are alternative models available -- models which not only account for the importance of free exchange, but also factor in a plethora of social realities as well as the common good. Two forms which were recommended from the Catholic tradition are Distributism and Solidarism. Both remain, sadly, under-theorized, but that doesn't mean there isn't a thick body of writing and reflection on both available to those who wish to look. With respect to your second paragraph, I understand that there is a continent of Amash "lesser of two evil" voters out there; so be it. I am not concerned with that. My concern -- a very limited concern -- is refreshing the idea of conservatism to incorporate a larger set of goods that goes beyond wealth creation alone and radical individualism. In short, I think we can do better.
Mrs A
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 6:39pm
Gosh this has been fun to follow! I hope it will go on a while longer. And I can't begin to express my delight upon encountering "weltanschauung", used and spelled properly.
John Q. Public
Mon, 08/25/2014 - 8:51pm
I know! One suspects, though, had he been the son of Rev. John Maclean in early 1900's Missoula, he'd have never caught a single trout.
judith galant
Tue, 08/26/2014 - 9:15pm
I enjoyed it too. Thanks
Sat, 09/13/2014 - 6:29pm
"However, that does not mean I have to buy into the false either/or whereby one has to either embrace free-market capitalism or some form of state-planned economy, like socialism or communism. I believe there are alternative models available — models which not only account for the importance of free exchange, but also factor in a plethora of social realities as well as the common good. Two forms which were recommended from the Catholic tradition are Distributism and Solidarism. Both remain, sadly, under-theorized, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a thick body of writing and reflection on both available to those who wish to look." Gabriel, thank you so much for saying this. Distributism is an option to the nightmare we are living and will go on living no matter which liberal party 'wins,' since both are liberal. SSPX's defense of the social kingship of Christ, denied by Vatican II and by Church practice since the Council, is also a defense of this alternative economic structure in place for many centuries under the religious states of Europe. Thank you also for another comment in which you defended the basic rationalism of a unity between Church and state. It is absurd that there be no unanimity of philosophy between all the various organs that make up a nation, and the lack of unity in contemporary America is leading to a breakdown not only of morality but of economics as well (the news is full of the details every day--people too afraid of the predatory culture to invest, even to buy, and a hundred other symptoms of the illness). At my small church we are trying to keep the yearning for the distributive state alive. We write pamphlets about it, and I passed out flyers at the Occupy demonstrations in Chicago--distributism is what they are asking for, without knowing it. They were most receptive until I began to speak of the need for virtue in the pursuit of this economy (distributism means taking responsibility for oneself, of course, and for one's sins, too!). Gabriel--we love our chains. Idiocracy was a prophetic film.