Ray Pennings: How to enjoy life as an ideological fish out of water

Asian carp jump from the Illinois River near Havana, Ill. Illinois. John Flesher/AP Photo.

Had the Hub editor’s invitation to describe my conservative identity come 30 years ago, the assignment would’ve been easy.

With “boy in short pants” zeal, I’d have explained the nuances of Burkean conservativism, with a healthy flavour of the European Christian Democrat tradition mixed in. I was bold about proclaiming freedom but in a way that emphasized institutions as much as individuals.

Natural law provided a more reliable foundation for freedom than natural rights did, making libertarians — from either the left or the right — natural opponents. Structure, order, respect for tradition while always reforming; applying the lessons of history while recognizing that man’s inner brokenness means that no era has been or will be ideal; loving God and loving neighbour. The only remaining question I had was why the rigour of logic would not prompt every other rational person to agree with me.

The problem in answering the question 30 years later is that today I’m more closely aligned with the editor’s observation about “not being sure about the right phrasing” than I am about my answer. There was no single “aha” moment in which I abandoned my zealous confidence. In fact, I opine regularly on many issues of public interest and have defined opinions that, at least to me, fit within a coherent framework. But I don’t find any of the labels a good fit.

When recently asked to share five or so names who have shaped my thinking today, a pair of J. W. Budziszewski articles in First Things popped to mind. The Problem with Liberalism and The Problem with Conservatism summarized moral errors inherent in each approach. Reading these articles in the 1990s was a key part in adjusting my political frame. Addressing the temptations faced particularly by those who combine a strong religious faith with active political engagement, Budziszewski convicted me when he named the principles of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty — the political organizing principles on which I had hung my hat — as “nothing exceptional” and unable to solve anything outside of presuppositions. “It follows that forbidding moral judgements will not keep busybodies out of other people’s hair. Somehow, they must learn the meanings of ‘other,’ ‘people’s,’ and ‘hair.’”

This was 1996 and McGill philosopher Charles Taylor did not write his magisterial A Secular Age until 2007, so I forgive myself for not really being able to articulate a social imaginary and the politics that is, or is not, possible. And certainly, political labels, including finding one’s place in the conservative family, amount to a trivia game if removed from a specific context.

Part of the problem is finding a place for a personal faith in a society that doesn’t necessarily share that faith or understand it. My non-philosophical way of explaining it references birds and fish. A fish living in the water isn’t against flying. He cannot imagine what flying is, because he has only and can only imagine living in water. Flying isn’t something you are for or against in the deep blue sea. Similarly, a bird flies freely in the air and cannot imagine what swimming is like. You can’t swim in the air. In a secular framework, references to the transcendent make about as much sense as flying does to a goldfish or swimming does to a goldfinch.

So, is politics today about swimming or flying? I’ll leave that for the reader to answer.

As I’ve journeyed from the zealous (and admittedly sometimes obnoxious) confidence of decades past to a hopefully humbler and more constructive proposition of how thriving society might look in this 21st century context, several relevant principles come to mind. They might not seem directly political, but in combination, I believe they form a coherent outlook, though it still may defy easy labels.

Firstly, recognizing the inherent dignity of the human person is essential. The Constitution of the Conservative Party of Canada names “a belief in the value and dignity of all human life” as one of the 22 basic principles worth articulating. Personally, it’s more of a religious confession than a political premise, believing as a Christian that all human beings are created in the image of God, or imago Dei to use the Latin.

I draw three implications. First, everyone I meet, including my political or ideological opponents, is an image-bearer of God. To disrespect the image is to disrespect the person she represents. The motto “what I think of and how I treat my political opponents reflects what I believe about God,” has a sobering impact on my political behaviour.

Second, every citizen is an image-bearer of God, including the most marginalized, the criminal, and the person whose choices or beliefs I find objectionable. All my dealings with the issues that relate to them, must respect and enhance that dignity.

Thirdly, this obviously relates to certain “third rail” issues. We can differ on when exactly human life begins and ends, on the roles of science and reproductive technologies should play, and on how all of this relates to medicine, law, and personal choice. However, it is fiction to pretend that these sensitive and difficult questions are fully and permanently settled, and that we have the right to silence those with whom we differ.

Secondly, the world is made up of institutions as well as individuals. Family, church, and state are obvious institutions which are particular to any specific group but in one or another form, have been part of societies since the dawn of civilization. Work is by its very nature social. While the forms change, employer and employee relationships, industry associations, customer and labour groups, and the host of other relationships, with various degrees of formality, are part of economic life. As a Christian, I see this relationship and institutional aspect of humanity reflecting the image of the one God who exists in three “persons” working in relationship. Non-Christians don’t have to agree with this theological understanding of the root principle to acknowledge the social inevitability of institutions as a consequence of human nature.

Thirdly, thriving requires structure, law, and order. This seems self-evident but it needs naming, especially in our times. Law and order embed principles of equality and justice and the long list of other elements we associate with democracy. It is never purely experienced but some semblance of rule of law applying to all people distinguishes a functioning and healthy society from the “might makes right” version, whether the might comes from force, dollars, or class privilege.

Fourthly, markets are best in making economic choices, but a market society is problematic. Evil is real. Just as there is a temptation for a state to become tyrannical without appropriate checks and balances, the market is subject to the same temptation. I also believe in the richness and opportunity of creation, as God put us in a garden providing us the resources to cultivate it and build it to become a beautiful city. The principle of individual dignity promoting choice pushes us towards market freedom. History shows that free markets tend toward efficiency, stewardship, and prosperous growth. They are good things and need protection. Monopolies very rarely achieve what markets do. However, markets have a Pac-Man appetite, seeking to devour other segments of society. Since our imago Dei has frames the human person to be much more than a worker and a consumer, markets need boundaries. All the stuff in the world can’t provide true thriving and flourishing. So, the market needs to operate, but be kept in its place.

Fifthly, in a world of difference, a society built around principled pluralism works best. Brokenness is part of the human condition. Part of the brokenness is that we all have imperfect and incomplete understandings of what is, what should be, and how to get there. I believe there is such a thing as truth and each of us should contend for and promote our understandings of what that might be and how it might help. However, to use state coercion or force to impose any singular conception of truth is problematic.

This all brings us back to Charles Taylor’s social imaginary and the question as to whether political philosophies today need to prioritize birds flying or fish swimming. Centuries ago, the question was answered by aligning the politics and the religion of a country. We had Catholic states and Protestant states; Muslim and Hindu. Some parts of the world still operate this way. North American democracy has separated the powers (officially in the United States through the First Amendment; very differently in Canada where the Supreme Court has reminded us we do not have a U.S. separation of church and state — but to flesh that out is another article altogether).

The current political dialogue isn’t primarily about conservative principles or policies. Donald Trump is still busy draining the swamp. Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways disqualify organizations disagreeing with him on abortion from receiving government funds and suggests that disagreeing with him on vaccine mandates is a “fringe minority … unacceptable view.” Conservative Party leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre is preparing to remove “the gatekeepers” (without specifying whether all the gates will be left unkept or who the new gatekeepers might be.) The American Left is trying to figure out which among the cacophony of leadership voices really speaks for them. Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum, today’s politics is defined much less by principle than by your opponent.

Politics has always dressed itself up in lofty-sounding principles but the day-to-day practice has been in the content and method of governance. Policy purists may say “never” or “definitely” but human history has taught us these are just political jargon for long-term or short-term. And even then, the time frames change rapidly. Conservatives were anti-free trade in the 1911 election, but pro-free trade in 1988. The only difference these days is that instead of taking 75 years to change their minds, political parties (across the spectrum) now take five to seven years to strike their colours.

Most pundits reading my five principles could quickly come up with a dozen or so relevant policy proposals already in the public domain regarding which they might rightly presume my support. But what is frustrating is that the candidates seemingly most aligned with these principles conduct their politics in a manner that contradicts those very same principles. The politics of vilification and focusing on who does not belong, snitch lines, and suppression of free speech and debate — it seems that for every policy proposal that appeals, there is a political engagement tactic that repulses.

My conservatism, whatever label you slap onto it, is no more about any specific principle or policy position than it is an approach or disposition toward my neighbour. I start with the principle of dignity and seeing worth in my opponent. I was taught as a kid that “the freedom you will enjoy will never be greater than that you are prepared to give the person you most disagree with.” If measuring conservatism by the way it treats others is the standard, I wonder how much of it there is to be found.

Budziszewski said it came down to defining our words carefully when we talked about staying out of each other’s hair. Or to flip metaphors, it comes to the reality that understanding that if we are all fish in the sea, seeing each other as food rather than fellow sea creatures only means that, sooner or later, we all get eaten.

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