Friday, September 26, 2014

Less Puritanical Than Ever by Peter Lawler

Thanks to Carl Eric Scott for calling attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the moral, political, scientific, and theological views of Marilynne Robinson (perhaps our best living novelist) by highlighting Paul Seaton’s balanced and smart review of her latest book of essays.
Ms. Robinson’s thought really is neo-Puritanical. Mr. Seaton and Mr. Scott, knowing, as they do, the work of Carey McWilliams (the other great contemporary political neo-Puritan), appreciate almost better than anyone what that means. And even when Ms. Robinson’s political opinions are at their most annoyingly intrusive and judgmental, they can laugh and say, “There that Puritan goes again.” Mr. McWilliams and Ms. Robinson don’t always agree, but they both have the rare merit of staying in character.
Now we postmodern conservatives do fault Ms. Robinson (and Mr. McWilliams—who was nicer about it) for being a naive political liberal. But we are, in many ways, liberals too. It’s hard to say whether we are conservative liberals or liberal conservatives. Our friend Dan Mahoney has written about “the conservative foundations of liberal order,” but, for myself, I tend to think we go wrong when we stop thinking of “liberal order” as anything other than conservative foundations for the somewhat illiberal (because) relational institutions that make life worth living.
Today I’m thinking about our “foundations” as a prelude to thinking about our James Ceaser’s unrivaled accounts of American foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. There is going be a panel honoring the work of our James W. Ceaser at the American Political Science Association meeting a week from today. Mr. Ceaser, I sometimes think, slights the Puritanical/Calvinist dimension of even our Declaration of Independence and the way it has informed our political history. I could be wrong, but I’m going to begin by using Ms. Robinson to think I’m right. Mr. Ceaser and I certainly agree that “nonfoundationalism” is a pervasive and demoralizing project, one that replaces the aggressive anti-Americanism of, say, Heidegger with, as Mr. Scott has shown us, the imagination of a kind of post-Americanism. More next time on the exact time and place of the panel.
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