The Challenge of Puritan Yeast


I am currently enjoying Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Yoram Hazony. One of the ways I evaluate a really good book is by looking at all of the thoughts it churns up in my head, which this book is most certainly doing. Which in turn reminds me of that famous Wodehouse line—”he had a mind like a soup in a poor restaurant, better left unstirred.” But Hazony went ahead and stirred anyway, and here you are, poor fellow.

The thoughts I want to unpack here have to do with the challenging relationship of conservatism and ideology, meaning the deeply protective nature of the former and the disruptive nature of the latter. This also relates to the relationship of conservatism and history, particularly the history of convulsive upheavals in the past. When conservatism collides with the disruptions of the current ideology, there is obviously a clash. But when conservatism encounters the disruptions that a particular ideology created 175 years before, conservatism tends to . . . . conserve it.

In other words, Miraz was a usurper and a tyrant. But so was Caspian the First, and yet somehow Caspian the Tenth is the rightful king of Narnia.

So what I want to do here is sketch some of my (stirred up) thoughts, and then circle back to Hazony and the Puritans.

A Conservative Temptation

I am a decided conservative, but every thinking man, before pronouncing himself “a conservative,” needs to hold a few things out on an open palm. Conservatism is no good at all when what you are conserving is iniquitous, and disruption is just fine if everything needed to be disrupted. Caiaphas was a conservative too (John 11:50).

Many years ago I had the pleasure of reading Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, which prompted me to write a poem about it. This is how you know you have a serious reading problem—you start writing poetry about books when you finish them. At any rate, the central thing I am going to write about here in this post was something I wrestled with in that poem.

. . . and yet I wondered how
Our institutions would receive a Christ
Who came to bring a sword, not transient peace.
Would we recoil, and say that one should die,
And then conserve our Sadducean cheat? . . .
I am conservative, my sympathy
Lies with those men who keep their nations strong—
But may it never build a prophet’s tomb.

Untune the Sky, p. 20

The People of the Great Commission

On our recent trip to Israel, we did not just visit biblical sites. We also had the privilege of meeting with and hearing from men with various perspectives and disparate backgrounds—for example, a Palestinian pastor, and in marked contrast, also with an Orthodox Jew. A number of the things the Orthodox Jew said to us were quite striking, and one of them was this. He said in effect that “you Christians have the Great Commission, and we don’t. We don’t have the obligation to persuade everyone to become Jewish, and you do have the obligation to evangelize.”

So think about that for just a couple of minutes, and think about “conservatism” in the light of your meditations. When Christ gave the Great Commission to His disciples, there was not a single nation on earth that was not going to be seriously disrupted by the efforts of Christ’s followers to do just what He said. As Christians were preparing to fan out across the globe, nothing about what they were going to do was conservative. But at the same time, what they were going to do was going to have the result of creating a heritage well worth . . . conserving.

This highlights the problem with a word like conservative. There is no virtue or vice to be found in a transitive verb. All the action is to be found in the direct object. Is a man to be praised because he “conserves” . . . what? Peace with Rome? Trial by jury? Monogamy? The royal prerogative? The Politburo?

And the problem with the progressives is not that they want to go somewhere. My problem with them is where they intend to take us. When someone says “hop in the car,” and I show some reluctance about it, and they ask what I have against cars, my response is that I have nothing whatever against cars, and I have even owned some myself. My concern has to do with where they think they are going.

Burke was a conservative, but what he wanted to conserve was really, really good. The Aztec system of human sacrifice was not really, really good, and needed to be upended by somebody, and I don’t even care that it was Cortés. Somewhere in between would be Confucian China during a time of peace, and I suspect that Burke would not be a big fan of the disruption that zealous Christian missionaries would bring to a place like that.

Contrasting Temperaments

Revolutionary thinkers often have great minds, cavernous minds. The problem with these cavernous minds is that the floor is usually covered with six inches of guano. They have the kind of great minds that bats fly out of.

The conservative mind is far more cautious. Hostile to ideologies, it can generally be taken as much more of a temperament than a specific program for action. As Lord Falklands put it once, “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” This of course has its own set of temptations, reminding us of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a conservative as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”

Revolutionaries are impatient, and it is almost never good. Conservatives are patient, and sometimes that can be bad. Christian Reformers are conservative revolutionaries, or perhaps revolutionary conservatives. There really are some things in tension here, but it is not oxymoronic.

This is difficult because it is hard to compare a program of action with a temperament, at least if you want to compare apples to apples. Conservatism is reluctant to take up an abstract program in order to try to implement it across the board, as in, “let’s do it now.’ This is because conservatives are historical empiricists and have the kind of temperament that assumes that if something is here, somebody must have had a good reason for putting it here. This is simply Chesterton’s fence. Chesterton’s fence is the principle that a reformer should not be allowed to change something around unless he understands the reasoning behind the thing he wants to change.

But historical empiricism can be articulated and defended, as can Chesterton’s fence, which means there is an element of ideology in it. Not impatient ideology, but some ideology, and I begin to suspect that the problem that conservatives object to is not the ideas involved in ideology so much as the know-it-all impatience when it comes to application.

A Nation, Not an Idea

There are some people who want to think of America as more of “an idea” than a nation. Instead of building a polis, they think of it in terms of a political platform. “Liberty for all” would be an example of the grand American ideal.

The problem this approach faces is the problem that sex creates for them. This is because sex means children, and children mean generations, and histories, and developments, and customs, and a heritage, and after 175 years of this, what you have is a nation, a people, who are held together by far more than that original idea.

If the people are faithless to the founding ideals, their culture wanders off into the weeds, but with the original sentiments inscribed in the marble of various libraries. But even if they are faithful to those ideals, the ideals are now instantiated in the customs and mores of a people, and those embodied ideals now have a great deal of civilizational authority. They have become definitional, and have become an essential part of the definition.

And this is why most of the definitions we actually live by are not found in dictionaries, but rather in the historical paideia of our heritage. No nation ever lives over generations with the purity of an abstract set of ideals. Every nation develops their own cultural patina, just like the family silver does.

Puritan Yeast, Different Kinds of Dough

Now it is time to circle back to Hazony’s book, and I will begin with a niggle. He tends (in my view) to inadequately distinguish the ecclesiastical parties of 17th century, dividing them between the Anglicans and the Puritans. I would prefer to divvy them up a tad differently—the Anglican absolutists, the Anglican/Presbyterian churchmen, and the Separatists. The first group were the supporters of the Stuart’s grandiose and absolute claims—these were the prelates against whom Rutherford battled. The third group would be the Independents—men like Cromwell. They were Calvinists, and many of them were good men, but they were not strictly speaking Puritans in that they had given up on wanting to purify the official church. And so the Puritans were those who wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its popish tendencies, but this means that they still wanted to have an established Church of England, which the Independents didn’t want at all. The Anglican churchmen were comfortable with bishops (Hooker) and the Presbyterian churchmen were not (Cartwright), but they were all comfortable with a national church, and they all wanted a monarch who did not think like Yertle the Turtle.

But with this distinction made, Hazony does note something important. He points out that the scope of the Puritan movement in 16th century English was “universal.” They were precise thinkers, and they believed that they had successfully recovered from Scripture the blueprints for human society, and to which all human societies ought to conform. Over against this was the deeply conservative tradition represented by men like Fortescue (earlier), Hooker, Selden, and Hale, men who argued that it was not enough to have just the “right amounts” of Puritan yeast. You also needed to take into account the nature of the dough. English dough was going to be very different than German dough. What about that?

The strict Calvinistic temperament (whether Puritan or Independent) did have it all figured out, and did not leave much room for the Smudging Factor of Historical Precedents. There were Puritans who wanted to change it all now, and who had the impatience of revolutionaries.

“Unless we can imagine the freshness, the audacity, and (soon) the fashionableness of Calvinism, we shall get our whole picture wrong. It was the creed of progressives, even of revolutionaries. It appealed strongly to those tempers that would have been Marxist in the nineteen-thirties. The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists.”

C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 43

But here is where the fun really begins. The conservative reforms advocated by men like Hooker took root in the Anglican Church and tradition. The Presbyterian reforms advocated by men like Knox, and then Melville, got seriously established in Scotland. The Separatist outlook piled onto boats and headed for New England in order to build a city on a hill. But then . . . but then . . .

The reality of sex began to work its magic, and the first thing you know, there was a subsequent generation, and then another one after that. Try as anyone might, it just wouldn’t stop. The ideologically-driven courtiers of King Canute told him to just tell the tide not to come in, but the tide came in anyway. I mean, whatever the status quo might want, and whatever the ideology might demand, the young ladies were always fetching and cute. Because of that, these nations always tended to develop in ways contrary to the ideals of the purists. Sometimes it was because of spiritual declension and apostasy, but other times it was just people being people, not ideological legos.

And so all three cultures developed certain traits that any right-minded conservative should applaud, and do his level best to conserve. Much more needs to be said on this, but the basic issue is this: the Christian conservative has his standard for evaluation handed to him from outside the world, mediated first through Mount Sinai, second, through whatever mountain it was where Jesus gave his famous sermon, and last, the Mount of Olives where He gave us that disruptive Great Commission.

The purist conservative will tend to want it all to stay. The purist ideologue will tend to want it all to be redone according to specs, and to be done by yesterday. The reformational conservative makes allowances for certain continuities, and with the zeal of an iconoclast, he breaks the bronze Nehushtan into pieces (2 Kings 18:4). He rejects every form of worldliness, but at the same time, without compromise, takes the nature of the world into account.

“When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, and seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.”

Deuteronomy 21:10–13 (KJV)

Let these things serve as an allegory.

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