Uniting Liberalism’s Discontents

Thoughts on the Emerging International Conservative Movement

Paranoid. Anti-Intellectual. Discontent. This is how prominent critics have imagined those of us gathered here today. From Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”[1] to Alan Brinkley’s Liberalism and its Discontents[2] to self-professed arbiters of acceptable opinion today like the Southern Poverty Law Center, they are united in claiming that there is something profoundly wrong with us.

We know better. But it is worth taking the time to think about their claims and also the larger question of why these particular epithets—Paranoid, Anti-Intellectual, Discontent—are repeatedly hurled at us.

First, why do those committed to redefining marriage and family seek not to engage our arguments but to discredit and demean?

The purpose of demeaning conservatism or the pro-family movement or whatever else you wish to call our common cause—I will simply call it conservatism—serves one simple goal: to make us members of a caste outside the pale of contemporary society. And a quick path to removing us from the realm of acceptable discourse is to introduce the idea that we are unstable—“paranoid.”

But to be paranoid is to falsely believe in some threat to yourself or your society. How can people of goodwill not see that the collapse of moral norms, of an acceptance of objective reality, has led to disastrous consequences for all of us; that the threat is real, not imaginary?

Even some leaders of the movement to transform the family now see that their revolution has gone too far. When radical feminist Germaine Greer openly mocks the idea that a man can simply become a woman by believing it is so, we should sit up and take notice.[3] When Christians and members of other faiths are told that they can no longer live out the gospel call because it is “discrimination,” when girls cannot maintain their privacy in restrooms, when major scholars on the left advocate for marriage to be done away with altogether, when almost all of the consequences that we predicted would occur by redefining marriage in the law have occurred, paranoia must be immediately dismissed as a collective diagnosis for conservatives.

The claim that conservatives are anti-intellectual likewise fails the truth test. Of course, in any movement there will be varying levels of intellectual commitment. But it is also true that an almost constant in the historiography of liberalism has been to claim that there really is not a conservative intellectual tradition at all. Lionel Trilling’s oft-quoted dismissal of an American conservative intellectual tradition in 1950 bears repeating today because modern elites share the same view. Trilling said that in the United States, “Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” And the conservative impulse, “with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions,” expresses itself “not in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”[4]

Thus, an entire intellectual tradition is dismissed out of hand as “irritable mental gestures.”

The reality is that modern conservatism was birthed at the same time as the French Revolution bloodily ushered in an age of attack on family and faith—and ideas were at the center of both the attempt to revolutionize the family and the defense of it. Conservative writers and thinkers around the world saw that the threat of “the armed ideology” spreading from the French Revolution was international in nature and responded. Edmund Burke in England, Donoso Cortés in Spain, John Adams in America, Alexis de Tocqueville in France—these are merely representatives of an eruption of diverse intellectual work around the world aimed at defending faith, family, and civilization itself in the wake of the spread of revolutionary ideas in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Later, responding to the threat that communism and fascism posed to the family, men as diverse as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Jacques Maritain, and Wilhelm Röpke pointed to the spiritual and social destruction that these ideologies unleashed.

So we can dismiss the first two claims: paranoia and anti-intellectualism. But I will concede that on one point our critics are correct. We are discontent, and we have every right to be.

We are discontent with a world that intentionally robs a child of his right to be known and loved by his mother and father. We are discontent with a world in which a new form of cultural imperialism seeks to punish countries for not embracing the redefinition of family. We are discontent with a world that treats the miracle of human life as anything less than the gift that it is. We are discontent with a world in which the “I will not serve” of that first rebel echoes through history and now applies to the very nature of who we are as created, gendered beings.

Our task is to take that discontent and direct it toward fashioning a thriving, growing, and vibrant global movement. For too long conservatives have done far too little to build international cooperation. The time has come for that to change. Great headway has been made by the World Congress of Families. But we need to confront the reality that we are outspent and out-organized on a massive scale. I do not pretend here to lay out a comprehensive manifesto for action. But what I can do is touch on three brief points that I believe are critical to realizing the opportunity of this moment in history, of uniting liberalism’s discontents in a new and powerful way: 

First, Funding a Global Movement: It is no secret that we are vastly out-spent and out-organized at an international level. The International Planned Parenthood Federation alone has a budget of over 125 million dollars. Foundations like the Arcus Foundation, the Gill Action Fund, and the Open Society Foundation funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to undermining the natural family. Our budgets pale in comparison. We must identify and cultivate financial supporters from around the globe who understand what is at stake and have the courage and charity to sacrifice their wealth to change history. If Tim Gill, one of the largest funders of the movement to redefine marriage, can vow to spend his half billion dollars in pursuit of that goal if necessary, we surely can do better in funding and mobilizing a global movement,

Second, Encouraging Social Entrepreneurship: New means of technology can be used to break down the family, but they also offer hope for our movement. Already groups like CitizenGo, a sponsor of this event, have used technology to harness millions of citizens around the globe to sign pro-family petitions in their countries and beyond. But the creation of CitizenGo took the entrepreneurial risk-taking of Ignacio Arsuaga. There are so many opportunities for new ideas to effect change. Billions of people around the globe believe what we believe about the family. We must invest in and encourage new methods of organizing and giving voice to this global community.

Third, Humility and Courage: Just because we are united together in defense of life and the natural family does not mean that we will not have other differences. We differ culturally, we differ on geo-political matters, we differ in our religious convictions. It is telling that when Russell Kirk put forward his six basic principles of conservative thought in The Conservative Mind, immediately after his first principle, “a belief in a transcendent moral order,” his second was an attachment to “the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.” A belief in objective truth and a respect for difference and even disagreement are not at odds, but at the core of what it means to be a conservative. If we are united in first principles, it is important that we embrace the variety and difference that we have on other matters. That difference need not be the source of division, but strength, by highlighting the beauty of the histories and cultures which we represent. The point is made most succinctly in this famous phrase: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

With humility, we will need courage. As a Christian, I see our struggle through a long lens.  Twelve men went out and spoke truth to power and change the course of human history. Men like St. Andrew the First-Called, so important to your patrimony here in Georgia, did not count the cost of their dedication to the Gospel. And martyrdom was almost unanimously their reward. The whole history of the rise of Christianity is a history of courage and dedication in the face of impossible odds. Even now we see the sacred commitment of men like the twenty-one Libyan martyrs. And what are we being called to do? 

Few if any of us will lose our lives over our stand to defend life, family, and true freedom. And yet some are afraid to be called names, to be put on some fake “hate” list, to be ostracized on Facebook. We have become weak and careless with our patrimony if we think that being called a few names is something we cannot afford. Let us “be not afraid” but joyfully move forward together in our labors.

The opportunity to unite liberalism’s discontents is before us. It is a monumental task. Humanly speaking, it may look impossible. But the impossible has been made possible before. With the humility to seek God’s will in all of our endeavors, may we not shirk the duty before us. God bless you all.

Brian S. Brown is the President of the International Organization for the Family.

[1]     Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, available at http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/. 

[2]     Alan Brinkley, Liberalism and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[3]     Lucy Clarke-Billings, “Germaine Greer in Transgender Rant: ‘Just because you lop off your penis . . . it doesn’t make you a woman,’” Telegraph, October 26, 2015, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11955891/Germaine-Greer-in-transgender-rant-Just-because-you-lop-off-your-penis…it-doesnt-make-you-a-woman.html.

[4]     Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: The New York Review of Books, 1950), xv. Emphasis added.