In June 2022, the Edmund Burke Foundation issued a statement of principles for national conservativism. Among the signatories were Ryan Williams, the president of the Claremont Institute; Thomas Klingenstein, the chairman of the Institute’s board; and Larry Arnn, the vice-chairman of its board. Several other people associated with the Claremont Institute also signed the statement. One of them, Scott Yenor, a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, recently published a defense of national conservatism, which the Burke Foundation has in turn linked to on its website.
The Claremont-Burke connection shows what has been happening to conservatism over the past several years. The statement of national conservative principles emphasizes tradition, while the Claremont Institute was founded on the thinking of a man, Harry V. Jaffa, who fought traditionalist conservatism relentlessly, since in the United States it was associated with slavery, and above all because it rejected the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
We all know that politics can lead to strange bedfellows, even apparently among such chaste and family-friendly folks as national conservatives. The Burke Foundation is aware of the possible scandal of its liaisons but offers in defense of them the view that they are sanctioned by tradition, if not natural law. The Foundation claims that nationalism is “part of the Anglo-American conservative tradition at its best.” Promiscuous and shameless, the Claremont Institute offers no such explanation.
From Jaffa’s perspective, the proper question is not whether nationalism is part of traditional conservatism, but whether national conservatism is compatible with the principles of the Declaration. Nothing American, Jaffa held, could be at its best unless it derived from the Declaration. So, is national conservatism compatible with the Declaration?
Let us consider two issues, first, religious liberty, and then racial discrimination.
Like national conservatives, George Washington maintained that religion was an indispensable support for republican political life and public morality. Once the Reformation had occurred, however, conflicting views of Christianity became a source of terrible civil wars. Toleration of religious differences became a practical necessity to secure civil peace. But Americans went beyond mere toleration. Washington claimed that the United States was an example “of an enlarged and liberal policy” of religious liberty. One of the natural rights Americans enjoyed was the equal right to worship God as they saw fit.
This followed from the principle of human equality. If we are equal by nature, then no one has authority by nature over another without that other’s consent. This means that no one has authority over how anyone else worships God. To preserve as much of their natural equality and liberty as possible, those who consent to a common authority should give up as little of their natural equality and liberty as possible, only what is necessary to allow the common authority to govern. They do not need to give up—James Madison argued they were obliged by God not to give up—their right to worship as they chose. Because citizens retained their natural right to free worship, the political authority, established on the basis of the equality of all citizens, should grant to those who consent to that authority an equal right to religious worship and an equal protection of the law for their religious beliefs.
National conservative principles hold to the contrary that there should be an official preference for majority religions, and therefore inequality before the law for others. “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” Yenor, in his defense of national conservatism, goes further and says that it is Protestantism that should be favored and that “America should . . . legislate toward a Protestant vision of family life.”
The statement of principles says that religious minorities should be protected in their traditional observances, as does Yenor; but this is mere toleration and a retreat from the American tradition “of an enlarged and liberal policy.” The statement of principles never speaks of rights or equality before the law. Hence, the tolerance of national conservatism is merely traditional. It is a mere prejudice.
What protection does prejudice offer to religious minorities? If someone were to suggest that one way for the state to honor Protestantism would be to exempt Protestant but not other religious institutions from taxes, on what basis would national conservatives object, if they cared to? Until the Declaration of Independence, it was the tradition of peoples and nations to discriminate on the basis of religion, race, and in all sorts of other ways. America has a tradition of treating different religious faiths equally because of the principles of the Declaration. As noted, the logic of equality and consent leads to equal treatment of religions, and preference for none. This logic, and religious diversity in the United States, led to disestablishment in all the states.
What about racial discrimination? The statement of principles avoids saying that all men are created equal. It says rather that “all men are created in the image of God and that public policy should reflect that fact. No person’s worth or loyalties can be judged by the shape of his features, the color of his skin, or the results of a lab test.”
The reference to the image of God suggests that national conservatives mean to use the Bible as the justification for the equal treatment of the races. According to the statement of principles, the Bible is “our surest guide.” But historically—traditionally—in the United States and elsewhere, the Bible and Christianity have been taken to be compatible with racial discrimination and even slavery. As Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural, both North and South “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” If the Bible is our surest guide, it is only when it is interpreted properly, a problem the statement of principles ignores.
If the signers of the statement of principles or anyone else believes that the Bible and Christianity are incompatible with racism and slavery—if they believe that it is impossible to imagine that Christianity and the Bible could be used to provide political support for slavery or discrimination—it is only because their thinking has been formed by the triumph of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, and above all, the self-evident truth—not tradition—that all men are created equal. In the United States, slavery came to an end, as did legal segregation one hundred years later, even as Christians on both sides continued to read the same Bible and pray to the same God. It came to an end, then, not because of Christianity, however much Christianity aided one side or the other, but because the principles of the Declaration prevailed.
Some of the policies of national conservatism are compatible with those derived from the Declaration, but on fundamental principles, we must conclude, national conservatism and the Declaration are opposed. Furthermore, without the guidance of the Declaration’s principles, the preferences of national conservatism have no inherent tendency to oppose religious oppression or discrimination. The statement of principles does not hesitate to quote from the Constitution and cite it as an authority, but American slaveowners could do the same thing. What saved the Constitution, through Lincoln’s statesmanship, was its connection to the Declaration.
No doubt national conservatives will dismiss this defense of the Declaration and natural rights as an example of “the excesses of purist libertarianism.” Yenor might dismiss it as “invention of a fevered imagination.” It is neither. Instead, it is a reminder to those seduced by national conservatism that it is a dangerous partner, and an appeal to them to remember that there is nothing good that national conservatism aims to achieve that cannot be achieved through the prudent application of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
We may excuse the national conservatives for ignoring the Declaration and American political history. They are a polyglot group of international elites insufficiently respectful of America’s history and traditional principles. But we cannot so excuse those associated with the Claremont Institute who have joined with them. They were taught better by the greatest expositor of America’s political principles since Lincoln. It is too late for the Institute to recover its political virginity. But it will never be too late for it to consider its founding principles and rediscover the pleasure of fidelity.