Virtue Demands Liberty (or, No, Putin Isn’t “One of Us”)
Posted on December 19, 2013
Pat Buchanan is asking whether Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is “one of us.” “Us” denotes “paleo-conservatives,” which denotes, well, nobody’s entirely sure, but is a single iteration of a conservatism whose most notable distinctive as it relates to Putin is its
… reaction against what was taking place in American culture itself in the 1980s and ’90s … increasing secularism, hedonism, and carnal and material self-indulgence of the dominant culture but also its shallowness and artificiality, its proclivity to being manipulated by media and political elites, its passivity in the face of more and more usurpation of social and civic functions by big government, big business, and big media…
Buchanan invokes as proof Putin’s recent public denunciations of the “decadent [W]est,” particularly his opposition to “America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.” What biblical Christian would disagree that that list is evil?
To bolster his case, Buchanan writes: “Putin says his mother had him secretly baptized as a baby and professes to be a Christian.” This is all well and good, but we might pause to consider why the former head of the dreaded KGB in the most militantly secular regime in world history rediscovers his covert Christian heritage just now, when the most convenient war to wage against his dreaded perennial enemy the West is a cultural (= spiritual) crusade that will resonate with his largely Eastern Orthodox countrymen. Nothing like playing the religion card to score political points at home.
Buchanan even queries whether Putin’s recent assault on the “values” of the West is analogous to Ronald Reagan’s famed description of the old Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” Apparently, turnabout is fair play, with Putin now occupying Reagan’s role as Defender of Old Christendom and Obama playing, playing … Lenin? Stalin? in propping up the decadent evil empire that’s become the United States.
This would all be very amusing were not Pat and his comrades (I couldn’t resist) so serious in enrolling Putin in the(ir) conservative club. Putin’s opposition to homosexual marriage and porn and abortion and promiscuity and other cultural sins of our, to use Pat’s words, “pagan and wildly progressive” America may be laudable, but it’s drowned out by the evils Pat somehow doesn’t get around to mentioning, evils at stark variance with every major tenet of conservatism of any stripe, evils Putin routinely relishes.
Know Your Conservatism
Modern conservatism is the heir of classical liberalism, which grew out of the conflicts spawned by the Protestant Reformation and which championed free markets, divided government, checks and balances, bills of rights, and constitutional limitations on consolidated power. Classical liberalism and its heir, modern conservatism, are all about individual social and political liberty, in many ways the political correlate of the Reformation with its stress on individual liberty before God’s face. These bedrock conservative tenets for some reason do not enter Pat’s calculation — just as they find almost no place in Putin’s Russia, or his worldview.
Conservatism isn’t just about collective virtue, vital though it is (a lesson that hedonistic libertarians that also like to be known as conservatives should learn). Conservatism, too, is about the dignity of the individual created in God’s image. It’s about tight reins on political power that if not restrained will quickly degenerate (and has quickly degenerated) into arbitrariness, coercion, vindictiveness, torture and murder. Conservatism is about the liberty (within law) to go about one’s life in a quiet and peaceable way (1 Tim. 2:2). It’s about religious liberty and free speech and a free press and an independent judiciary and standing up to state interference in religion, in the economy, in the press, in public speech and in everything except what assaults life, liberty and property.
Conservatism, in other words, is about all of those virtues that Putin has routinely trampled under foot in Mother Russia.
Conservatism isn’t just a collection of Christian social virtues, like respect for preborn life, protection of the family, and stress on sexual purity — vital though they are. It’s also a way of living in social and political liberty that allows those values to flourish. Liberty is itself a virtue no less virtuous than the virtues Pat is (rightly) complaining our Western culture is frittering away.
The cure to that tragic loss is not an autocratic, centralized, political imposition of Christian virtues — the sort of imposition many American colonists and U. S. Founders fled Europe to escape. Rather, it is the recovery of the entire panoply of Christian virtues — including the socio-political liberty that Putin grinds under his once-Marxist heel.
Putin isn’t the solution to the West’s decadence. His liberty-crushing, anti-conservative despotism is part of the problem.