To remain an intellectual conservative in good standing, one feels constrained to consume what can only be described as flavor-of-the-month books. In the titles of these texts, one encounters the word “America” (usually in the possessive) followed by a choice — the more despairing, the better — adjective, and concluding with a noun of appropriate gravitas. A colon then introduces some saving grace so the reader, by this point anxious about the future, can regain composure, assured in the knowledge that here, at last, is the account that will prescribe a cure for our present maladies. It’s all a bit tiring, especially if a good copy of “Democracy in America” is lying about.
But every now and again, a book comes along that really is worth one’s trouble, not because its arguments are fashionable or because its rhetoric seductively clever, but because it reminds us, straightforwardly and economically, of something we have always known but seem to have forgotten. Though often written in response to a current felt need, these types of books stay upon our shelves because they contain a timeless prescriptive quality repaying various repasses throughout the decades. Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen have written such a book, “Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul,” one I strongly urge reading, irrespective of one’s ideological bent.
The McAllister-Frohnen thesis is simple, and rather elegant:
The crisis of our time, then, might be called homelessness. Homelessness, in the way we mean it here, is a separation from our true nature and our true selves. To rebuild America requires that we reclaim our heritage and rethink our culture and institutions to allow the natural growth and revitalization of the cultural places where we find our natural home.
This concept of a psychic homelessness captures, in an immediate and impactful way, the feelings I suspect many of us share, but have hitherto been incapable of naming. Sure, we read about polarization, fracturing, marginalization, or otherness, and these terms are not unhelpful. But they don’t quite tell the whole story of our present malaise.
If McAllister and Frohnen are correct, we are living today as a collection of Odysseuses, albeit in a worse condition: Having long since departed Ithaca, we have only hazy and conflicting memories of what home was like. Thus, the first half of “Coming Home” is appropriately enough titled “Our History and Our Nature,” in which the authors describe what they take to be the surest, best path toward “reclaiming” our history, by reminding us that the soul of America is — and always has been — conservative in nature. As they note,
American conservatism represents the most deeply American set of principles. But these have been lost or distorted in recent years, and so require a fresh history to remind us of who we are as inheritors of American civilization.
What follows is a “narrative history of conservatism in America,” a kind of philosophic roadmap tracing our intellectual and historical conservative heritage. According to McAllister and Frohnen, it is precisely this heritage which constitutes the soul of America — “the reality that we exist within traditions that shape what we see and what we become…And the awareness of this nature is central to traditional conservatism.” They develop this argument by showing how conservatism preserves both the political principles and the cultural norms all Americans cherish, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to progressivism, which rejects these principles and norms as well as the traditions that embody them.
The eight chapters comprising part 1 are devoted to what might be called a newfound “historical consciousness,” which highlights the dangers of our ahistorical tendencies. At issue is not just simple ignorance of things past. According to McAllister and Frohnen, the forgetting of our shared history is a “necessary condition for the sort of tyranny we moderns face — in which race, class, or some other abstract general characteristic is used as an excuse to destroy the relationships that make life worth living.”
What McAllister and Frohnen argue in part 1 should give pause to conservatives. For it is not just progressives who came to be dominated by an ahistorical consciousness. Somewhere along the way, conservatives, too, lost their way. True enough, “thinking historically is a defining characteristic of conservatives,” but that does not mean we have always been good practitioners of this conservative principle. Indeed, as the authors point out in part 1, the so-called conservative movement in America is not monolithic, and some of its various strands — including the most influential in recent decades — have tended to favor abstract rationalism over historical experience.
The eight chapters comprising part 2, titled “Rebuilding Our Cultural Home,” are usefully devoted to programmatic suggestions for how Americans can reclaim their “rightful home in a society of interlocking, self-governing communities.” All the big-ticket items — the family, university, work, economy, religion, immigration — are treated. The list is exhaustive, but not exhausting, since the book, totaling only 154 pages, seems intended more as a concise, ever-green thought-starter than a technical manual with solutions bound to be obsolete after the passage of a few years.
To take just one example, the chapter “Why We Need Religion,” spared the reader the usual, drawn-out pieties in favor of some tough-talk:
Those who fear religion claim they want to protect individual autonomy — to free each of us from the confines of binding structures and beliefs. But if we will not have the relatively soft structures of traditional religious communities…we will have ersatz community, rooted in ersatz religion of the state, with all its potentially lethal power. This is the true inhumanity religion helps us prevent.
Here, in highly compressed form, is where our protracted homelessness results. In the tyranny of [choose-your-own-nightmare] where our longings for community and friendship — each a societal good traditionally fostered by religion — have culminated. As the author’s note, religion, or the religious impulse for spiritual meaning, is inescapable. But without appropriate direction, our need for spiritual comfort will find willing abusers.
It is to the authors’ credit that specific prognostications of a world without God are kept to a minimum. It is sufficient that we get a sense of how potentially dark our future could be without the grace and justice of religion. Thus, in truly American fashion, the reader is still left with a choice about precisely how to proceed on this score. The reinforcement of our democratic autonomy is refreshingly discovered anew in each chapter, even as McAllister and Frohnen warn of the dangers into which an unchecked liberalism may lead us.
Every year, I like to re-read the “Odyssey”. I know what happens in the book, broadly speaking, so there is little by way of narrative surprise. But its timeless lessons have a special way of operating on my soul at different stages of my life. In a similar way, “Coming Home” is not likely to produce any sudden revelations, at least for those readers who have been following the ongoing crisis on the American Right. But this book will continue to enrich and deepen our understanding of conservatism for years to come, by reminding us of our shared inheritance, thereby pointing the way back toward our common home.
Image credit: Scott Prokop