What it means to be a crunchy conservative

First published Oct. 3, 2016

There are many mansions in the American conservative house, and some of them are old and funky and smell like a pot of organic mustard greens cooking down on the stove.

— Rod Dreher, from “Crunchy Cons”

It wasn’t until I was 45 that I started to think of myself as a conservative.

At heart, I had always been one, even in my 20s, when I called myself a democratic socialist, traveled to Nicaragua, read Hunter Thompson and listened to Neil Young.

I still listen to Neil Young.

Like many of my contemporaries, I had the idea that to be a conservative meant to be a belligerent neocon on foreign policy, a self-centered libertarian on economics and a closed-minded culture warrior on social matters.

I was wrong.

Although I’ve never met him — and he’s several years younger than I am — Rod Dreher had a big influence on my thinking after I had left the Democratic Party over its ideological rigidity, joined an Anglican church and become the managing editor of a daily newspaper.

Dreher’s book that introduced me to a different way of understanding this venerable philosophy had a title that could have been a chapter: “Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).”

Crunchy conservatism, Dreher explained, is not a political program, but rather a “practical sensibility” based on what the wisdom of tradition teaches is best for families and communities.

It is about conserving those things that are good and true.

This summer, I read the book again, and was struck by how much things have changed in the 10 years since it was written.

What a different time 2005 was. George W. Bush was president, Pope John Paul II was succeeded by the even more orthodox Benedict XVI, the Defense of Marriage Act was still the law of the land, legal recreational marijuana was a pipe dream, we were engaged in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how inept big government could be, the housing market was soaring, fueled by bad loan practices, and almost no one could foresee the financial meltdown that was coming.

I’m convinced that if the Republican Party had gone in the direction that Dreher and others suggested, rather than toward the hard-line libertarianism and isolationism of the tea party movement, it would have been able to compete with the Democratic Party for the hearts and minds of younger Americans and could have made a positive difference in our society.

Dreher’s crunchy (read: earthy) conservatism is traditional Burkean conservatism for a new generation. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Dubliner and British statesman, rejected abstract Enlightenment reason and “natural law” as guiding lights. All of us, he wrote, are influenced by our cultural traditions, and while individual liberty is important, community is no less so. We belong to one another, and that affects who were are.

Burke wrote that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. We must learn from those who have gone before us and not rely solely on ourselves. And we must rely on the greater wisdom of the Supreme Being as handed down through the ages.

Mainstream liberalism and conservatism are both essentially materialistic, Dreher argues, and we should not be surprised that neither has led to the improvement of our national character. He describes his book as a rebuke to both the economic individualism of the right and the moral individualism of the left. Its purpose is to explore ways to live out conservative values in a culture that seeks to separate us from our values, families and communities.

In less than 250 pages, “Crunchy Cons” uses Dreher’s own experiences as well as those of people across the country who are living countercultural lives that are socially, spiritually and physically healthier than the ways of the dominant culture. He looks at organic farming and the slow food movement, new urban planning, walkable neighborhoods and aesthetically pleasing architectural design such as bungalows, the attraction of liturgical Christianity to a generation bored with “relevant” contemporary worship, and the understanding that conservation is the essence of conservatism.

“Crunchy Cons” was not a bestseller and is now out of print. It won’t make a list of the most influential conservative tomes, like William Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” or Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind.” But it influenced me more than any other book in my evolution into a conservative, and to see that I had been one all along. I recommend it to others.

You probably won’t be able to find it, though, unless you come across it at a secondhand bookstore or on Amazon, so in the weeks to come, I want to share a little more of it and hope it will stir your imagination, as it did mine.

The Republican who could actually be president

First published Sept. 5, 2016

Billionaire David Koch, who bankrolls far-right candidates and causes, got a standing ovation in Columbus, Ohio, last month during Americans for Prosperity’s two-day tea party summit.

Jeb Bush was there, along with other Republican presidential hopefuls, Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas, and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. All wanted to prove their conservative credentials by railing against the Affordable Care Act and, except for Bush, Common Core education standards.

Noticeably absent was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose office is less than a mile from the convention center. Kasich wasn’t invited because he isn’t one of them. Their mindset was reflected in the words of an activist who was heard to grumble, “If they’re a RINO, they may as well be on the other side.”

But it isn’t traditional conservatives like Kasich who are “Republicans in name only,” it’s the libertarian ideologues with their heads in the clouds and their hearts on ice who have strayed from the rich heritage of the party of Lincoln.

Kasich probably isn’t bothered by the snub. It will help him in the pivotal state of Ohio, where he won 86 of 88 counties in [...] Continue Reading…

Marriage is inseparable from religion

First published July 25, 2015.

It was Jesus, not Jefferson, who first advocated separation of church and state when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In other words, don’t give the state what belongs to the One who has authority over everything.

Paul, a persecutor of Christians until he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, wrote that all authority is ordained of God, and Luke warned that whenever political leaders overstep their bounds and misuse their God-given authority, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

I quote Scripture only so that readers understand the bedrock beliefs that inform the political thinking of traditional Christians. We are not theocrats, but we do believe, as the Founders did, that the rights we have come from our Creator, and that there’s a higher law than the Constitution.

Now that’s clear, let me turn to marriage — a subject I feel inadequate to write about because I’ve never been a husband, but I have seen unions stand the test of time because of faith.

One of the oddest remarks I’ve read since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell vs. Hodges decision was from Sarah [...] Continue Reading…

It isn’t just the economy, stupid

First published Nov. 7, 2015

Matt Bevin, during his visit to Bardstown in late September for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, told me something that helps explain his nearly nine-point win over Jack Conway in last week’s election for governor.

“When I began this race, I was focused entirely on economic issues … . Yet in recent days and weeks … the social issues have moved to the forefront and probably will stay there,” he said.

This was right after a county clerk had been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples because it violated her religious convictions, and also after outrage over revelations that Planned Parenthood had been harvesting body parts of aborted infants.

The folk Bevin talked with in every hamlet care about these things, he said.

These are the same people President Barack Obama insulted when he said working class Americans “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” because they’re frustrated with their economic situations.

Years before, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru, James Carville, came up with his unforgettable dictum for his campaign workers — it’s “the economy, stupid.”

But it isn’t, and never was entirely.

This may come as a surprise to most Democrats, but what [...] Continue Reading…

With malice toward none, with charity for all

First published March 5, 2016

Democracy is made for disagreement, but for it to work, everyone must have a seat at the table, and the tone must be respectful. Inclusiveness, civility and individual liberty are its defining characteristics.

It warmed my heart when I went to the Nelson County Republicans’ Lincoln Dinner Thursday night, and the last speaker was a black woman who overcame poverty and rose through the military and industry to become lieutenant governor of Kentucky.

Jenean Hampton is an exemplar of the ideals of equality of opportunity that Abraham Lincoln devoted his career to, and upon which his party was founded.

The lady was gracious in her remarks. She talked about how she persuades people about the truth of conservative principles, because they work. Unlike many others in the tea party movement, she makes this argument without derision or contempt.

During a season in which I’ve often hung my head in embarrassment over the harsh rhetoric on the right about Mexican Americans and Muslims, Governor Hampton, for a shining moment, made me proud again to be a Republican.

In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in Kentucky, written Aug. 24, 1855, Lincoln expressed his frustration about the growing anger in his [...] Continue Reading…

‘Spotlight’ exposes state of newspaper journalism

First published March 12, 2016

I watched only a few minutes of the Academy Awards this year because I’m not obsessed with celebrities, and I find most movies a waste of time.

Like many newspaper reporters, though, I was thrilled the next morning to read that “Spotlight” had won Best Picture.

The film is about The Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the church’s failure to do anything about it.

It’s a true story that shows reporters and editors at their best — questioning their own shortcomings and holding their work to high standards while coping with the tremendous pressures of the job.

It also spotlights the importance of investigative journalism and the threat it faces in an industry that’s shrinking at an alarming rate.

As actor Brian d’Arcy James, who played reporter Matt Carroll, put it, “You can’t have a free society without a free press.”

There are other sources of news, and some television programs do excellent work. But as Walter Cronkite admitted years ago, most of the work is done by newspapers, and television repeats it. That’s also true of online sites that “aggregate” news from print and broadcast sources.

The weekend [...] Continue Reading…

Easter and the hope of resurrection

First published March 26, 2016

When my grandmother was old and widowed, I would visit her almost every weekend. She had a sharp mind and a wry sense of humor. I enjoyed her company.

I don’t think she knew the word “goodbye.” When I’d get up to leave, she would tell me that she would see me again.

The last time I talked with her was when she was dying. She had been on a respirator when I visited her at the hospital, but she was brought out of her drug-induced slumber so she could say her goodbyes.

Only she didn’t say goodbyes.

She was in good spirits and ready to move on. There wasn’t a hint of fear in her voice, only peace. And when the conversation ended, she said she would see me again.

For Christians, death isn’t the end, it’s only a transition, and it is not the last one.

I believe heaven is a way station for the righteous until the resurrection.

Many Christians, including most members of my family, disagree. They point to Scripture that says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Yet in that same passage, 2nd Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul makes it [...] Continue Reading…

Why I am no longer a Republican

First published April 9, 2016

When Ronald Reagan became a Republican in 1962, he explained his decision like this: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

I felt something similar when, several days ago, I went to the Nelson County Clerk’s Office and changed my voter registration from Republican to independent.

The party I joined when I turned 50 is not the same Republican Party we have today — although the transformation was already beginning with the birth of the tea party movement.

The Grand Old Party that attracted me as I became more conservative in my prime was one that balanced a belief in personal responsibility with a commitment to opportunity. It respected individual liberties, but also cherished community and traditional virtues. It practiced fiscal sobriety, but offered a hand to the disabled and disadvantaged. It had a rich heritage of racial equality going back to the time of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, when the Democrats were the party that elevated states’ rights above human rights.

The party’s compassionate conservatism was rooted in Judeo-Christian principles of justice. It can be summed up in these words from President George W. Bush’s first inaugural address: “Americans in need are not strangers, [...] Continue Reading…

Will Bevin, Kentucky GOP be ‘Happy Together’?

First published June 19, 2015

If you think Matt Bevin is a dour revolutionary, watch the video. It’s the funniest thing in Kentucky politics since Mitch McConnell’s hound dogs treed Dee Huddleston.

As the Turtles song “Happy Together” plays in the background, Bevin wakes up in a Team Mitch T-shirt, goes to work in an SUV with a Team Mitch license plate and gets a Team Mitch tattoo.

“Yeah, it stings a little bit, but it’s so worth it,” he says.

In one scene, he phones McConnell to warn him: “The word on the street is that Rand is going down to the Senate floor right now. He’s got his pockets filled with energy bars … .They say he’s going to be out there until at least Tuesday.” Then he adds: “Hey, that’s what friends are for, sir.”

It ends with Bevin talking to McConnell like a love-struck teenager.

“No, you hang up. No, really, you hang up,” he says.

Bevin, who won the GOP nomination by 83 votes in a four-way race, probably wasn’t McConnell’s first choice for governor. A year ago, Bevin challenged the Godfather for his seat and reportedly was ungracious after McConnell rolled over him and his Democratic opponent.

Then there was the bitter [...] Continue Reading…

First freedom isn’t a secondary human right

First published July 11, 2015

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, there has been a growing chorus calling for the resignation or removal of county officials in Kentucky who cannot, for reasons of faith, support same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Gov. Steve Beshear joined those voices, telling Casey County Clerk Casey Davis that he should issue marriage licenses to all who may now marry or step aside — in which case the governor would appoint someone to fill his position until there is another election.

While Davis’ grandstanding approach has gotten the most attention, 57 county clerks last week signed a letter asking the governor to call a special session to address the problem of how to protect their religious liberty while also complying with the court’s ruling, which made gay marriage legal in every state. This was after Beshear had already turned down such a request by Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, a leader of the governor’s own party.

Beshear said the issue can wait until 2016. Meanwhile, nearly half the county clerks in the state, who have until now faithfully executed their responsibilities as public officials, are faced with the choice of either participating in something that [...] Continue Reading…

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