A while back I wrote a post about being Evangelical for the first time at a big state university. Following up from some of the comments on the June 27 post on the presidential election, I figured I’d do a bit of musing on my experiences as a conservative-by-default.
Like my career as an evangelical, my time as a conservative started without my knowing it. In the seven years before I arrived at UGA, I attended a relatively conservative Christian college and then a relatively conservative Christian seminary. Because I took my learning of letters seriously as a young man and used those new ideas to critique some of the received youth-group wisdom of my teen years, people came to call me subversive, an overthinker, and at times even a liberal. In fact most of my twentieth century theological reading at the time (I was also reading heavily from Luther and Calvin) came from the Yale school, whose books’ titles often came with the neologism “post-liberal.” As I plugged away at my English and philosophy majors I remember wondering what liberal universities were like–the worlds that George Lindbeck and Stan Hauerwas and Rodney Clapp inhabited were entirely alien to my experience, and what they seemed to look at as goods that their lives lacked (open speech about God, strict expectations on sexual conduct) were simply parts of life at Milligan. By the time I finished my first semester at seminary a classmate had dubbed me Emmanuel’s Satan figure.
Then I started at UGA.
I still wouldn’t say that UGA is the liberal university as I imagined it; a place so dominated by fraternities and football is something, for sure, but not liberal as I expected. But within the walls of the English department, I started to see what the books were talking about. There never has been a moment in my five years at UGA when someone has openly attacked me for any party allegiance, but the way that my professional surroundings defined me changed pretty radically. All of my professors have read their Plato and Aristotle, but my fellow grad students often look to me when they want to talk with someone who actually believes they have something to offer. Augustine is not a shared common starting point but a place where I depart from most of my colleagues. I don’t assume that Milton is out to get me. And so on. So by way of this new community’s differences, I became a conservative.
The elements of my conservatism, now that I call it that, were there well before I came to Athens: I believe that an entity called human in one context is a human in all contexts, whether those who would kill would call that entity “enemy” or “fetus” or “collateral damage.” I think that family, whether the extended paterfamilias clans of ancient Rome or the nuclear family of twentieth century America or the bizarre mix of the aforementioned that one finds in rural Georgia, is important, not important enough to keep parasites from destroying it to make a buck but important enough that human communities should stand up to those parasites. I think that the relationship between humanity and the larger creation is best expressed as that between gardener and garden, not Druid and Pan (but also not resource and consumer). When I say that Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, died to save us from our sins, I mean it, and not primarily psychologically (but also not without psychological weight). And no matter what Bible college grads might say (and they have said, believe you me), I am not a liberal.
I still have more in common with (what I’ve heard AM radio hosts call) the academic elite than some might like. I’m not convinced that capitalism is the best way to order common life. I think my gay colleagues ought to have a greater range of social and political benefits than some think. I think the GOP has more Nietzsche than Jesus in it. But nonetheless, when I eat lunch with my fellow college English teachers and things like abortion and “religion” and children come up in conversation, I know that they expect me to play a certain role, to be the character in the conversation scene that they can label conservative.
Such is not a bad thing; I am a Consigliere in a Conservative mafia, after all, and I joined willingly. And as I have said on my own blog and elsewhere, I do resonate to some extent with conservative philosophers such as Wendell Berry and Neil Postman. Inasmuch as I share with the good conservatives (I think I might be a bad conservative and a bad evangelical when all’s said and done) a desire to perpetuate what’s best in human endeavors to live in God’s creation against those forces and intellectual movements that would put what is most valuable up for sale, I stand joyfully with conservatives (even if not with Conservatism). And if “conservative” means generically “not liberal” (as it does in some circles), then I’m definitely that.
Or not that.
My point here, and I’ll be glad to discuss it in the comments section, is that in my own brief career as a conservative in a university English department, the content of my convictions has not much changed since my days as the seminary’s Satan figure. If anything, I’ve become more suspicious of self-appointed conservative newspaper pundits. But sometimes one’s reluctance to take on a label has little to do with where one fits in the scheme of things. Sometimes one must think about one’s affiliations not because of interior changes but because of new alignments in one’s social reality. Sometimes it’s election, not one’s own agency, that makes one what one is.
I think I’ve read something like that somewhere.