Sunday, August 25, 2013

What I Mean by "Chestertonian"

I few weeks ago I noted that the word "conservative" now comes loaded with too many implications I cannot accept.  Since I am not willing to embrace a police state if only people will concede me the coveted title of "conservative", it is necessary to find some other label.  For now, none seem to fit quite so well as "Chestertonian", which automatically implies a great deal to anyone familiar with the writings of G.K. Chesterton, whose cause for canonization as a saint has finally been taken up.

G. K. Chesterton at work

Now it might be objected that what I really mean is "Distributist", and indeed Distributism covers a good deal of what I mean.  Distributism favors private property, but not monopolies and not usury.  Capitalism is an economic philosophy that sees the purpose of money as making even more money; Distributism is an economic philosophy that sees the purpose of money is the good of people.  Nor is Distributism by any means Socialism.  However, Distributism is really only an economic idea, and I mean something more general.

Well, since Distributism is based on Catholic social doctrine, and I want a more general term, maybe I should just call myself "Catholic"?  No, for three reasons.

  1. My intention is to describe a political / cultural position.  This will have nothing really to do with Catholic sacramental theology, for example.  Protestants, Jews, etc. could probably agree with most or all of what I mean.
  2. On the other hand, I do mean something particular to Western civilization.  Although most Catholics share this cultural background, the word catholic means universal, and there are Churches in communion with Rome that exist in very different cultures.  I still think that Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and other cultures could be somehow "baptized" as was done with the cultures of pagan Greece and Rome.
  3. Finally, it is not helpful to describe my politics as "Catholic" when Biden and Pelosi, among others, also claim that name.
Here, then, is what I mean by "Chestertonian":

  1. It starts with an anthropology and ethics consistent with the Catholic understanding of what a human person is.
  2. It furthermore includes the cultural legacy of what used to be called Christendom, which for the past thousand years or so has been from Russia to Greece to Spain to Ireland, and in the past has certainly included Syria, Egypt, and North Africa.  That cultural heritage is largely derived from ancient Greece and Rome, but contributions from Celtic, Slavic, and Germanic cultures have also left their mark.  All of these cultures have been harmonized to Christianity, so that they are complementary to each other rather than simply being in conflict.
  3. Finally, though, I give preference to the specific practices and attitudes of my own country and region.  These include a preference for individualism and for the frontier; a mountain man is more archetypically American than is a banker or a baker.  Implicit in this is a conviction that anyone can prove his worth and that barriers preventing people from improving their lots in life must be minimized; likewise, there is an implicit distaste for those whose status is achieved only through an accident of birth.  American culture also takes an attitude towards government that is decidedly more vigilant than deferential.  Finally, it also includes a hopefulness that we really can leave the world a better place than we found it.  That hopefulness has often been expressed in rash and unwise actions, but it gives rise to a willingness to take up a noble cause in spite of difficulties.