A Spotter’s Guide For Renaissance Conservatives

‘Re-cons’ Unite!

[But where are you?]

A Spotter’s Guide


Renaissance Conservatives

Trying to spot fellow renaissance conservatives amid the current crop of time-serving politicians is a bit like locating a group of exceptional, future-oriented penguins in a flock of thousands gathering at the edge of an ice floe. The penguin costumes are identical and the behavior of the “renaissance” ones is functionally indistinguishable. Moreover, the “renaissance penguins” aren’t even aware of each other, let alone prone to form a cooperative subgroup.

It is far easier to identify the renaissance-friendly conservatives among the intellectuals, pundits and out-of-power politicians who have joined the conversation…provided you know what to look for….

NOTE: This continues a discussion that I began with an article now posted on “The Policy Think Site” — LINK: http://jaygaskill.com/ConservativeRenaissance09.htm

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Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 & 2009 by Jay B. Gaskill

Permission to publish, distribute or print all or part of this article – except for personal use – is needed. Forwarded links welcomed.

Contact Jay B. Gaskill, attorney at law, via e mail at law@jaygaskill.com

[] From ‘Conservative Renaissance’ []

Renaissance conservatism is the self-confident form of the conservative ethos that understands the deep connections between freedom, the moral order and the human creative enterprise. Renaissance conservatism recognizes that America’s unique role in human history has at least one more major chapter.

The American experiment was the first example in history of a stable creative civilization based on enduring values and principles that contained the seeds of a world revolution. Freedom is the soil of the human creative enterprise. Creative civilizations require a specific kind of support infrastructure, one in which commercial, political, intellectual and artistic freedoms are indivisible, and the moral underpinnings of the political system are rooted in the same moral law that animated the Declaration of Independence. Thus the conservative revival is linked to the fate of civilization itself.


Renaissance Conservatives – a Spotter’s Guide

It is far easier to identify the renaissance conservatives among the intellectuals, pundits and out-of-power politicians who have joined the conversation…provided you know what to look for….

Here is what to look for:

Traditional conservative plumage, understood and applied to the modern situation, expressed in terms of core ideas, not as rote rhetoric

The core ideas of conservatism include these five, among others; (1) a deep respect for boundaries, particularly those contained in the underlying moral law; (2) a learned and articulate suspicion of great top-down utopian programs that are designed to repair the “injustices” that emerge from natural competition because they tend to deteriorate into authoritarian nightmares; (3) an enthusiasm for life-affirming human creative innovation, whether artistic or technological; (4) a core understanding of the deep interrelationship between human indivisible freedoms (economic and cultural) and the whole human creative enterprise; (5) a clear understanding that the United States’ has inherited a unique calling on the world stage; we are the last best hope for creative civilization.

Cultural confidence and a full spectrum historical perspective

I’m talking about the vision of the current set national problems and predicaments as a critical phase in the large sweep of human history, prefigured in American version of the enlightenment and leading the way to the next development in world civilization.


Conservative attorney, Mark R. Levin, has just published, “Liberty and Tyranny, A Conservative Manifesto” (Simon and Schuster 2009). It is a principled and passionate defense of the free markets and institutions of America against Statism. In 6 pages he concisely sets out the Manifesto (199-206), the ten planks of which, in my crude paraphrase are: (1) limited taxation, (2) curbed environmental litigation and regulation, (3) reigned-in judicial activism, (4) sun-setting rogue administrative agencies, (5) eliminating the government monopoly on education, (6) securing borders, ending ethnic balkanization, (7) reigning-in entitlements, (8) affirming robust, American-interest national security, (9) affirming the role of faith and the moral order (10) defending the constitution, especially free expression, against political control and manipulation.

Few conservatives would dissent from any of this. But the value added by renaissance conservatism is the future vector, the confident sense of American civilization, its freedoms and promise, not just portrayed as threatened by those would who pull it away from its founding principles (true as that is), but as a precious gift to the future. This is America as the revolutionary vanguard for the world, the first fully creative civilization, but not the last, America as the hope of the world, the brave experiment in freedom than cannot be allowed to fail.


One of my favorite books is a collection of essays by the conservative ex-pat Canadian, Mark Steyn, “America Alone, The End Of The World As We Know It” (Regnery 2006, pbk. 2008). The point of view is Renaissance conservative, though the author doesn’t use the term. In his 2008 introduction, Steyn lays is out thus: “…[W]e’re facing the end of the post-Second World War order as we’ve understood it these past sixty years, the end of an ever-advancing global prosperity guaranteed by America and its transatlantic allies. The question is whether that in itself is merely a symptom of a more profound civilizational exhaustion and collapse – and whether we’re gambling the future on a post-western civilization.” He goes on the make the case for American exceptionalism in the largest possible context. And he identifies the core problem: a crisis is cultural self-confidence. Towards the end of the book (in “The Falling Camel” he makes this point with a neatly chosen anecdote:

“This book isn’t an argument for more war, more bombing of more killing, but for more will. In a culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of ‘suttee’ – the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural. ‘You say that your custom is to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Built your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. Ad then we will follow ours.’” Mark Steyn concludes the observation with this trenchant line: “Multiculturalism was conceived by the Western elites not to celebrate all cultures but to deny their own: it is, thus, the real suicide bomb.” (Steyn, 193-194)

The timely achievement of a conservative consensus on principled, practical priorities

My purpose in advancing the cause of renaissance conservatism is to provide a larger context — the real and urgent context that allows conservatives to find new allies and to focus sharply on the main game: the promotion and defense of creative civilization from its American outpost against all enemies, domestic and foreign.

(1) Agreement on the essential verities and immediate challenges, accommodation on the rest:

For conservatives, to accept a goal this large and important necessarily means bridging the secular-religious divide, generally; and in particular, it means overcoming obstacles to a principled accommodation on gay marriage and abortion. As important as these issues are to their passionate advocates, they are not the main game at the moment.

Here is a cold dash of water on the face for my conservative friends: you have no clue how much damage your absence from the seats of power may cause. The longer conservatives are frozen out of power, the easier the needed intra-conservative accommodations will become. But there is a bleak corollary. If conservatives remain frozen out of power too long, the unbalanced left will use the time to solidify changes so that the eventual return of conservatism will become an irrelevant footnote.

So this boils down to the “worthy of governance” issue. If conservatives are unable to unite in time for a constructive return to power, they may not be worthy of governance at any time. Therefore it comes to this:

The immediate task of renaissance conservatism is to identify and articulate the issues that should unite all conservatives and to identify and articulate the rational accommodation of the lower priority issues that should not be allowed to divide.

This sort of thing isn’t rocket science, but it requires stern clarity of focus. Priorities are always easier to understand in the context of a time-limited emergency. In a theater fire, for example, everyone – gay, straight, pregnant and barren – is to be evacuated based on proximity to the exit without bickering.

(2) Accommodation without surrender of principle:

Here’s the deal: All of the sensitive, divisive social issues of the day, especially when they touch on deeply held human traditions regarding marriage, reproduction, contraception, or early-to-midterm abortion, should be excluded from getting in the way of unity on the really large issues that challenge the long term survival of creative civilization.

If, God forbid, the atavistic jihadists ever achieve their long-sought neutralization of Europe and go after the United States and Israel with deadly biological of nuclear weapons, does it matter whether the person in the foxhole next to you is gay, straight, or supports abortions or opposes home schooling?

Of course not.

It really matters whether the guy or gal next to you is with you on the side of American civilization. Creative civilization is a fragile experiment that must succeed in the US lest if fail everywhere else.

A broad alliance of renaissance conservatives is the single best hope for the necessary American reawakening. This forms the larger context that requires conservatives to reach a principled accommodation on many of the divisive social issues of the moment.

In my opinion, the best modality for that accommodation is procedural populism.

An illustration: There are deeply held human traditions regarding marriage, reproduction, contraception and abortion. For the most part, the well rooted local traditions are in line with larger historical traditions. Social liberals tend to describe them as “backward”. That is an elitist perspective. Procedural populists would decline to override the popular will.

Renaissance conservatives defend the freedom of both “liberal” and “conservative” social communities from all top-down social engineering via non-democratic institutions. In the US, the relevant legal jurisdiction is the state. The democratic (as opposed to non-democratic) institutions in this context are the direct popular plebiscite and the elected state officials acting in concert with the clear popular will (as opposed to covertly acting against the popular will.)

At present, most Americans appear to be comfortable with gay and lesbian social equality and with monogamous same gender couples being afforded most or all of the legal benefits enjoyed by cohabiting, not married heterosexual couples. But most Americans do not favor gay/lesbian marriage. Think of it as a brand monopoly, if you will, honored in most jurisdictions, not in others. You and your significant other may prefer different benefits: it is a free country; we are all free to move to a friendlier jurisdiction, a more accommodating employer and a better, more amenable community situation, or to places where older traditions are honored.

Also at present, most Americans strongly disapprove of late term abortions but favor adult contraception. Local variation on the abortion issue is sharply limited by the line of federal constitutional issues starting with the US Supreme Court’s famous holding in Roe vs. Wade that created a three trimester test for abortion regulation. This turns out to be the principal “wedge issue” among conservatives. I will return to this, not-trivial question, in more depth.

However individual communities sort out along the continuum of these challenging and divisive social issues, the most traditional ones are finding that the majority view is often overridden by elite, anti-democratic juridical, administrative or Bolshevik-style political maneuvers.

For example, a state supreme court might “find” an otherwise hidden pro-gay or pro-abortion clause (note I do not equate these two areas politically or philosophically) embedded in the language of the state constitution (such as the right to “privacy” or “equality”) when, in fact, neither same-gender issues nor abortion-rights were even considered by the drafters or the voters when such language was approved. The judicial officers who “find” special rights in these areas, just as the federal bureaus that issue edicts to the same effect, risk usurping the democratic process and overriding the common, long held opinions of the people. More than one state legislature has ignored the weight of popular opinion to enact laws altering the common tradition in an attempt to force a new status quo. This technique is borrowed from the Leninist tradition, a form of Bolshevism Lite.

Procedural populism enables a broad spectrum of renaissance conservatives (who may disagree on some social issues) to nevertheless agree that any significant social change in the sensitive areas like gay marriage and “reproductive autonomy” should be bottom-up, driven by popular consensus, and not top down by elite decree.


Now I return to the abortion issue, fully aware of the pitfalls. I will offer some personal reflections and a proposal.


A disclosure: Over the years, I have become more and more firmly pro-life on the abortion issue. Experience shapes and alters moral philosophy. Attending the birth of a beautiful, fragile little human being on several occasions…seeing a lovely and loveable baby come into the full flower of personhood after his or her parents entertained an abortion…observing the deep and destructive guilt suffered by a prospective mother who aborts a baby…listening to the tiny thump-hump of the heart of a weeks old pre-born child: all such experiences teach us something about the value of the little one’s living in utero.

Lessons of this sort are deeper and more impressive than theory.

I have liberal friends who are pro-life in this sense and I have conservative friends who are less so, particularly among those most strongly influenced by the libertarian slogan, “Keep government out of the bedroom and the OR!”

This issue set bridges the secular-religious divide as well. I have an agnostic friend, a secular humanist, who is pro-life because any society callous and indifferent to the value of pre-born human life can all too easily become callous and indifferent to all human life.

And I have male conservative friends who are constrained to take the “pro-choice” position because of long indoctrination by arch-feminist wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends. Few males can answer the challenge: “Easy for you to say; men don’t undergo the pain of childbirth!” Better to say, “I’m neutral on this,” or “I support Roe vs. Wade.”

But there are the close-call questions. For example, a woman is presented with a serious health challenge to herself and the unborn in her womb — she is carrying potential triplets. The medical situation is dire. One or more babies may die in utero, while the mother is facing complications leading to the prospect of a fatal or debilitating stroke. A physician recommends terminating all three because of risks to the mother, but the mother elects to “reduce” to one and go ahead with the birth. Where is the moral responsibility here? How much government intrusion and bureaucratic oversight is appropriate?


The legal context

Pro-life advocates need to understand the Roe vs. Wade ruling (decided by the Supreme Court in January 1973) in its current context. Without any federal guidance on the issue, nothing would stop a particular state from determining that a pre-born infant, viable or not, has no legal standing whatsoever.

[Granted, the Roe court’s protection for the unborn was expressed in tepid language: “In assessing the State’s interest, recognition may be given to the less rigid claim that as long as at least potential life is involved, the State may assert interests beyond the protection of the pregnant woman alone.” But, at least as to late term abortions, the Roe court was clear enough: “With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the ‘compelling’ point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”]

In this connection we need to be reminded of current Chinese practice. In mainland China, abortions are actively encouraged and gender-specific terminations are popular (preferring the abortion of female babies). In a Chinese hospital, abortions can be performed at the moment that the baby “crowns” by piercing the little skull. Anyone who is not appalled at this sort of thing, (a) needs a heart transplant, and (b) is not likely to condemn other cruelty and mayhem in the name of the “greater good’. My conservative, agnostic friend had a point: callousness to human life is a contagious moral pathogen.

Roe has the practical virtue, from a pro-life perspective, of virtually banning all third trimester abortions except those that clearly are necessary to save the mother’s life. To accomplish this, the court in Roe had to afford legal protection to the unborn where, at the federal level, there was none before. Subsequent case law has made the Roe doctrine much more abortion permissive than was necessarily implied by the original opinion.

The core rationale of the Roe case was that fetal protection was linked to fetal viability, hence the rough and ready three-trimester test: Few abortion restrictions were allowed in the first three months during which the court presumed that no pre-born would be viable outside the womb, more restrictions on abortions in the next three month and conditional abortion bans would be upheld in the last trimester.

The entire Roe rationale is being challenged by the advance of medical technology as it pushes back the point of medically-assisted viability outside the womb to earlier and earlier in the pregnancy.

This suggests a holding-pattern strategy for pro-life advocates: (1) Advocate the repeal or modification of laws and subsequent case law that restricts pro-life policies beyond the absolute requirement of the original Roe decision. (2) Press for a review of Roe to expand the reach of the “viability” protection. This might start with a policy of upholding abortion restrictions in jurisdictions where medical technology has produced earlier viability than the original tri-semester dicta in Roe. (3) Eventually, as public opinion and medical technology progress, press for Roe to be reinterpreted to protect all pre-born who have reached the stage of viability in utero. [This is likely to be post conception, but very much earlier in the pregnancy than any state is permitted to act to restrict abortions.]

In the meantime, pro-life conservatives need to be aware that the pro-choice ideology has outstripped the requirements of the original Roe decision. Most humane minded, common sense inculcated liberals favor parental notification laws and strongly oppose partial birth abortion, a procedure that chillingly resembles the disgusting Chinese practice earlier referenced. Nothing in my reading of Roe prohibits making a pregnant child’s parents part of decision whether to have an abortion or a baby, and nothing in that decision prevents congress or any state from outlawing a particularly brutish form of late term abortion. Moreover, Roe does not obligate the government to pay for abortions or to fund counselors to advise pregnant women to have them.

Serious pro-life conservatives need to be equally serious about doing whatever it takes at whatever level that proves effective to make adoption an attractive, practical and humane option to any pregnant woman or girl who otherwise might contemplate terminating the pregnancy for any reason other than the protection of her own health.

The social context

Feminists are carrying at least a thousand years of accumulated grievances. In the modern era, few educated women in the US have a personal legacy of male abuse or female marginalization that even approximates that currently suffered by roughly one billion women in the rest of the world. But that does not change the social and political reality: most modern women carry the memories, customs and oral traditions of the recently liberated, the almost, but not-quite-free women who are still feeling the sad afterglow of incomplete recognition, the glass ceiling, the not-listened-to female employee, spouse or professional. The emerging truth is that feminism in its most strident form was a bit of an aberration. The harsher forms of female liberation, the kind that demeaned “ordinary family women” has begun to recede in favor of a healthy diversity of well adjusted strong women who feel free to be conventional or not.

For renaissance conservatives of both genders, the social issue of life affirmation and abortion choice needs to be placed squarely in the context of child protection and parental responsibility, shared equally by men and women. The issue becomes less and less divisive as there are fewer and fewer abortions performed. Any measure that reduces the scope and severity of the problem is a good thing and worthy of general support.

At the risk of incurring wide offense, I need to disclose here a sad little secret that is still exerting a profound ripple effect on the political and social attitudes of upper middle class American women: A silent plurality of well educated women, the very kind of women who exert the strongest political and cultural influence, have secretly had one or more abortions.

There is a growing body of data that unambiguously shows that women who have terminated a pregnancy – especially later in the gestation – suffer significant lingering guilt. The power of that guilt is greater to the degree that the procedure was medically unnecessary. The adoption of a strident, pro-choice feminist ideology operates as a psychological mask for the inner sense of having done something terribly wrong. The simplest psychological strategy for relief is to blame the male involved, then males generally, then the plight of women. In this way, for some (but not all!) women, post-abortion guilt is expiated in an arch-feminist cause. Fortunately, as the number of these cases diminishes, the ripple effect will also diminish.

The Accommodation Rationale

In issues like this must we return to the animating original vision: Renaissance conservatives are who we are because we support a robust, life affirming, freedom-loving creative civilization of which American is the single most important example and leader. The conservative contribution is essential to the cause of creative civilization because (given the current self-inflicted disabilities of typical liberalism) only conservatism provides sufficient moral boundaries, robust protections for freedom and a powerful un-compartmentalized vision of the human creative enterprise, technological, procreative and artistic.

Local popular social variations of intimate customs and practices can and should be seen part of the larger creative mix, except when they operate as a threat (think of Steyn’s suttee anecdote) to the very fabric of ordered liberty. Top down social engineering is not only inorganic, it is fundamentally anti-creative. A free, life affirming creative social order must be able to tolerate significant social variation as long as the fundamentals – the protection of life, property, freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness are well protected and the creative trends (and the conditions that foster them) are promoted.


A renaissance conservative worthy of leadership needs to be able to handle the abortion issue without blowing up the room. Philosophically and experientially, the conservative perspective is necessarily life affirming. I imagine achieving a sort of consensus overview, something like, “We strongly believe in protecting the life of the mother and her unborn baby, leaving abortions for extreme situations where there is no other reasonable means to save the mother. But close calls should not be made by bureaucracies. This is a huge social problem that needs to be worked relentlessly on every level, changing hearts and minds, from the ground up. But the only acceptable policy direction must always be in favor of life.”


In an earlier essay, defending the idea of explicitly creative civilizations, I wrote:

“Within the last 200 years, various civilizations have begun to develop rules and institutions to protect the freedom of creative expression; this represents a predictable development in our species’ greatest social technology given the growing understanding that the incubation of creative activity requires a certain protected scope of creative expression. I am persuaded that our species’ ultimate survival is tied directly to the success of creative civilization.

“When we humans travel in space and encounter another civilization that has developed entirely separately from ours, I am confident we will immediately recognize the structure of that alien civilization and we will recognize the supporting normative architecture. And I am confident that the longest surviving civilizations will be the creative/adaptive ones. Of course there is another scenario. If we allow human civilization to wither for lack of attention to its normative infrastructure, it will die. The extra-terrestrial archaeologists will pour over our ruins, wondering ‘Where did they go wrong?’”

Or, as Mark Steyn put it in his eloquent conclusion to “America Alone”, “We have been shirking too long, and that’s unworthy of a great civilization. To [fend] off the new Dark Ages will be tough and demanding. The alternative will be worse.”

Renaissance conservatives: It is high time to unite. All you have to lose is your current irrelevance. And what is there to gain? The blessings of civilization itself for you and posterity hang in the balance.

Jay B Gaskill

More about civilization and its necessary moral infrastructure at this LINK: http://www.jaygaskill.com/ProjectLamb.pdf

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