Grappling with “Leaving Conservatism Behind” by Matthew Sitman

A few of my friends refer to Twitter as “Twit-verse” however, if I was not on the popular social media site, I may have missed out on a challenging and compelling article I stumbled across on Alissa Wilkinson’s (the chief film critic at “Christianity Today”) feed.

The blog in “Dissent Magazine”, written by Matthew Sitman, was entitled “Leaving Conservatism Behind”.  Wilkinson introduced this piece by stating, “This is beautifully written, and thought-provoking. Worth reading no matter your politics” and this is true although I imagine Sitman and I would disagree on some political and perhaps religious matters here or there.

The power of this blog post lies in Sitman’s discussion of his personal life experience which emanates from his blue-collar upbringing.  The question that arises and, indeed, is at the edges of every word of the article he writes is:  does conservative economic policy help people who live in these conditions and with these circumstances?  Also, more hauntingly, how statistically likely is it for citizens who live in blue-collar or impoverished circumstances to escape them?  Certainly, this is a well-explored topic and I would not be able to cite all the studies done on this particular question.  Sitman’s experience through writing brings these questions back fresh and, no matter our political perspective, helps us to profoundly confront this age-old inquiry.

Some excerpts (but really, you need to read the entire piece here):

“It wasn’t just growing up amidst factories and farms that made me a conservative. Even more important was faith—an apocalyptic strain of Christianity that stringently upheld ‘traditional values.’ The term ‘fundamentalist’ gets used haphazardly in our debates about religion and politics, a catchall pejorative for Christians deemed to be on the wrong side of history. But we embraced the label. My family’s church described itself as ‘independent, fundamental, Bible-believing.’ It belonged to no denomination, though the label Baptist would have been accepted, with a modifier or two, by most who worshipped there. We used only the King James Bible, and preached a version of the faith that emphasized personal conversion and the impending end of the world. That strange and foreboding text that closes the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, was our guide to the late, great planet earth’s fate. Drinking was forbidden, book-learning viewed with suspicion, and the Bible treated as a literal handbook for life.”

“That deeper affinity our faith had for American-style conservatism came from the spirit of voluntarism and individualism that defined this version of Christianity. It held out the prospect that a person could transform their life by ‘asking Jesus into his heart.’ The past could be put away, sins could be forgiven in an instant, and a new life begun with just a simple prayer. Religious experience was direct and unmediated. We had no sacraments that served as the means of grace: tradition was scorned and rituals were condemned as merely human inventions. Even the church was viewed as a kind of local, democratic association. We were ‘members’ of one particular church, not incorporated into the mystical body of Christ.

This vision of the spiritual life was based on an exalted understanding of human freedom. Our wills were not bound and our ultimate fate was dependent on nothing but our own decisions. Sanctification came through individual effort and personal reform. It should be no surprise that this Christianity of the altar call proved a ready ally of all the fantasies and political and economic pieties we nurture about America: our belief in our capacity for self-invention and our trust that nearly limitless rewards could be gained through toil and travail. Suffering was ultimately the result of bad choices. You were, in the most profound sense, on your own.”

“Most political and intellectual movements understand themselves to be more pristine and virtuous than they are; that sin is not exclusive to conservatives. The sweep and scale of conservative self-understanding does stand out, however. What it offers is not just a hymn of praise to a few magazines and politicians, but a master theory of twentieth-century political history: how America lost its way, and how we found our way back.

This deductive quality of the conservative mind is its most distinctive feature. Certain axioms are true—about the Constitution, about morality, about economics, about our aspirations as human beings—therefore particular policies and courses of action should be pursued. Despite their vaunted claims to grappling with the world as it is, of being mugged by reality, conservatives in America practice a determined anti-empiricism. This is what holds together all the myriad failures of conservative politics: a devotion to first principles that simply must be true, whatever the consequences, and whatever the human suffering left in their aftermath.”

“The failure of conservatives to attend to the world as it actually exists, the world in its suffering and hardship, drove me from their ranks. And awareness of how suffering and hardship are so often unchosen and undeserved by those who endure it—and prolonged and deepened by a political system that assumes they are due to failures of ‘personal responsibility’—moved me to the left. But even more, all this convinced me that turning to class remains the most powerful way to understand and respond to these realities.”

“…you could read studies showing that death rates for working-class whites were rising, driven by suicide and addiction to painkillers and alcoholism. Or how, almost a decade after the financial crash of 2008, those responsible for the economic devastation are thriving, bailed out with taxpayer money, all while working-class Americans, saddled with debt, try to make do with stagnating wages. Or why, casting a glance at those who depend on government assistance, our politicians blame the morals of the poor for their plight, even as those with power ask our forgiveness for their indiscretions and corruption. Our trade policies, our political priorities, our passion for sending soldiers into the deserts of the Middle East, are best grasped by turning to class: they all serve the interests of those not dependent on wages, or hemmed in by want.”

Days after reading this article, I’m still thinking about it.  These ideas deserve grappling with and listening too.


About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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One Response to Grappling with “Leaving Conservatism Behind” by Matthew Sitman

  1. erdman31 says:

    That’s really spot on. The inability to attend to empirical reality was certain a major frustration for me when I was within American conservatism (both political and religious/evangelical). When Bush tanked the economy and took us into 2 unwinnable wars, I began asking questions, and I was shocked when no one else in my conservative circles had the capacity to probe deeper into what had happened or why. Instead, they just entrenched deeper. Obama was elected, and they soon started blaming all of the Bush failures on Obama. It’s why I don’t have hope for “bringing folks together” or for any kind of bipartisan politics, not until the conservatives in the baby boomer generation are out of the way. By then, though, our problems, domestic and environmental, may be beyond our ability to solve.

    In any event, these well-written reflections certainly remain relevant.

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