Recent developments in the Republican presidential campaign have afforded the establishment right the opportunity to articulate its vision of order within the conservative movement, occasioning the curious spectacle of a movement which has played the people-against-the-elites card for generations suddenly lauding expertise, credentials, and the cultivated minority. There is, of course, a place for such things in any conservatism worthy of the name; the crucial things are that the elites and their substantive traditions be identified correctly, and that corrupt, false, and degraded pretenders to authority be exposed. One does not read Babbit, Weaver, or Kirk and develop a leveling sensibility; neither, though, does one acquire a sense that the characteristic modern forms of authority, being invested in value-neutral technique, are legitimate.
National Review, however, has recently telegraphed that, perhaps, that most venerable of traditional authorities is no longer quite so welcome as it once was.
Lots of people take it as a given that Mormonism is nuts; the tolerant ones just think this shouldn’t keep Mitt out of the White House. Many who hold the “Mormonism is nuts” position are religious themselves — and they’re the ones I find hardest to understand. I suspect that, almost to a man, they are (1) incapable of rationally defending their own beliefs and (2) completely unaware of how deeply irrational — in the sense of “rationality” given above — those beliefs are.
Jason Steorts is engaged in something broader than mere apologetics for the endorsement of Romney; his claims are more sweeping, and amount to a dogmatic assertion that the philosophical and political settlements of liberal modernity - according to which religious claims, and claims concerning matters unverifiable by means of the methodologies of modern empirical science, are, being fundamentally undecidable, indifferent to the question of right order, and must therefore be bracketed by participants in the naked public square of the liberal order - are incontestable:
We may not be able to persuade our robot that atoms exist, but we can call in quantum physicists to do the job, and their explanation will be clear and rational. Has anyone in the history of the world explained clearly and rationally how a virgin birth works?...
Let’s keep things simple and stick with god, lower-case. I invite any reader to e-mail me what he would say to convince the robot that there exists a god of any sort. Aspirants should consult the efforts of, among others, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant before improving on them. (“Improving”: There is a depressing philosophical consensus that those guys failed. You can disagree — but the robot will make you say why.)
In addition to being rationally untenable, and arriving at the convenient time of NR's endorsement of Romney, such sentiments reflect the growing alienation of much of establishment conservatism from its own heritage; the National Review of a generation ago would not have published such vacuous and sophomoric thoughts.
But it gets better. Not only are all religions more or less equally irrational - except for those that may be still less rational, as those inclined to read Steort's piece on Romney's Mormonism will discover - but Steorts would apparently have us believe that Christianity is no more warranted by reason than religious beliefs which entail the following
A female corpse was skinned, gutted, chopped into smithereens with an axe, and mixed with barley. At some point, two young monks showed up on a motorcycle, chanted a sutra, got bored, and headed back to the monastery. Meanwhile a swarm of central-Asian vultures circled overhead. Once the corpse was mutilated beyond recognition or form, everyone present retreated from it, allowing the vultures to dive, bomber-like, and devour the mass of human pulp within ten minutes. If you have never seen central-Asian vultures, it will be hard for you to imagine how sinister this sight was. They are much larger than their American cousins, roughly the size of golden eagles, and they hop about more evilly than any creation of an animator’s pen.
The man wielding the axe went about his business as casually as the vultures would. He even invited me to take pictures. (I declined.) He was a relative of the deceased, but not a close one. Generally, after a death, the local monk-astrologer determines which relatives are to attend the deceased’s funerary rites. Next of kin are, mercifully, exempted from this duty.
It is a grisly custom that even many Tibetans find hard to witness. But it is also mesmerizing. In particular, I will never forget the sound of the axe as it cleft bone and struck the rock on which the corpse lay. (This sound was something like that of chopping carrots, but wetter, and with a metallic ping at its core.)
Try as I might, I cannot now dissociate the two articles in my own thinking: religion is irrational, and Christianity may be more incredible than most; and if this is so, than Tibetan sky funerals are at least as worthy or unworthy as Christian rites. And recognition of this is now imperative because NR has endorsed Romney, a Mormon, though also, in light of the other developments I have mentioned, because religion, apparently, now must keep to its rightful place of silence even in the precincts of conservatism.
John O'Sullivan, a former editor of National Review, once enunciated O'Sullivan's law, which states that any institution not explicitly conservative will become liberal with the passage of time. To which I add the corollary: any Western institution or organization not explicitly Christian will become liberal with the passage of time.