Pragmatism: The New Dualism
Conservatism is a political philosophy which professes to be practical and grounded in reality – not ideological or utopian dream worlds – yet it cannot furnish a coherent answer to a very practical question: What is the proper punishment for a thief?
John W. Robbins,”The Trouble with Conservatives,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1978
Earlier this week John Boehner, defending Paul Ryan’s vote for TARP, said that Paul Ryan was not a “knuckle-dragger,” and therefore he voted for TARP. Which, of course, immediately defined as “knuckle-draggers” all those conservatives who stood uncompromisingly on their principles and voted against the bail-out. Add to this the Tea Party movement which from the very beginning was opposed to any kinds of bailouts, no matter what the rationales for them may be. Boehner who two years ago solemnly vowed to represent the Tea Party and its principles of limited government, proceeded to create a voting record which can’t be called anything else but betrayal to those same principles. And now, he literally added insult to the injury by calling those to whom he so solemnly vowed to represent, “knuckle-draggers.”
There should be a serious backlash at Boehner for his effrontery, and he should be made to pay for it, preferably with his political career. The man should be forced to follow the career path of Arlen Specter who switched from Republican to Democrat because the Republican constituency in Pennsylvania wouldn’t vote for him, and Specter was too much in love with being in power to miss another shot at staying there. Boehner, like Specter, belongs to the Democrat Party, given his voting record and his convictions. Time for him to make the natural move.
What is more important than the insult he threw at the Tea Party was his justification of Paul Ryan. According to Boehner, Ryan was just a “practical conservative.”
Note well: Just describing Ryan as a “conservative” won’t do, given Ryan’s voting record. Boehner tacitly admits that Ryan’s voting record is not even close to conservative, and he has to insert a sort of a qualification for “conservative” in order to explain. The qualification is “practical.”
In the good old conservative days the word “practical” meant “in practice, even if not in theory.” When a person had certain views but his “practice” was different from his views, “practical” meant what he did, not what he believed or professed to believe. Thus, a “practical socialist” would be someone who didn’t profess a belief in socialism but acted like a socialist. A “practical philanthropist” would be someone who exhibits his philanthropy through his deeds, not through rhetoric. And so on.
But this is not the sense in which Boehner uses the word. He very self-consciously changes the meaning. In his use of it, the word means “someone who professes to be a conservative but acts contrary to it in practice.” It is exactly the opposite to what the word means. Paul Ryan is a “practical conservative” because in practice he does what in words and professed beliefs he rejects. In fact, from the words of Ryan himself, when he was begging Congress to vote for the bailouts, we know that is the case:
Madame Speaker, this bill offends my principles. But I’m going to vote for this bill in order to preserve my principles.
Got it? I didn’t either. As Matt Chancey put it, “This prostitute offends my sense of morality. But I am going to go to her to save my sense of morality.”
The modern use of “practical,” or “pragmatic,” therefore, is meant to denote two realities, existing right next to each other but independent of each other.
One is the reality of a man’s professed ideals, what he theoretically believes. In that reality, there are principles, ideas, moral tenets, ethical rules, etc., etc. That reality is normally what a man presents in his public speeches and writings. It is what he uses to build his public image. “Conservative,” that is, “paying lip service to conservative principles.” “Free market,” that is, “has learned all the verbiage of the defenders of free-market principles.” And so on.
The other is the reality of his actions in the real world. Or, when it comes to politicians, the reality of their voting record and other legislative and governmental actions. Or, their practice. That reality is not to be confused with the first one. It is not run by ideological principles nor by moral rules. There we “do what we can.” Practice must be separated from principles because the two are in a natural dichotomy, or, dualism. And should the necessity arises to reconcile them, dialectics comes to the rescue: “practical conservative,” that is, a “conservative” who is practically not one.
I have shown before how James Jordan, a professing Christian, justifies his vote for Romney as “practical” or “pragmatic,” and adopts as his ideological foundation a basically dualist view of reality: two separate realms, with two different ethical codes for action. His dualism goes all the way back to 1990 when in an article titled “The Dominion Trap” he separated dominion from Godliness, and therefore separated Christian activism from piety and faith. Such separation is not supported by the Bible; to the contrary, faith is expected to express itself in works, and activism is one of those areas where we act out our faith in practice. We can’t separate Jesus’s works of activism – driving the money-changers out of the Temple, for example – from His obedience to the Father, or from His faith and piety. In Hebrews 11:33-38, the acts of faith which the saints of old performed, are all clearly activist, without any inner mystical undefined “godliness” mentioned. And many of these acts of faith are clearly political in nature: “conquered kingdoms,” “dispensed justice,” “became mighty in war,” “put armies to flight.” The Biblical worldview does not separate “spiritual” reality, where we are supposed to be “godly,” from “activist” reality, where we just do what we can, not being led by principles.
(Now, it is true that there can be godly activism and ungodly activism, and that separation needs to be maintained. But that’s a different separation between activism in general and godliness in general.)
Jordan is not alone, of course. The whole American church has bought into the lie of political “pragmatism” and has abandoned any principled political action based on the Scripture. There are many other ideological systems except Jordan’s mystical “godliness” designed to justify the abandonment of Biblical principles when it comes to political and social action. Premillennialism, the Two Kingdoms Theology, the “natural law” theory, sacramentalism, fundamentalism, and many others are simply different versions of the same dualist philosophy which separates faith from the world, and therefore separates godliness from action and practice. In the end, just like Boehner justifies Ryan’s discrepancy between professed ideals and actual voting record with him being a “practical conservative,” we have a multitude of dialectical justifications for Christians who claim faithfulness to the Bible but fail to act accordingly in the social and political arena.
Rushdoony said in his book, Sovereignty, that pragmatism doesn’t work. It “posits a meaningless world in which no criteria exist.” That’s because pragmatism is at its very foundation dualism. Dualism is the destruction of all meaning and all criteria, and filling the void with dialectics. And that’s why John Robbins is right in his assessment of conservatism. As long as conservatives in general, and Christians in particular, seek to be “practical” or “pragmatic,” they will be powerless to answer even the simplest questions of our culture. And therefore will keep losing the cultural and political battles of our day.