For several years now, my mind has been stumped by people who call themselves “conservatives.” I have wondered, and wanted to ask them, “Just what are you conserving and what do you want to conserve?”
I want to know if they believe in conserving the environment, the National Parks and wilderness areas, the rivers, the oceans, habitats, animal and plant species? I want to know if they believe in conserving the American Dream — a fair deal and opportunity for advancement for everybody, respect of minority and women’s rights, a free press? I want to know if they believe in conserving the right to vote, checks and balances in government, true representation of the people? I want to know these things, because from my observations, those who call themselves “conservatives” don’t believe in conserving any of these things.
But now, from David Brooks of the New York Times, I have an explanation. In his article from last week, “Republican or Conservative, You Have to Choose,” Brooks makes the case that Trump and the Republican Party are no longer conservatives, and true conservatives should not vote for Republicans. He justifies this by explaining exactly what conservatism is.
In Brooks’ words, “Conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space … This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.”
Brooks gives two excellent examples of what he counts as the best of conservative communities, one from a blue state — Burlington, Vt. — and one from a red state, my very own Salt Lake City.
It all sounds quite reasonable, but there’s one thing in it that gives me a twinge. Brooks uses the word “sacred” eight times in his article, six times as “sacred space,” and twice as “sacred order.” Now “sacred” is a fine word. There are certain ideals that I hold sacred. But I am also aware that “sacred” has a dark side. It can mean holding onto ideas just because we were brought up with them, and long past their usefulness or validity.
We used to hold sacred the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around it. We used to hold sacred the idea that God had made some races black because they were stained with sin; also that God condoned slavery because it was the natural order (a “sacred order”?) of existence.
Brooks himself talks about this phenomenon of holding things sacred because we grew up with them. He says, “Membership in these institutions is not established by rational choice. We are born into them most of the time and are bonded to them by pre-rational cords of sympathy and affection. We gratefully inherit these institutions from our ancestors, we steward them and pass them along to our descendants.”
We are living in changing times. Of course all times are changing, but we are most aware of changes in our own time, like gay marriage, the demographics of America becoming less white, women having control over their bodies, young people describing themselves more as spiritual than religious or even as nothings.
These changes are frightening to people like Brooks’ conservatives, people who believe in a “sacred order,” and “sacred spaces.” They feel that their spaces are being invaded and that their order is being violated. Some of them even fear that a wrathful God will punish us all, not only for embracing these changes, but even for tolerating them. And so, they are fighting to hold on to their vision of “sacred space” and “sacred order.”
There is an alternative available to Brooks’ conservatives if they would choose to consider it. Martin Buber once wrote that the reason the phrase, “Our God, God of our fathers” appeared so often in the Bible was to remind us that “God of our fathers” represented the traditions handed down to us, while “our God” referred to the changes that each generation brings to those traditions.
Thus sacred spaces and order can be held on to, while simultaneously tweaking those sacred spaces to allow for new priorities, including stewardship of the planet, seeking to understand others, love and forgiveness, generosity and — dare I say it? — E Pluribus Unum — one people out of many. These are all values that are part of our ancient heritage. They are values that I hope even Brooks’ conservatives can embrace and hold on to in our presently changing time.
Michael A. Kalm, M.D. is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah Medical School and past president of the Utah Psychiatric Association. In his private practice, he has spent 40 years helping people deal with their fears and changes in their lives.