Hazony’s Un-American Conservatism
Yoram Hazony’s new book steeps national conservatism in his own imagined American history.
by Yoram Hazony (Regnery Gateway, 256 pp., $29.99)
Over the past three years, “national conservatism” has emerged as a significant intellectual challenge to the conservative establishment. Because Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony, its two principal doctrinal architects, are academically trained political philosophers, the movement rests on well-developed theoretical foundations. Deneen made a splash with his book on why liberalism (allegedly) failed, which restates in contemporary terms the criticisms that have been leveled against liberalism in the centuries since it emerged in the writings of Spinoza, Hobbes, and especially John Locke. Indeed, the rejection of Lockean liberalism has become a leitmotif of national conservatism.
Hazony shares Deneen’s objections to liberalism, which he broadens into an attack on the Enlightenment, but he has done more to develop an alternative to it. In a 2018 book, he offers a defense of nationalism against internationalism and liberal universalism. And in his latest book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, he propounds at length a form of conservatism that rests on tradition and religion rather than Enlightenment rationalism.
On the policy level, national conservatives mostly support the Trumpist alternatives to Reaganism in areas ranging from trade and immigration to internationalism and the role of government. They are open to “big government” measures in both the economy (e.g., industrial policy) and culture (e.g., social programs to bolster the traditional family). Because they have no principled objections to the use of state power, they inveigh against systems of thought—especially libertarianism—that espouse such principles. Indeed, they deny that libertarianism has anything to do with conservatism, rightly understood. And because national conservatives’ anti-Enlightenment creed leads them to reject natural rights, they are partial to illiberal majoritarianism, with Viktor Orbán’s Budapest as their new Rome. (Some “integralist” members of the movement might prefer the original Rome as the head of an established Catholic Church in America.)
Hazony’s preference for tradition and religion over reason leads one to wonder how conservatism, thus understood, can gain a foothold in a country dedicated to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. To sidestep this problem, Hazony develops a counter-history of America in which the Founders were divided between Enlightenment rationalists such as Thomas Jefferson and adherents of British traditionalism such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. The Constitution, Hazony insists, reflects the latter and has nothing to do with the Declaration.
This claim would have astounded Abraham Lincoln, whose entire career rested on the proposition that the Declaration of Independence was the “apple of gold” for which the Constitution provided the “setting of silver.” The Gettysburg Address famously locates the founding of the new nation in 1776, not 1787.
Hazony’s alternative history has little basis in fact. Yes, there were disagreements among the Founders on matters such as the limits of national and executive power, the relative merits of industry and agriculture, and the stance that the new nation should adopt toward Great Britain and the French Revolution. But the claim that the Founders were divided into pro- and anti-Enlightenment camps and that Washington was an anti-Enlightenment traditionalist is unsustainable.
Washington was, to begin, an ardent Freemason throughout his life, praised the Enlightenment principles of the organization, and publicly participated in its rituals during his presidency. Just days after the Declaration of Independence was issued, Washington ordered his troops to assemble for a public reading of the document so that they would understand the cause for which they were fighting. And in a draft of his First Inaugural Address, he
rejoice[d] in a belief that intellectual light will spring up in the dark corners of the earth; that freedom of inquiry will produce liberality of conduct; [and] that mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were made for the few.
Jefferson would have agreed with every word of this statement (which the ever practical James Madison urged Washington to cut because his draft was much too long).
The alleged tension between rationalism and traditionalism in the American Founding reaches its climax in contrasting accounts of religion’s role in public life. Hazony is admirably frank. His brand of conservatism, he states, “cannot be made to work without the God of scripture,” and turning this principle into practice requires an established religion. “In America and other traditionally Christian countries,” he declares, “Christianity should be the basis for public life and strongly reflected in government and other institutions, wherever a majority of the public so desires.”
As an Orthodox Jew, Hazony cannot be indifferent to the fate of Jews and other religious minorities. His solution: “carve-outs creating spheres of legitimate non-compliance” reflecting a “negotiated settlement of the boundaries between the Christian public sphere and the sphere of minority autonomy.” In practice, this means that religious minorities would enjoy only those liberties that the Christian majority deigned to allow them.
To say the least, this was not Washington’s view. In his letter to the Touro Synagogue of Rhode Island in 1790, he declared,
The Citizens of the United States of America … possess alike liberty of conscience.… It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States … requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.
This ringing rhetoric contains an argument: The doctrine of “toleration” does not apply to the United States, because the Constitution does not give any specific religion a position of privilege and power from which it can choose to give adherents of other religions some portion of religious liberty. All are equal as citizens, regardless of their religious views, because all enjoy liberty of conscience as an inherent natural right, not a gift from one class of people to another. Good citizenship requires not adherence to specific religious doctrines, but rather unswerving loyalty to, and practical support for, our constitutional institutions.
Washington’s creed continues to define the American outlook, which is why Hazony’s effort to delete the religious clauses of the First Amendment will fail—and deserves to.
But Hazony’s brand of conservatism will fail in America for reasons that go beyond even its treatment of religion. Washington believed in natural rights as much as Jefferson did, and so did most members of the founding generation. In a letter written a year before his death, Jefferson offered an account of what he sought to accomplish in the Declaration of Independence:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of … but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.… [I]t was intended to be an expression of the American mind.
The Declaration indeed gave magnificent expression to the American mind, which accounts for the reception it received at home. And yet it was more than this, which helps explain its wider impact. The delegates gathered in Philadelphia dared to believe that human beings everywhere possessed a common sense—whatever their views on the God of Scripture—that enabled them to affirm more than local beliefs rooted in specific traditions. Because Americans have not ceased to believe in this human capacity, any form of conservatism that rejects it will stumble at the threshold of our country.
Americans will reject neither liberty nor equality as foundational principles—or as self-evident truths. Instead, we will continue to argue about their practical implications and about the limits that each imposes on the other. Hazony’s views will enjoy a better reception in countries such as Hungary that deny the propositions that undergird our Constitution and shape our society. National conservatism is a doctrine fit for some nations, perhaps, but certainly not for ours.
William A. Galston, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
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