I should begin by pointing out that I make a distinction between "conservative" and "right." Just about all the people who call themselves "conservative" in the public forum these days are in fact, right wingers and there's nothing conservative about them. Right wing policy is about supremacy; the supremacy of race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, any of those, and all of those. Conservatism, so the name implies, is about conserving, and usually the thing conservatives always want to conserve is the inheritance from the past. Edmund Burke believed that the society that we are born into, that we inherit from our ancestors, takes precedence over the individual. There may still be English conservatives like this, but not many American ones. Most Americans, both left and right, would more agree with John Stuart Mill, that all societies are free associations of individuals, that individuals make and can unmake society. At one time, conservatives in this country wanted to preserve what they saw as a fundamental American identity rooted in capitalism, individualism, and Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, conservatives like Robert Taft and William F. Buckley (a Catholic, but hardly one to be found venerating Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe). Now, those are being supplanted by the angry resentment of the constituency that made Joseph McCarthy a force in politics and that Nixon rode into the Presidency. That spiteful legion wants revenge and conquest, not the preservation of anything. They want to bring on the Apocalypse, and the sooner the better.
I have an inner conservative in that older sense of the word, a deep reluctance to throw out babies with bathwater. He lives right beside my inner anarchist.
Curiously, my inner conservative is quite secular. It is my inner anarchist that is deeply religious.
My inner anarchist despises contemporary society which he sees as corrupt and poison at the root; a degraded social order that rewards aggression, predation, and brutality and isn't worth the bother of preserving. My inner anarchist takes the words of the Lord's Prayer and all the promises of a New Heaven and a New Earth very seriously. He understands why Christianity spread so quickly in the ancient world, because it offered something that Classical culture never offered, hope. The slave, the beggar, the prisoner, the pauper, even the bourgeois and the affluent and educated could hope that the world as presently constituted would not last forever. That the whole order of Who May versus Who Must that Classical thought assumed was without beginning or end would indeed come to an end, and those who were Last will at the end be First. That was revolutionary, and the Romans were right to feel threatened by a religion where slaves and masters could pray together as equals.
Far from feeling threatened by the demise of institutional Christianity, my inner anarchist positively rejoices in it. As for the whole business of Christendom, he says "burn baby burn!" No more hierarchy! No more dogma! No more legalism! No more purity cult! No more Bibliolatry! Let it all burn, and use bishops' vestments and Bibles for kindling! No more Christianity as tribal identity. No one should ever be born into the faith again. It's time to finally bury Constantine and his imperial cult. May the Christian religion once again be the Christian faith and return to its revolutionary roots.
It is my inner conservative that has qualms about the demise of Christendom. In his heart of hearts, he really couldn't care less about it. He's really quite secular. He's puzzled that the religious should be so shocked when some people come to the very reasonable conclusion that there's no One there.
But my inner conservative worries about what will fill the vacuum that Christianity leaves behind. Materialism doesn't worry him. There's lots of different varieties of that, many quite benign. It's not atheism or agnosticism that bothers him. Perhaps indeed Freud was ultimately right and we've outgrown our temples. What worries him is that one god might take the place of another. He's worried that it will be plain old Money that will fill that void. As I've always said, Money may not be a transcendent god, but it is a god nonetheless, and he's a jealous and demanding god that makes no exception for unbelievers. Money will have its due worship and sacrifice from us all or leave us to starve. Money is such a crappy god as gods go. He's hardly an improvement over the old ones. He's no Shiva or Apollo. Money degrades and brutalizes all that he touches. The only meaning and authority he recognizes is what's written on a price tag, and everything and everyone has its price. His creed is "more and faster." He declares that all the world is ultimately trash, that all things exist to be used and exchanged. And when they've lost their usefulness and are no longer desirable, then they are trash. Nothing (and no one) has any intrinsic value.
It's that god that troubles my inner conservative. That god also troubles my inner anarchist who sees Money already ruling over the earth, miraculous spawn of his mother, Santa Muerte. It is no accident that the Romans made Pluto, god of the dead, the god of wealth. How very conservative of me to make a Classical allusion. How very anarchist of me to use it to attack commerce.
The prospect of a secular world does not frighten me. If anything, with most institutional religion crapping all over itself in a panicked reaction to modernity, I think we would be much better off.
Fundamentalist and self-proclaimed orthodox Christians will simply self segregate into separate communities like orthodox Judaism. More liberal and left forms of Christianity and other faiths may well go underground, marginalized into storefronts and the back rooms of bars. Revolution Church here in Williamsburg which meets in the back of a bar may be a vision of the future. I would miss the big beautiful historic church buildings, but it would hardly be the end of the world for us. If anything, it might be an opportunity for a new beginning.
This is what really frightens me, the religious impulse making a deity out of the brutal nihilism of modern market capitalism. When I say Money is a god, this is what I mean. Modernity worships success, and so why not worship it literally with candles, bells, and smoke? There are plenty of precedents for this. Tyche, the goddess of fortune, had her great temple in the city of Antioch. We can see this today in that cargo cult in Christian trappings known as Prosperity Gospel.
That worship of fortune takes its most frightening form in the popular and spreading cult of Santa Muerte, Saint Death, out of Mexico. She appears as a horrific parody of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a skeletal corpse in Virgin Mary drag. She is a goddess of crime and criminals worshiped by drug traffickers. They pray to her and offer her sacrifice, including animal and human sacrifice, for safety and success in their enterprises.
My inner conservative (who is not particularly religious) worries that the demise of institutional Christianity would mean the loss of the historical, cultural, and intellectual legacy of Christendom. Our lazy and spineless refusal to challenge the right wing and fundamentalist claim to a copyright on Christianity may mean that all of its legacy from St. Augustine to Kierkegaard to Tillich, from Gregorian Chant to Bach to Mahalia Jackson, from Chartres to Michelangelo to Rembrandt will go down the drain or into a ghetto with them. The decline in Biblical literacy troubles my inner conservative who foresees the loss into oblivion of a major force in the shaping of Western culture, including its most revolutionary elements. Would Marxism or Anarchism even be imaginable without the precedent of Christianity?