2016 has been a bad year in general for principled conservatives, but this article on the divide between “ideological conservatives” and “civilizational conservatives” brings up a big, ugly fracture point that may be far wider than just their affinity for Islam or Russia.

Ideological conservatives loathe Putin because he represents an authoritarian challenge to the American-backed order in Europe and the Middle East. But many civilizational conservatives, who once opposed the Soviet Union because of its atheism, now view Putin’s Russia as Christianity’s front line against the new civilizational enemy: Islam. Among the alt-right, Putin is a very popular man. He’s popular because he resists the liberal, cosmopolitan values that Muslims supposedly exploit to undermine the West. Richard Spencer, who was until recently married to a pro-Putin Russian writer, has called Russia the “sole white power in the world.” Matthew Heimbach, another prominent figure in the alt-right, recently told Business Insider that “Russia is the leader of the free world.” In 2013, Pat Buchanan penned a column entitled, “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative? In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?”

I strongly suspect that this same fracture point maps pretty well onto American debates about immigration and refugees and willingness to put up with Trump. “Civilizational conservatives” think that mass immigration and/or substantial refugee resettlement pose a threat to our civilizational values and “ideological conservatives” are, well, a lot more ideological and are far more willing to compromise and work towards comprehensive immigration reform. Since their ideology isn’t as tied to nationalism, the ideological conservatives are more flexible about who is living out their ideologies. The more rigorously conservative among them see the general economic benefits that immigration poses to the labor force and the less rigorously conservative are just sympathetic to their plight.

As the article discusses, Trump’s pseudo-populist nationalism (and Putin’s authoritarian nationalism) plays well with the civilizational conservatives because they see globalism as a crisis severe enough to justify all sorts of illiberal measures: massive state interference in business, severe immigration restriction (including religious tests!) high tariffs, and perhaps even hostility towards the free press. Putin is obviously much further down this road and I think most Americans would rather avoid his outright abuses of power, but they are willing to give Trump some leeway to stop the runaway globalism train.

Quite frankly, for religious conservatives who lean towards the “civilizational”, I find this nonsensical. If globalism and liquid modernity are the problem, then immigration restriction is cutting off one of the few sources of new citizens who might possible share your views on the priority of faith and family and the importance of religion in providing some moral undercurrent (or restraint) for the state’s actions. Both Putin and Trump appear to be happy to throw a bone to religious conservatives in order for their loyal support, but neither has any respect for human life in the eyes of the state and would happily preside over a fiefdom full of people lost in drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex as long as they stay in power. There won’t be much civilization left to defend because modernity will continue its corrosive destruction through the institutions we love and believe in– the individualistic atomism that is hollowing out our civilization is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped by an authoritarian state and closed borders.

Refugees and immigrants overwhelmingly hail from cultures that prioritize communal values over individual expression, understand the preeminent value of marriage and family, and see religious devotion as a key process that helps to form virtuous and capable citizens. There are some legitimate differences in politics, theology, or culture, but those values tend to be more superficial when considered in light of the overwhelming overlap in social vision they have with religious conservatives.The conflicts that we might encounter in dealing with Islamic political theology and other foreign ideas might even help sharpen our particular viewpoints and force us to actually describe how we imagine religion informing politics doing rather than shrieking about Supreme Court justices ad nauseum.

Furthermore, any concessions religious conservatives might get under an authoritarian regime would be Oholibah’s jewels. The recent discussions around Russell Moore’s actions jeopardizing his compatriots’ “access” to the Trump administration suggests that the naked ambition for power over principle remains the same for the people of God as it was 2500 years ago. Given how much has been compromised so far in the lust for “access”, it won’t be long before Franklin Graham gets his picture taken sitting next to Richard Spencer in the waiting room of the Oval Office.

I don’t think we have to let everyone in or scuttle a rigorous process for admitting refugees or creating a path to citizenship. There are real security concerns that have to be weighed and real limits to any country’s ability to assimilate refugees and immigrants. Islamic terrorism– itself a reaction to modernity– is a real threat that has to be named plainly, addressed forthrightly, and fought judiciously.

However, I do think that resisting the corrosive and disenchanting forces of modernity is going to require solidarity across ethnic, national, and religious lines because there is a large bundle of assumptions about the self, the world, and God that we share. What’s more, intentionally assimilating people into otherwise racially and religiously homogeneous communities might be one of our best chances at building that solidarity and preventing these newcomers from becoming balkanized (or, God help us, Democrats). Whether you want real civilization that is communal instead of individualistic or genuine ideology that governs according to principle rather than power-grabbing, immigrants and refugees are conservatives’ allies.

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Posted by Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Matthew. I have a great deal of respect for the humanitarian concern, compassion, and personal involvement that you bring to this issue. I do have some reservations about your stance and proposed approach, however, which I think fail to wrestle with some of the complexities of the matter. The follow are a few of them:

    First, conservatism is much less of an abstract ideology than it is a commitment to the preservation of the specific historic institutions, forms, traditions, and cultures of a given context. It is a determination to carry forward the good of a legacy that we have inherited from our forebears into the future. There are very few forces more threatening to conservatism than large scale immigration, especially when that immigration comes from societies with little cultural, ethnic, religious, or other affinities to our own. Conservatism is much less abstract and ideological than it is concrete and pragmatically valuing of the particular over the ideological. As I’ve written in the past:

    Although participating in a common life and having a place are universal human goods, these can only be realized in the particular yet variegated forms of specific societies, through which they are refracted. Liberalism’s undervaluation of particularity encourages it to think in terms of abstract right-bearers and of mere space. The paradigmatic person of liberalism is a displaced one: the universal human subject. As one might expect, the result of the liberal vision has often been the breaking down of particular communities and places into interchangeable territories, rendering all increasingly ‘placeless’, both in the social, historical, and material order.

    The indiscriminate welcoming of migrant populations can attenuate place for everyone. Although this may serve the interests of capitalists and governments who stand to benefit from a mobile, dependent, and biddable workforce and a population with little internal solidarity, this is at heavy cost to the wellbeing of the people within such groups. The persons who bear the heaviest burden of this loss of place are typically the poorest within society.

    Second, contemporary American conservatism has been far too much in thrall to capitalism and economic benefits, failing to appreciate the fact that conservatism should be more about needs and values much further up the Maslow Pyramid. Capitalism is one of the most anti-conservative forces there is and is a major part of the reason for the plights of immigrants, the countries that they leave, and the countries that they enter. It is telling that immigration is often spoken of in terms of the free movement of ‘labour’, as human beings are reduced to units of a homogeneous resource to be moved around to the places where they are most beneficial to the economy.

    Third, study after study demonstrates that large scale immigration and diversity decrease key conservative values such as social trust (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). While there is a great deal that we would both find exceedingly objectionable and incorrect in this piece, for instance, it highlights real social issues that are caused by increased ‘diversity’. A healthy conservatism depends upon a robust civil society, with strong common values and culture, precisely the things that multiculturalism threatens. Whereas in the past, Western countries could assimilate new arrivals into a thick common society as they tended to come from culturally (and geographically) proximate countries, modern multicultural societies that indiscriminately welcome all comers can’t do the same thing. The increasing power of secular liberalism, the market, and the growing dependence upon law and government to hold society together and establish its values are in large measure a result of this.

    Fourth, the social conservatism of many Muslim immigrants is one of the greatest threats to conservatism in the West. For instance, as Benjamin Schwarz writes:

    The result, as Trevor Phillips asserted in a speech focusing on Pakistani and Bangladeshi neighborhoods, is that “Residentially, some districts are on their way to becoming fully fledged ghettos—black holes into which no-one goes without fear and trepidation, and from which no-one ever escapes undamaged.” Two-thirds of British Muslims only mix socially with other Muslims; that portion is undoubtedly higher among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis specifically. Reinforcing this parallel life is the common practice of returning “home” for a few months every two or three years and an immersion in foreign electronic media. Integration into a wider national life is further hindered—and the retention of a deeply foreign culture is further encouraged—by the fact that most Pakistani marriages, even if one spouse is born in Britain, essentially produce first-generation-immigrant children: the one study that measured this phenomenon, conducted in the north England city of Bradford, found that 85 percent of third- and fourth-generation British Pakistani babies had a parent who was born in Pakistan. (Incidentally, that study also found that 63 percent of Pakistani mothers in Bradford had married their cousins, and 37 percent had married first cousins.)

    This sort of conservative way of life may be very healthy in Pakistan, but it has a profound balkanizing effect when it comes to Britain and is revealed in just how self-alienated many south Asian immigrant communities are from the rest of the UK. To create an integrated society, we would have to take direct aim against Muslim conservatism. We would have to undermine the power of the Muslim family by attacking the practice of cousin marriage—which seems to be a force hostile to the development of an open and democratic, high-trust society—recognizing that the Church’s prohibition of consanguineous marriage was one of the reasons why the West socially evolved in the direction of democracy, while corruption is so common in south Asian Muslim societies. In this and many other respects, mass immigration of south Asian Muslims threatens British society and its traditional institutions, which have organically developed out of deeply rooted forms of common life. We also really shouldn’t kid ourselves: south Asian Muslims may oppose same-sex marriage and the other marital heresies that have sprung up in historically Christian countries (in part because societies that have had cultures of Christian marriage are especially prone to these errors), but they most definitely do not widely share many of the core traditional marital values of European countries and of the European diaspora. Cultural differences run a lot deeper than many think, especially in such areas.


  2. (cont.)

    Fifth, the people who routinely gain from mass immigration are capitalists and liberals. Capitalists gain cheaper and/or higher quality labour. Liberalism gains new demographics for which it can act as the benevolent patron and protector, playing on the fear and guilt of different groups in society to divide and conquer, destroying traditional and conservative values in the process. Compassionate multiculturalism has been one of the best excuses for scouring our public and civil life of traditional Western Christian cultural values and practices, replacing it with a generic and anti-Christian ideological liberalism. Immigrant populations are seldom ideological liberals. However, ideological liberalism is a far more attractive option to culturally marginal minorities than a conservative movement that seeks to maintain and privilege the historic and traditional forms and values of a society that is culturally alien to them.

    Sixth, immigrants and Muslims are indeed often strong opponents of globalism and liquid modernity. I have lived with a number of immigrants from Muslim countries over the years and have definitely found much common ideological ground with them. For instance, ideologically, on many fronts I had far more in common with my hijab-wearing Bruneian housemate who was the daughter of a polygamous father than with my other European housemates, though our contexts, cultures, and ways of life were very alien. However, whatever the values of immigrants, the phenomenon of mass immigration is a creation of globalism and liquid modernity and the more that such forces are allowed to operate unarrested, the more both they and us will become atomized individuals, flotsam and jetsam on the sea of global capitalism. I have had some very positive experiences and relationships with immigrants as people (and often can relate to them more in key respects, as someone who grew up outside of my country of birth and was always a third culture person in various respects), but am a firm opponent of high levels of indiscriminate immigration. Just as one can have a deep concern for kids who need adoption and celebrate the love of families who practice it, while strongly desiring a society where the need for adoption is minimized and where the ideal is adoption within the extended family or community, so one can care for immigrants, while seeking to minimize the disruptive phenomenon of mass immigration into culturally foreign societies.

    Seventh, desiring ‘new citizens’ who share our vague ideological commitments to the value generic ideals of ‘faith and family’ strikes me as indicative of the danger of a concern for winning political cultural wars over pursuing the good of concrete communities, which must be sustained by something a great deal thicker than abstract conservative ideologies. The political victories of an abstract conservative ideology matter a great deal less to me than the preservation of the social goods of my particular community and place. Conservative ideologues may need new ‘citizens’ who share their commitment to generic conservative principles and will help them to defend them in the hostile territory of the liberal political arena, but most conservatives are really pursuing neighbours with whom they can share deep common forms of life.

    Eighth, it is crucial that we recognize that sentimental humanitarianism and Western guilt are greatly empowering of globalizing neoliberalism and capitalism. The forces that drive Western interventionism and destabilizing entanglement in countries around the world are the same forces that create an appetite for the mass importation of people to our shores. Mass immigration to the West further fuels Western military and economic interventionism, forces that we really need to arrest for the sake of the countries that suffer from them.

    As I said at the start of this comment, I think that the charity and compassion that you encourage towards immigrants is imperative in the current context. Immigrants really are not the enemy and should not be treated as the scapegoats for the damaging social dynamics that they are often expressive, yet not instigative, of. When immigrants become our neighbours, we should do whatever is in our power to create our society as a home we share in common with them. As in previous years, for instance, later this week my family will probably be sharing its Christmas celebration with Iraqi, Iranian, and Indian immigrants, new neighbours who have added much to our lives.

    However, while pursuing the conservative value of neighbourhood by knitting newcomers into our shared forms of life, it is also important to think seriously about the dangers of subjecting the fragile reality of a common life and cultural niche to pressures that they cannot reasonably sustain. Homes and homelands should be sites of hospitality and openness, yet, without clear boundaries and protection of the unique ‘self’ of the home(land), a necessary precondition for the practice of hospitality can be tragically undermined to the considerable loss of many.

    1. Mischaracterizing liberals in extremely negative ways makes me not pay attention to whatever else you’re saying.

  3. I appreciate Matt Loftus’ compassionate service in his area of expertise.

    However, I concur with Alistair Roberts.

    There’s a problem with immigration that is the product of our own nation’s overseas war and other policies, including the chaotic economic effects of elite directed globalism, that cause uncontrolled mass migrations.

    As Rod Dreher observed for himself in his own blog about this ( http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/anti-modern-pro-muslim-pro-immigrant/ ), folks generally prefer the familiar and really have to be ousted from their place by serious trouble. When there is peace and prosperity, those mavericks who wish to relocate are easily accommodated because it does not cause dislocation or distress to their new neighbors, since they are far fewer.

    There is nothing opposed to Christianity in this pragmatic realization, and our policies ought to be so moral as to follow it, for it addresses the well-being of both those at home and abroad.

    I still see little recognition of the man causes of the mass migration we are now witnessing addressed. As most know, there is the Emma Lazarus inscription about welcoming “the huddled masses, yearning to be free” on the eponymous Statue of Liberty in proximity to what was once the sea gateway to America. That ideal, insofar as it ever existed, was from another age, where America was viewed as a separated refuge from the overseas world of wars and economic tyranny.

    That era has long passed, with America’s military and Wall Street economic domination itself now encircling and occupying the globe, engaging in multiple wars far from the “Homeland” and in furtherance of a unipolar globalist empire defending the dollar as the mandated world currency.

    The chaos of these American wars, whether covert, by proxy or overt, with “regime change” rather than locally accountable democracy the policy of choice, with domination the desired outcome rather than independence, is producing the inevitable death, destruction and masses of refugees that are now roiling Europe.

    In the Americas, a backyard beggar thy neighbor economic and military domination creates the impossibility of truly independent nations allowed their own economic freedom that would threaten American economic and military hegemony. Perversely, these policies produce waves of economically dislocated who illegally enter the United States’ via its southern border, destabilizing the economic prospects of the existing population and diluting democratic accountability, through the creation of a large exploitable population with few rights.

    A Christian response demands addressing root causes, not just bandaids. Surely we should treat all human beings well, at home – and abroad. Policies that cruelly drive people from their homes elsewhere are far from Christian – and they are ones attributable to American policy, which American Christians can exercise some influence over.

    When we destabilize our own people by acting as a giant safety valve for the chaos our government is complicit in with policies of continuous warmaking and regime change operations elsewhere, we thereby contribute to removing from those countries the forces best qualified to press for genuine change in their own nations.

    There is no mandate for military conquest of other nations or establishing empire in the New Testament. Nor were the Jews in the Old ordered to transform Israel into an Empire. A city on a shining hill, a beacon, is something quite different from a Babylonian financial elite bent on controlling the world in its supposed unipolar moment, invading and inviting the world. It was Satan who offered all those Kingdoms of the world in domination, if only Christ would bow down – and He rejected that subjection, so as we ought to by His example. Else, even our political and economic freedoms are lost beyond redemption, exchanged for universal submission, domination both abroad and at home.

  4. I largely agree with Alastair’s comment, especially the seventh point. We cannot hope to sustain conservative values in the absence of particular institutions–in time and place–that embody those values. The mistake of evangelicalism, and of “social conservatism” generally, is the notion that we can sustain conservative values with mere disembodied ideology. So, we put all of our effort into creating ideological homogeneity, even as we create communities that are increasingly sterile. Church has to be about more than the Statement of Faith printed on the back page of the bulletin.

    Molly Worthen addresses some of these points well in her book, “Apostles of Reason.” The efforts of Henry and Lindsell to create a purely ideological church seems to have failed. The re-establishment of conservatism is going to require the re-establishment of some kind of common life. Mass immigration from Muslim countries won’t help us do that, even if such immigrants may share evangelical objections to extending civil rights to LGBTQ people. Having common enemies means little, if the reasons for such are not consistent.

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