The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 26, 2019

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Why I Am a Conservative: Bishirjian, Richard J.
Richard J. Bishirjian (from MA 49:3, Summer 2007) - 07/10/08

To the extent that it is still possible to be a good American citizen and a good person living in the United States something of moral value remains in our public lives. Conserving that is of central concern to conservatives, and everything else pales in comparison….


Richard J. Bishirjian

In 1977, I invited Eric Voegelin to write an original paper for a symposium that I was organizing with William Corrington on the topic “Gnosticism and Modernity.” Voegelin replied by letter dated July 20, 1977: “As a matter of principle, I write papers only on problems in science, not on topics.” Voegelin did not write a paper for that conference held at Vanderbilt University, but he did attend the conference and he gave a moving ad hoc commentary on an event he called “one of the best conferences I have attended.”1 Apparently Voegelin’s admonition that I write on problems in science not topics was lost on me because here I am accepting the editor’s appeal for essays on the topic “Why I am a conservative.” I write on this topic out of respect for Modern Age and my fellow conservatives.

What is this conservatism with which I have been identified since attending my first ISI summer school forty-six years ago?

Ask that question of a British Tory and you’ll get a reply that is different from one given by an American—even if the Tory you query is a Thatcherite Conservative. And the same will be the case of Spanish, Italian, German and French conservatives. These differences tell us that conservatism is an attitude—not an “ism”—and a disposition of mind toward government, politics, and tradition, not a philosophy of government or a systematic political theory. If not an ideology, a philosophy nor a political theory, then there is no universal conservatism about which to write. What we are discussing is an artifact, a cultural development, that in the case of those participating in this symposium began in America in response to the growth of the administrative state and which we can address by reflection on its history and the problems it addresses.

For that reason, this discussion reflects my training as a political theorist by Stanley Parry, Gerhart Niemeyer, Eric Voegelin and requires that I reflect upon my experience of things political, cultural, and moral in America today. Sometimes my professional judgments and my personal attitudes point me in the same direction, but the conservative part of me deals with practical matters, things more immediate and relevant to my “little platoon” of family and local community and touches also upon my social existence as a citizen of the United States. I can reflect upon and interpret my experience as a conservative while acting as a political theorist, but that critical role is analytical whereas being a conservative engages me “in my hips” to use Willmoore Kendall’s phrase, i.e., my practical life.

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