Kelso’s Gedankenexperiment: Two Visions of the Conservative Foundation

Posted by T on April 28, 2008

There are basically two different models of conservatism, and there is an unbridgeable chasm between them. One vision starts with the people that constitutes the nation, regardless of its current Constitution. The other starts with the Constitution, and it is a matter of comparative indifference what people happen to live under it.

To understand what is at issue, consider this thought experiment inspired by Jamie Kelso of Imagine you enter a time machine that transports you forward 200 years in time, and you are hovering over territory you remember from your childhood, looking down. As you fly around, you begin to pick out buildings and people. Now which of the following scenes would make you happy, and which one would make you sad?

1. As people emerge, you notice they look like you and your kin — obviously including your descendants — yet you observe that the flag waving over the post office is not Old Glory; and come to find out, the borders are different than they were, and the name of the country is different, there is no Constitution, and the form of government is monarchy.

2. You notice the Stars and Stripes flying over the post office, a National Guard depot with “USA” emblazoned over its door, and the US Constitution is still the official document; but all the people, it gradually emerges, turn out to be Turks.

I love Kelso’s Gedankenexperiment. We have all been carefully brainwashed to favor (2), yet this is insanity. (1) is the only scenario that can be favored consistent with natural affections.

Understanding this continental divide is key to unraveling many of the absurdities of the modern American conservative movement. It took decades for me to throw the virus of (2) off. It is known by various names. I recommend studying this brief essay by Bob Whittaker, who coined the term “Wordism” for the malady we are discussing. (Caution: he is mistaken about the Catholic/Protestant struggle.)

We have been propagandized into thinking that we should be giddy with excitement at the thought that someone, somewhere, is “exercising his freedom,” voting, paying taxes, earning a high salary in a commodity economy, and presumably cheering on a war to spread that “freedom” to farther reaches of the world. And we should be comparatively indifferent to the fate of our offspring and clan, except and to the extent that they maintain this propositional system.

“False dilemma,” comes back a Wordist. “You can have both.” Yes but that’s not the point. Which one is the one that makes you catch your breath? which is truly close to the heart? That is the question.

Modern Christian Americans have been lured into the Wordist error because it bears a deceptive resemblance to the principle of the Word of God which is the mainspring of the Christian’s heart and mind. The notion of “word” (or proposition, or even principle) is easily exploitable through an equivocation. But it is an equivocation. The division of humanity into the nations reflects the richness of expressing the image of God in many ways; in turn, as we contemplate an individual, each individual has his situation in the unity/diversity that is represented by the folk/individual duality. It is a tree with many branches.

God likes trees.

Now overlaid over that is the covenant faithful/unfaithful category. This too works out in history. There is a Christian and non-Christian expression of each tribe/nation, each side of which retains certain characteristic qualities.

The attitude toward tribe, and the attitude toward Jehovah, are two orthogonal and overlapping ways of dividing humanity which we can represent in tabular form:

Wordist Tribalist
Christian Typical red-state
white Christian
Historical Christendom
Non-Christian Neo-con Most of non-white world

As Christians, we continue to be members of an earthly tribe while also, by regeneration and conversion, being transformed into citizens of the invisible City. That transformation does not expunge every other loyalty, either de jure or as to feeling — if anything, it deepens them, imbuing them with richer meaning. We should first strive to persuade our kinsmen to the Faith. We are with them, and belong. A true Christian politic will do proper justice to both loyalties — which for the Christian are not separate, but organically nested. The tribal loyalty is not something in tension with the Kingdom of God, though it may lead to tensions with certain persons. On the contrary, turning one’s back on his tribe is to reject the Word of God, I Tim 5:8. The Apostle said he would himself prefer be condemned for the sake of his kinsmen according to the flesh, Rom 9:3.

Wordism is in fact impossible for any man that has not utterly lost his humanity. We hope for better from our fellow Christians that are temporarily deluded on this.

12 Comments to Kelso’s Gedankenexperiment: Two Visions of the Conservative Foundation

  • Fascinating post. Although not altogether apropos I came across some Calvinist turned Roman Catholic utilizing TAG and God’s sovereignty to argue for his position as well as engage in argumentation against Protestantism which I found interesting, last I checked Roman Catholicism doesn’t prescribe to God’s complete sovereignty and providence in which case TAG doesn’t quite work for the Papist nevertheless it is being used by them and their younger apologists on youtube and other places. I then came across some clips of Dr. Caner from Liberty that infamous “Intellectual Bit bull” as he calls himself (and of course he’s a conservative hmmm) being tazered on the “stage” which is the Liberty pulpit. Some commenter said, “I wonder how many decisions they had for Christ that night gee wiz?” The confusions concerning conservatism and orthodoxy certainly manifest themselves in all manner of forms, everything from TAG for the Papist and his accusation that Protestantism amounts to ecclesiological anarchy and the anarchists tazering themselves at the pulpit – wowzers! Are we in for it or are we in for it? “The conservative’s boy” John McCain’s latest WWF bit on “What you gunna do when The McCainamaniacs run wild on you?” certainly adds clarity to the aforementioned question. We are in for it, either the McCainamaniacs or Hilrod or we are smellen what Baraka’s cookin

  • So how does this comport with the idea that culture is religion externalized? Wouldn’t that seem to indicate that there is a creedal or “word-based” foundation to all social orders? Or is Whittaker addressing a different point here? Thanks–your blog is always thought-provoking.

  • Hello everyone,

    I find this article disappointing for two reasons. the examples given about what would make you feel better as an individual mean nothing. The second disappointment comes from the article not saying anything relevant to the Christian world view.
    The example given is targeted specifically to the individual meaning it can apply to white,black,brown or any other color in the world. As a Christian I just don’t see how I could be happy or great full that my “Kin” still thrive under the conditions described in the first scenario. The argument that I have the choice of my kin being completely divorced from the foundations of my once Christian country or that a different peoples adopted and continue to maintain that foundation and proudly I might add by flying Old Glory would be a greater comfort to me than my pagan kin. The false implications here are what bother me the most. How did my people die out? What caused these new people to adopt my beliefs and traditions. I know Mr M wants to throw this scenario at us and then say that it doesn’t matter. He switches tactics immediately by attempting to get us to agree that we the individual is the end all concerning this terrible turn of events “False dilemma,” comes back a Wordist. “You can have both.” Yes but that’s not the point. Which one is the one that makes you catch your breath? which is truly close to the heart? That is the question. He then goes on speaking about tribalism and even peppers his new recipe with a little bit of gospel. Which is it Mr M are we to take your example to heart or dismiss it because it could turn out alright for the advancement and maintenance of Christian freedom and liberty. Does God care more about preserving a distinct peoples from all nations rather than those people maintaining fidelity with him. Is our highest calling to our own people or to the Advancement of God’s Gospel. I am not saying that both can not be done but I am saying that one is the lesser you can figure out which one. I am not for the melting pot yet I am for all who are here to be converted to Christianity. I believe that this is our calling as Christians. We have been instructed in how to care for the alien among us. We are instructed in how to care for our neighbors which by the way is not the alien but rather our fellow Christian. I have two black Christian neighbors to which I am great full for. Better them than pagan kin I could not trust my kids to be safe around pagan kin.

  • Paulo — assuming you mean the question seriously (and forgive me if I am belaboring a point meant as a joke), I would make some distinctions. If the T-A is first or second generation, I would ask him to repeat the experiment in regards to Turkey. Indeed, everyone in the world can, mutatis mutandis, repeat the experiment: it is not just about Americans. If he is third generation or later, I would first ask him what motivated this ethnic purity, such that he can still think of himself as Turkish? That alone would probably be enough to make the point. After that, I would observe that if the future of America occupied only by Turks is something that would make him happy, then he has a vision of displacement of the original host people that he needs to repent of.

  • Alex (#4) — first, the post is not by M, it is by the “other guy.”

    Some of the points you make need a bit of clarification: surely loving “Old Glory” does not necessarily have anything to do with godliness. I’m inclined to think that today at least, the so-called patriotic attitude has more to do with having adopted a bloody, warlike disposition toward anyone the establishment declares to be an enemy.

    I suppose however instead that you mean by that example to “up the ante” to say, yes but what if the “Turks” are godly Christians that revere the symbols because of their pointing function to the godly origins of this country known as America, and our descendants died out, say, by catching a dread plague that can be tied directly to their sinking utterly into debauchery. Should we not then rejoice in the judgement of God, his hard Providence though meeted out on our kinfolk?

    First, distinguish. That would change the experiment by adding terms that were not specified. I did not say that the kinfolk in (1) had a different Constitution and monarchy because they had apostasized, nor that in (2) the Turks had embraced Christianity. So you have to take the illustration at “first blush,” that is, before further investigation as to the spiritual state of the respective inhabitants.

    So, second, this line of thought pushes the question perhaps to this one: in the experiment, should one necessarily have withheld judgment between the two scenarios pending investigation as to which group had a larger number of regenerate Christians?

    When in doubt about these matters, start by reflecting on the situation in regards to your own family. Imagine you have children, and all of them turn out to be apostates. In heaven, we can be sure that you will be fully at peace with the disposing of these things by a just God, seeing for the first time the real depth and “genuineness” of evil, so that, as shocking as it sounds, you will rejoice in the punishment of your own children. But I submit that it would be the sign of a bad heart to adopt that eschatological attitude here. Instead, you long for the prosperity of your children, including first their salvation, and never giving up hope. It would be a denial of natural affection, ratified by the Scriptures I gave above (and others), if, when your child apostasized, you said, “no big deal; there are plenty of other people being converted that can fill heaven in his place.”

    Kinship is family extended in concentric degrees.

  • Joshua L (#3) — yours is an important question. I will not even try to do it justice in a combox (not that I could anyhow). It must be an ongoing discussion.

    Is culture religion externalized? In many ways, you can see that Chinese culture is Taoism externalized, for example. Yet it is also true that when China comes to Christ en masse, I would not expect them to start building Gothic cathedrals. There will be a specific Oriental expression of the beauty of God. Any given instance of the image of God cannot exhaust his beauty, so it will be necessary to have an Oriental, an Aryan, and a Negro expression of that image, each only in part, to compositely reflect the glory of God in its fullness.

    Likewise, we cannot neglect the common grace, providence and judgments of God, which are somehow coupled to covenant yet not in a simplistic way. The German “barbarians” were already identified as surprisingly chaste by the Romans, in a time when both were still pagans. And it does seem like tribes in which chastity has been thrown out the window do not create civilizations.

    We can see how the Reformation stamped the German and Scottish peoples deeply with the Bible; yet we can also see characteristics that bloomed that were already vestigially present in those tribes before conversion.

    The mistake would be to look for an explanation in mere genetics or such. Yet even that plays a role — which is no problem provided history is seen as an outworking of the decree of the triune God.

    History began with the creative word of God, and it works itself out in relation to word/ oath/ covenant, and it will end with the resolution of all things in terms of the word of God — yet in between and throughout is a great richness that the Wordist misses.

  • Aside from a couple questionable milattos, the 2008 US basketball
    team rostered zero descendents of America’s founders.

    Given model 2, America wins the gold.

    Given model 1, Africa wins the gold…with the help of white coaches.

  • Joshua — good insight.

    Moreover, while it does look as though Negroes are naturally the fastest runners, that they are the best basketball players is starting to be challenged. So much of basketball depends on who gets into foul trouble and the ref’ing, especially in the last five minutes. I’m starting to think the fix is in here as well. See the other interesting articles at caste football as well.

  • T, I happened to be reading in Machen’s shorter writings today and it struck me that perhaps what you’re getting at in this post is expressed in a roughly similar way by Machen in ch. 38: Christianity and Human Relationships. If you have access to the book, could you comment?

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