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conservativeOctober 11th was “National Coming Out Day.”  Every year, this observance reminds me of the time when I first came out, when I was a graduate student. Though I was raised in a religious environment in which orientation was not made a central issue, it had become a very central issue for me during my college years. By that time, I was heavily involved in a religious subculture which evinced very definite and sometimes very dogmatically held convictions on the matter. It was very clear, in my social circles, what the norm was, and that this norm was the only acceptable one for a follower of Jesus Christ.

Even during those years, however, I was often aware of being ill-at-ease with the norm. Inclinations and urges stirred within me that I knew were not acceptable to my peers. When I was a Junior, a guest speaker came to the campus of my church-related college, deliberately chosen by organizers of a lecture series to promote some “diversity” of viewpoint. The speaker was a Christian, and defended the idea that the orientation to which I was tempted was not inconsistent with his Christian commitment. He even suggested that it was closer to the spirit of Christian love than what I was accustomed to. I was taken aback by how nasty some of my friends were in response to him. They were reduced to spewing hateful-sounding stereotypes, and snidely suggesting that the speaker must hold the views he does only because they “legitimated his lifestyle.” I thought that the speaker was articulate, and I felt that I could appreciate how compelling his case was even though I was by no means sure that I agreed with him.

It wasn’t until I got to graduate school that I began to meet more people who openly embraced the orientation that I had assumed was evil. I met other students, and even professors, who exploded my stereotypical expectations, and who affirmed the inclinations and impulses that I had been feeling (and often trying to suppress) for several years.

It was at that point, very tentatively at first, that I began to come out to some of my friends. What a sense of relief I felt when I began openly to own aspects of myself that I had been trying to deny! Yes, I lost some friends at the time, but I was surprised how many of them were open and accepting, how many were affirming of my self-discovery even when they did not share my orientation. As I neared the end of my time in graduate school, I applied for a job in a location that was known for being especially friendly to people of my orientation, and nearly all of my friends encouraged me to go and enjoy this wondrous place where I could safely be “out.”

That was how I first came out as a conservative, and came to work in an academic environment that is often associated with conservatism.

That was hardly the end the matter, however. My struggle regarding orientation has turned out to be life-long. Over the almost quarter century since that first coming out, I’ve struggled with how often I seem to fall short of the expectations popularly associated with being a conservative. I don’t really live any specifically conservative “lifestyle,” as some of my progressive-minded friends sometimes seem to suspect. (I think they might be more comfortable sometimes if I were more “flaming.”) I continue in my commitment to that religious tradition (Anabaptist) whose contemporary adherents often (but by no means always) are very suspicious of conservative perspectives, precisely on the basis of our emphasis upon Jesus’ rejection of violence, his preferential concern for the marginalized. On some supposedly “key” issues (sexuality, for example) that are often thought of as primary reference points for voting when one is a conservative, my views are very mixed and confusing (both to others and to myself). I tend to value perspectives which strongly emphasize relativity, which is emphatically not to say relativism (the latter generally naming an absolutist view). Though I am partly inspired by “pragmatist” and “deconstructionist” modes of thought, such inspiration has often led me back into the orbit of more putatively conservative thinkers, including Russell Kirk, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Oakeshott, and Michael Polanyi.

But most importantly, with regard to my theme here, I have progressed (if I may use that dreaded term) to what I would think of as a much more highly nuanced view regarding my orientation. You have probably heard about those who argue that orientation is not simply a binary matter, but more like a continuum. Intellectually, I have probably been guilty of a fair amount of “bi-curiosity,” in spite of my conservative associations. I still consider myself mostly conservative in orientation, but I’ve come to doubt (perhaps I’ve read too much Foucault?) that there really is such a thing (singular) as “conservatism,” as opposed to the latter being a “social construction” that pretends to gather together what are actually quite disparate threads—threads that sometimes easily intertwine and sometimes do not. At the very least, I think that the sense in which I am a conservative is rather complicated. I have a fair amount of trouble identifying myself with one of the supposed specific “stripes” of conservatism.

Now, is it possible that this means I might count as an “imaginative conservative”? If so, is it time perhaps for another “coming out?” My friend Brad Birzer has invited me to consider this possibility, and I have accepted his invitation to make that consideration public. But I do so with fear and trembling.

I’m afraid that I will disappoint you, maybe even anger you, when you expect me to “be a conservative” (e. g., vote in the way that you think I should).

I’m also afraid that I might offend with the trope that I am wielding here. I might offend my “glbt” friends (whom I care for a lot), since my tone here may be taken by them as trivializing the ways in which they continue to suffer, and still must even fear for their safety and even their lives more often than many of us know. (On the other hand, conservatives should remember the aftermath of the French Revolution, right?)

And I will no doubt offend some of my friends (conservative or otherwise) with low tolerance for any ambiguity regarding “orientation,” whether sociopolitical or sexual.

But there it is. I think that I am (still) primarily a conservative. I hope that I can be known as an “imaginative” one.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Pete has here satirically made a very important point, that it is much more dangerous in today's academic world to be conservative than to be homosexual. Dangerous, that is, to one's professional career, at about 90% of our colleges and universities. That said, the humane, decent tone of this essay is not only within the parameters of the conservatism I have known for the last half century, it is very much imaginative and even mainstream. I want also to take some credit for helping Hillsdale College to find Pete all those years ago, and to my small part in recruiting him to our faculty, an effort which has enriched all our lives.

  2. Pete,

    Yours is an important voice for what goes on, and what doesn't go on, at this ezine. So let's have some fun, with rigor and charity. We'll begin with simple question:

    Because you cite various "post-modern" (whatever that means! Hah!) proclivities, then one must ask, "As a conservative, what are you trying to conserve?" Please define. How do your interactions with Derrida, Caputo, Foucault, Heidegger, and Levinas, for example, inform your conservatism? Is it only via negativa–i.e., have you only learned from them an epistemological dead end (I obviously doubt this)? Or are there things that conservatives could learn from these thinkers? If so, what? If you doubt there is ONE (trademark) conservatism, and yet that there is something one must hold on to and conserve , then what is this thing which we must conserve? Is it a thing? A document? A religious conviction? Is it a hermeneutics?

    Of course I ask all of this because Pete (and I) have taught many students and have guided them in ways many would regard as WEIRDLY conservative, if conservative AT ALL. I just want to get some thoughts here. This is a very challenging essay, Pete, I would think, for conservatives of all stripes.

  3. Many thanks for the comments so far. Special thanks to John Willson for understanding what it meant that I had been so profoundly impacted by Peter Berger & Robert Nisbet.

    Justin, I share Jack Caputo's tendency to think that the term "postmodern" is not much good for anything more than "drawing a crowd," as he says. You are correct that the ways in which the so-called "postmodern" thinkers have pushed me toward the conservative intellectual tradition have NOT been the simplistic rejection of a perceived "dead end." I will be giving some thought to how I might address this at more length here in this conversation.

    I suspect that you and I share some deep sympathy for Levinas' idea that part of the excellence of the Western tradition is precisely the ways in which it keeps calling itself into question, creating a dynamic (sure, "hermeneutic" might do here), with relativizing tendencies which(consistently enough) relativize even the relativizing. Will it work for me to begin by saying that THIS is one of the things I wish to conserve? For those to whom this might sound like a rejection of tradition, it is anything but! It can only happen WITHIN and in continuity with a tradition! I'm betting that you understand that part pretty well, Justin.

    Having said that, I'm not sure if there is SOME THING that one must want to conserve in order to be a conservative. Brad Birzer's reflections here not long ago on that very topic struck me as expressing this fairly well (among other things). And I suspect that, by way of my original post, I am committed to NOT minding very much if I'm considered WEIRDLY conservative. I most certainly do not mind it if you are.

    Again, thanks very much for the affirmation!

  4. Thanks for the thoughts here, Pete. I look forward to seeing you flesh out your second full paragraph. It's a real treat seeing you writing here.


  5. Although I cannot say I was too terribly taken with the whole "coming out" bait-and-switch, the latter half of this piece was quite excellent. It very much reflects many of my own thoughts on being an odd conservative often with little to talk about with others who call themselves conservatives.

    I am taken with John Lukacs' self-identification as a "reactionary." I find Lukacs' defense of the term compelling but not ultimately convincing. I also would like to find a way to emphasize my deeply conservative inclinations and convictions while avoiding being complicit in a whole lot of destructive nonsense that parades under the banner "conservative." Perhaps unfortunately, it just so happens that "conservative" remains the best term and so we'll just have to try to resuscitate and reclaim it where possible.

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