In 2003, when National Review published neoconservative pundit-in-chief David Frum’s attack mistitled “Unpatriotic Conservatives”, they did not distinguish between the likes of Lew Rockwell and Pat Buchanan, which might suggest that shared opposition to the neoconservative worldview should naturally incline libertarian and paleoconservative activists to join forces in debunking their ideological foes within the American right.
Not all traditional conservatives seem convinced, however, of a shared agenda with libertarians. On the weblog of paleoconservative publication Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, several months ago one such activist responded to the call for cooperation rather dismissively, stating, “Libertarians think primarily of $$$. Paleos lament the death of Christendom.” Aside from its somewhat crude characterization of libertarians, this remark embodies the fascination common among traditional conservatives with Europe’s – and by extension America’s – Christian political heritage.
Vigorously disapproving of an America detached from its roots, the staunchest of these paleoconservatives believe that restoring Western Civilization requires more than increasing devotion to God on an individual spiritual level, which tends to characterize most Americans and even self-identifying “conservative” politicians. For them, winning the Culture War entails renewed fidelity to the West’s political Christian identity – a view containing weighty historical overtones. For example, in the December 2006 issue of Chronicles, which carried the very title “Christendom Under Siege”, historian Thomas Fleming relates the divisions amongst the nations of the West that nearly enabled the Ottoman Empire (which at the time covered Asia Minor, Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, and much of Southeastern Europe) to pose a serious threat in the heart of the continent. In his view, a shared faith in Jesus Christ should have bound together the likes of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire in defense of Christendom, just as it should today, he argues, unite Europe and America in resistance of a depraved secular culture and fear of sharia.
Fleming’s chastisement of those early modern leaders for failing to fully embrace their Christian connection, however, opens an interesting avenue of debate when compared with the views of his counterparts in the Europe of ages past to which he hearkens back. Nearly contemporaneous with the Ottoman encroachment described by Fleming, for instance, French jurist Franςois Hotman in 1574 published Francogallia, a political-historical treatise heavily critical of the hereditary monarchical culture dominant in France at the time. Francogallia therefore compelled French citizens to reclaim their country by embracing the traditions of their own ancient past – a common theme of paleoconservatism – beginning with the Frankish-Gallic kingdoms of the pre-Roman era. Hotman described a mythical constitutional monarchy and extolled the democratic concepts adopted by his forebears in the selection of their kings, arguing that historic Gaul embodied the eminence of France’s political and cultural tradition.
For example, Hotman boasts of the ancient Gauls’ military valor and offers conjecture on the origins of the French language, with an emphasis on the existence of a Gallic tongue that predated Roman conquest of the lands that later unified as France. By downplaying external Greek and Latin influences, Hotman idealized a more pure and indigenous inheritance in which Frenchmen could take pride, thus touching upon another prevalent paleoconservative theme. Francogallia’s central thesis, however, concerns the political composition of ancient Gallic kingdoms, which he speculates “were not hereditary, but conferred by the people upon such as had the reputation of being just men. Secondly, they had no arbitrary or unlimited authority, but were bound and circumscribed by laws; so that they were no less accountable to, and subject to the power of the people, than the people was to theirs.”
The text veils very thinly Hotman’s contempt for the French monarchy, to which he ascribed the disastrous religious civil wars that tore France apart in the 16th Century, forcing Hotman himself to flee the country. “There was indeed a time,” he laments in Francogallia’s preface, “when young gentlemen desirous of improvement flocked from all parts to the schools and academies of our Francogallia…now they dread them as men do seas infested with pirates, and detest their tyrannous barbarity. He thus conveys his wish to heal France by calling upon the political wisdom of ancestors from a bygone era and presenting it to his countrymen in the pages of Francogallia.
Hotman is not exactly a household name, even amongst aficionados of the humanities. He serves, nonetheless, as a thought-provoking case study to assess paleoconservatism, because the historically rooted manner in which he disparaged the shortcomings of his own society mirrors the approach of today’s traditional conservatives. By definition and example, paleoconservatives will find Hotman’s style pleasingly familiar and certainly consider him a kindred spirit. For instance, he further expounds in Francogallia’s preface, “When we think of that air we first sucked in, that earth we first trod on, those relations, neighbors and acquaintances to whose conversation we have been accustomed … [we] may sometimes say, my country is grown mad or foolish, (as Plato said of his), sometimes that it rages and cruelly tears out its own bowels.” With these sentiments, Hotman manifests the “expression of rootedness: a sense of place and of history, a sense of self derived from forebears, kin, and culture” proposed by writer Chilton Williamson, Jr. as a definition of paleoconservatism.
Yet precisely in this sense Hotman presents a curious irony for paleoconservatives, because the France of yore that he compelled his contemporaneous countrymen to reclaim was predominantly correlated not to its function within Christendom, as Fleming would have it, but rather to a pagan epoch. Writing in an era when the king of France was technically consecrated as a Catholic priest and carried the institutional title rex christianissimus, latin for “most Christian king” – two glowing symbols of the Christendom to which the most steadfast paleoconservatives aspire – their early modern counterpart Hotman de-emphasized this religious identity. By evoking a French legacy relegating Christianity to irrelevance if even existence, his priorities therefore starkly contrast with those of traditional conservative champions like Russell Kirk, a seminal American author who described Christianity and Western Civilization as “unimaginable apart from one another.” For Hotman, the origins of French civilization lay not in devotion to Christ, but instead in its pre-Christian Gallic roots characterized by secular components – elements that Hotman’s counterparts of today might consider depraved in their modern form.
While only pure folly would suggest that Hotman explicitly praised the paganism of his forebears – after all, he himself was a believing Christian who wrote treatises on the Eucharist among other sacred topics – there is a certain paleoconservative paradox related to his enthrallment, despite its lack of Christian character, with France’s ancient heritage. He writes, “I have perused all the old French and German historians that treat of our Francogallia, and collected out of their works a true state of our Commonwealth in the condition (wherein they agree) it flourished for above a thousand years. Indeed the great wisdom of our ancestors in the first framing of our constitution is almost incredible, so I no longer doubt that the most certain remedy for such great evils must be deduced from their maxims.” While Hotman may have been a believer, in fact one so distressed to have written “never … can we reasonably hope our Commonwealth should be restored to health, till through divine assistance,” as a patriot, his preoccupation lay first and foremost in the secular past, not in the saving power of Christ or the ebb and flow of Christendom.
Ironies aside, for pondering enthusiasts of European history and its reflection on American politics, Hotman’s time-honored approach principally validates conservatism as a natural predisposition of the human condition. But it also forewarns today’s conservatives, with their zeal to preserve America’s religious roots on such issues as prayer in schools and public acknowledgement of the Almighty, not to idealize or oversimplify Christendom’s political legacy. As Hotman demonstrates, even in a nation so inextricably imbued with religion and the Church as was France during the early modern era, conservative thinkers, acting out of respect and love for their traditional identity, will still lament society run amok and look to the past in order to restore it. That identity, as described in the pages of Francogallia, must encompass more than a mere religious pedigree.
Similarly, as a corollary to Hotman’s point view, countries should act in their own interests as informed by unique national legacies and traditions, not merely religious commonalities. His perspective would cast a dubious eye, for example, upon the pastoral letter “Strangers No More – Together on the Journey of Hope”, in which Mexican and US Catholic bishops assert that compassion for migrants and a shared faith arguably trump concerns over the impact that an immigration crisis can have upon a nation’s sovereignty.
Restoring the “Christendom” of Hotman’s time, therefore, is not a panacea for the ills of the modern world, though paleoconservatives’ labors to preserve respect for the sacred, for faith in God, and for the Christian influence on American identity continue to exemplify a noble struggle. Indeed, the process by which thoughtful citizens look to the past in order to “conserve” the values, institutions, and principles upon which a society is based remains an indispensable outlook – one deeply rooted in Western Civilization and befitting true patriots from Plato, to Hotman, to Kirk, to today.
The author, a Republican activist, can be reached at http://www.georgeajjan.com.