The best of Fred Hutchison
Idealism in political, philosophical, and theological dress
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
August 2, 2012

Originally published December 2, 2004

The Conservative movement has many intellectual streams. Some of the names that readily come to mind are Traditionalist, Idealist, Realist, Conservationist, Christian Right, Natural Law, Agrarian, Classicist, Tory, Libertarian, Classical Liberal, and Neocon. Conservatives can win elections only when there is a coalition of all or most of the streams working together. So far, this has only happened when the opponent is clearly a Liberal. A moderate Democrat can win if there is a lack of solidarity among Conservatives. The danger for emerging majorities is the tendency for their coalition to split apart.

Beyond considerations of power, there are questions of wisdom. No stream of Conservatism has all the wisdom. Every stream has found some nuggets of wisdom that all Conservatives need. Therefore, Conservatives need to be educated in the ideas of each of the major streams of Conservative thought. I shall periodically discuss, praise, and critique some of the major streams of Conservatism. In my last essay, I discussed the Traditionalist Conservatism of Edmund Burke, and Russell Kirk. This time I shall discuss Conservative Idealism and its diametrical opposite, Liberal Idealism.

Idealism in political dress

Liberal idealists dream of a future Utopia. Conservative idealists dream of a Golden Age in the past. Liberals like Thomas More's Utopia, Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man, and Plato's Republic. Conservatives like Milton's Paradise Lost, Lewis' Pilgrims Regress, and Saint Augustine's The City of God. Liberals look at the difference between the Utopia in their minds and present realities. They design programs to move the world "forward" towards the Utopia. They see this as "progress," because they think that their innovations are hastening the arrival of a future which must come anyway. They see Conservative opposition as fighting against the tides of history. Liberal Idealism is the impetus behind the Liberal Progressive movements of the last two centuries.

When I was a young Conservative, I heard a Liberal Democrat say, "The Conservative movement has no future because they have no program." The man had no conception of Conservative Idealism, which is just as program oriented and reform minded as Liberal Idealism. The difference is that Liberal Progressive reforms are done in the name of "progress." Conservative Idealist reforms are done in the name of "restoration."

Both Liberal and Conservative Idealism have proved very effective at bringing reforms. Conservative Idealism was at the core of the Reagan Revolution, which was very innovative in its programs. Conservative Idealism is indispensable to the zealous activists of the Conservative movement. The problem is that both Utopian Liberalism and Golden Age Conservatism are built on fallacies.

There is not and cannot be a secular Utopia on this earth. All attempts to institute a Utopia have had disastrous consequences. Man is fallen and his nature is fixed. Human nature cannot be perfected by a controlled environment. All attempts to do so have made men worse. Reaching for Utopia is the great folly of Modernity.

There has never been a historical Golden Age, so it is impossible to restore one. None of the admired historical times and places were nearly what they have been cracked up to be. Even if there had been a relatively Golden Age, it would be impossible to bring it back. The "restoration" would be a radical novelty, unrecognizable to a person living in the admired era. Christian Republics in Geneva, early Massachusetts, and Holland all were billed as "restorations." In fact, they were astonishing novelties. There had never been anything remotely like these eccentric little Republics and there has been nothing like them since. But they were vastly more successful economically, culturally, and in their pragmatic operations than any of the experimental liberal Utopian communities that were tried in the nineteenth century. The people in the Christian Republics saw themselves as "real people in a real world which God has made," in the memorable phrase of Francis Schaeffer. They were tough-minded, competent, and productive, if not especially happy. None of the fatal naivete of the Liberal Utopian communities ever found a foothold in the Christian Republics. None of the Republics ever degenerated into a hell on earth as did most of the Utopian communities. Even when following a false dream, the manifest superiority of Christian Conservatism is undeniable. The fatal incompetence of the Liberal Utopian communities is laughable.

Conservative mythology sometimes looks to the early American Republic as a Golden Age. Some have supposed that we once had a Christian Republic. Actually, Massachusetts Bay Company, founded 1630, was a true Christian Republic and was competent and prosperous, if a little grim. But it was certainly not a Golden Age, and it had no staying power. The King revoked the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1684, and issued a new charter in 1691 for an expanded Massachusetts Bay Colony under a Royal Governor. However, the society had ceased being a Christian Republic in all but forms prior to the King's intervention. By the end of the century, most of the spirituality and faith had dissipated.

The American Republic, founded under the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and Constitutionally chartered in 1787, did have staying power, stability, and historical traction, but it is not and never has been a Christian Republic. We are told by Conservative Idealists that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Not exactly. There was a consensus about basic moral laws among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Deists. The Deists invoked Natural Law as the basis for morality. Devout church-going Christians were a lower percentage of the population in 1781 than the percentage is today. Some of the Founding Fathers were Christians and some were Humanists very much like the mixed leadership of America in 1960. Some of our founding principles came from Christianity, some came from the French and Scottish Enlightenment, and some came from classical literature. It was an exiting time of ideas, but it was no Golden Age. The glorious hopes of liberty and the high spirits of the people were balanced by internal divisions and a surprising amount of popular discontent — just like today.

The success of the Republic was partially due to the effort of some Founders to avoid trying to have either a Utopia or a Golden Age. The Constitution is a masterpiece of Christian skepticism about human nature. The Founders from Massachusetts knew from their own history that Ideal Republics are problematical and exceedingly difficult propositions. In this new, more pragmatic Republic, elements of democracy were used to avoid aristocratic tyranny. But the democracy of the rabble must be tamed and restrained, lest the surly mob goes crazy. An aristocratic Senate was instituted to contain and block the democratic hysteria. The Executive, Legislative, and Judicial powers must be made to crash against one another so that an unrestrained power cannot fall into wicked human hands and be abused. The bulk of the powers of self-government must be left to the states, lest proud and ambitious men with federal powers entertain monarchial or dictatorial pretensions.

Longing for the Golden Age

The longing for the lost Golden Age has haunted mankind ever since our first parents were cast out of the garden paradise. The Greeks had a myth of a Golden Age. The German Romantic Movement of the eighteenth century gloried in the past world of German peasant culture. Nativist "blood-and-soil" movements in America were also based on Romantic myths of the past. Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" was a book and movie based on a Romantic vision of the Old South as a golden era that was forever lost.

There is something in our nature in that yearns for the lost home or the lost kingdom. In the Lord of the Rings, as Aragorn sails past colossal statues of the kings of the prior age, he said, "I have longed to see the kings of old." The attraction of historical fiction is a secret longing for an enchanted lost world. The desire to escape the thorny cursed ground and return to the lost Eden haunts every human heart. But there is no return. The cherubim with a "flaming sword which turned every way" is placed at the east of Eden to prevent any return (Genesis 3:24).

C.S. Lewis wisely warned us never to try to return to the time and place of an extraordinary experience of joy. To do so is to confuse the superficial circumstances of the place with the joy itself. The moment of bliss is from another realm and the mundane place was incidental. Yet, it is difficult for the human heart to grasp and accept this hard truth. That is precisely why so many keep trying to restore a golden moment or a Golden Age.

However, without Conservative Idealism, there could not have been a Reagan Revolution. As the Conservative movement matures, we must find a way to preserve the best instincts of Conservative Idealism while restraining it from the follies of Golden Age fantasies. Let us read the best Romantic literature but balance it with history and literary realism.

The Western past had a magnificent culture that our postmodern cultural leaders have cast aside. That looks like a good task of restoration for Conservative Idealists. Marriage and the family in the early nineteenth century were healthy institutions if the testimony of Alexis DeToqueville is to be believed. Today, marriage and the family are in an unprecedented crisis. Americans of 1840 were wiser than we are about marriage and the family. Let us learn from them. Here is another task where Conservative Idealism can be very helpful. Just so we learn from Americans of the past but do not idealize them.

Idealism in philosophical dress

The early nineteenth century German philosophers Fichte, Schelling, Schiller, Schilermacher, Hegel, and Schopenhauer were "idealists." The idealists believed that reason, consciousness, and the will have real existence. However, observed phenomena only have that existence which is attributed to them by the mind and will. The old philosophical question is, "If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a noise?" Idealists say no. Realists say yes.

German idealism has had a destructive effect on our culture. Without it, there probably could not have been Existentialism, Postmodern Deconstructionism, or New Age delusions. But that is a story for another day. My point here is to show the essential unreality of Idealism. Christians have hope based upon an anchorage by faith to another world. Many moderns have exchanged hope for the illusions of Idealism.

Idealism in theological dress

Greek Orthodox spirituality includes a strain of Conservative Idealism. Certain Greek Orthodox monks speak of a restoration of blessed innocence of Eden. This is a mistake, of course. Christian redemption brings about a state that is both better and worse than the innocence of Adam. Our adoption as sons of God in Christ is better. Our continued sinfulness and the daily battle with the sin nature is worse.

Greek Orthodox and certain low-church sects of Protestantism have idealized the early church. For example, Greek Orthodox theology still adheres to a doctrine of the atonement that was popular in the second century. They have rejected Saint Anselm's perfection of the doctrine in the eleventh century. But for the Conservative Idealist, earlier is better.

Some small Protestant sects meet in plain settings, with no liturgy, no musical instruments, and no ordained pastor because the early church did not have them. This is the error Lewis warned against. The early church was greatly blessed by God. Some sects believe that if they reenact the primitive conditions of the early church, they will have the same blessing. This confuses the blessing with the primitive conditions in which the blessing once came.

Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology include an old strain of eschatological (doctrine of future things) Utopianism. Catholics generally believe that everything pertaining to Christ and His church and His works of grace is completely fulfilled in the Catholic Church but in no other church. Although C.S. Lewis was an admirer of the historic Catholic Church, he never converted to Catholicism like Tolkien and Chesterton did, even though he trusted and emulated those two men. Lewis pointed to the Catholic confusion of the visible institution with the invisible spiritual realities. Lewis thought that when they claim to be the "One True Church," the repository of all spiritual blessings, they become "impostors." They confounded the container with the blessings often found inside the container. When Lewis found out that he would have to confess these errors to become a Catholic, he turned away and settled into the Anglican church.

Pope Gregory VII called himself the "Vicegerent of Christ," sent by God to "restore right order on the earth." According to Catholic eschatology, the prophesied Millennial Kingdom of Christ consists of the Roman Catholic Church as it fulfills its mission on earth in this age. Thus, the church is not unlike a Christian Utopia. During a stroll down the aisle of Saint Peter's in Rome, a profusion of wonders will meet and overwhelm the eye in an abundant expression of Romantic Idealism, like a strange Utopian dream.

Reformed eschatology is "Postmillennial." The prophesied Millennium is said to be the period when the church subdues and transforms the entire world. At the end of the Millennium, Christ returns to claim his kingdom. Churches of Reformed Theology have no Romantic illusions about themselves as institutions. But their mission on earth is even more utopian in its gigantic scope and reach than the mission of Catholicism.


We have visited the errors of Liberal Idealism and Conservative Idealism in political dress, in philosophical dress, and in theological dress. All represent an error which Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and C.S. Lewis warned us against — the error of mistaking the outward "accidents" or "phenomena" with the "thing itself." The tendency towards these errors seems to be built into human nature. We are either reaching back to Eden or reaching forward to a Utopia or a Millennium. I believe that the reason for this is 1) There really was an Eden. 2) Man really fell and was expelled from the Garden. 3) There really will be a future Millennium (thousand year kingdom), but it will be established by the returning Christ and not by the Church Triumphant. 4) A Utopia is a faux substitute for the Millennium. 5) A blessed or cursed eternity follows the Millennium. 6) We have occasional intimations of the blessedness of heaven, but the bliss comes from another world. The times and places of our joy are incidental. 7) The blessings which may come to us during a church service are not vested in the institution. The visible church is at most a channel of blessings and an accommodation to the invisible church, a creation of the Holy Spirit which secretly unites all true believers in Christ.

When religion declined in the eighteenth century, it left an enormous vacuum in the heart of Western Man. He attempted to fill the vacuum with Romanticism and Idealism. The Liberal Utopian Idealism and Conservative Golden Age Idealism which rose in the nineteenth century haunt us and deceive us still.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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