Published Humanitas, Volume XVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005

Since the end of the Cold War, the meaning of conservatism has been the subject of intense debate. This debate has coincided with a revival of interest in the ideas of Leo Strauss, whose political philosophy has influenced American conservatism in particular. Yet the conservative credentials of Strauss have been vigorously questioned, in light of his perceived rejection of history, his apparently unabashed admiration for liberal democracy, and his skepticism about the political value of revealed truth. While I shall show that Strauss is reliably conservative on the issues of history and democracy, I shall also contend that a comparison of Strauss’s ideas with those of the American populist conservative Willmoore Kendall reveals that Strauss did not share the conservative enthusiasm for the application of biblical ideas to politics.

What is conservatism? Is it simply an older version of liberalism? Which traditions do conservatives “conserve” in an age of modern change? Is conservatism populist or elitist, democratic or aristocratic? Does it support imperialism or isolationism? Which religion, if any, is most compatible with conservatism? Since the end of the Cold War, these traditionally academic questions have drifted into the political arena and often pitted conservatives (especially in the United States) against each other. To date (2004), the American conservative movement’s divisions have forced a return to the question of the very meaning of the doctrine.

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