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A Body in Need of a Soul: A British Evangelical Reflection on NatCon UK
Without Christianity, a conservative renewal is impossible
You may have seen much of the British press foaming at the mouth this week about the National Conservatism conference (NatCon, for short). Supposedly, the event was a gathering for far-right nutjobs in the Tory party, intent on ushering in an authoritarian dystopia that will look like a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale, a MAGA rally, and a pub lock-in with Nigel Farage.
As an attendee, I can confirm it was, to a hilarious extent, nothing of the sort. If you want a textbook example of how conservatives can understand liberals but liberals can’t understand conservatives, this week has been it.
What is NatCon? Well, none of the above, as noted. And it’s nothing to do with the Conservative Party. NatCon is a project started by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a US public affairs institute. It is a movement which recognises that our current social and political mess in the West—from deindustrialisation to the transgender craze—is the fault of an aggressive Left embracing extreme social liberalism and a useless Right embracing extreme economic liberalism whilst failing to combat the Left, and often embracing a good dose of its social liberalism along the way. Both ends of the spectrum have handed their nations over to disembodied, global ideologies which make the liberation of the individual into the sole end of politics, decimating those countries in the process (and the individuals, incidentally). In response, small-c conservatives need to step back from these globalised ideologies and get back to actually conserving their countries. Hence, national conservatism.
Why, then, are many Christians (myself included) interested in and even encouraged by NatCon?
Well, for one, NatCon’s Statement of Principles recognises the historic importance of religion, and particularly Christianity, in Western public life: “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgement that are found in authentic religious tradition.”
For some Western Christians, the idea that public life needs God never went away—but the political Right, in which they once felt at home, has forgotten this, at best paying it mere lip service. NatCon’s explicit renewal of the idea, then, is attractive to them.
Most Western Christians, however (and here I include myself), have long bought into the modern secular idea of the neutral public square—especially in the UK. However, it has become increasingly evident that a nation will always have a public religion—the only question is which one. Our new public religion of Wokeism is seen increasingly as the inevitable conclusion of secular liberalism, and so many Christians have gone back to the political drawing board.
Being from a low church, nonconformist, British evangelical background, I would never have imagined myself attending something like NatCon. Unlike our American cousins, modern British evangelicals are breathtakingly apolitical. And yet now it seems obvious to me that any Christian sincerely interested in promoting the real common good of their neighbours in society needs to reckon with what’s been discussed at NatCon.
What reflections, then, might a British evangelical have on NatCon UK? To answer that, we should first note two major features of the conference.
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The Tories vs. the conservatives
NatCon provided an important moment for British Christians to realise that being “conservative” and being a Tory are not the same thing. A marked feature of the conference was the vast gulf between the establishment Tories—notably Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Daniel Lord Hannan, and Michael Gove—and the other speakers.
The former grabbed the headlines (understandably), but it was the speeches and panel discussions of the latter that were really worth the price of admission. Personal highlights for me were Mary Harrington and Louise Perry on gender and biopolitics; Katharine Birbalsingh eviscerating hypocritical conservatives who send their kids to woke private schools for the prestige; Matthew Goodwin, Henry George, and Tim Stanley on the failures of British conservatism; Melanie Phillips blasting Mrs. Thatcher as unconservative because of her free marketism; and the whole of the last day’s “God & Country” panel.
The panel speakers were full of truly conservative thinking about things like family, gender, tradition, religion—that is, they wanted to conserve those things. They continually lambasted the utter failure of 13 years of Tory rule to do so. To their credit, Tory backbenchers Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger (both fellow evangelicals) also gave truly conservative addresses about family and childrearing.
Given this rich offering of conservative thought, many suffered whiplash when, for instance, Michael Gove—the only consistent face of 13 years of Tory rule—appeared on stage. Most of the conference was an evisceration of all that he has presided over.
The presence of these Tory Big Guns certainly helped to raise NatCon’s profile, but also to expose some of the fundamental disagreements among self-identified conservatives. And perhaps that was the point. If NatCon happens here again, I wonder if it will be able to move beyond a need for Tory speakers whose failures in office are the very reason that it has come to be.
Heavy on diagnosis, light on solutions
NatCon’s second major feature was its abundance of diagnosis of our current cultural and political problems—both on the Let and the Right. Now, whilst this might be easily written off as simply “preaching to the choir”, the fact is that the choir needs preaching too. Conservatives are on the backfoot in 2023, and attendees were galvanised by finding like minded folk in the same room as them for once, rather than just DMing them on Twitter.
And yet as invigorating as it was to hear various points articulated in person, there was a sense we had heard much of this before. We all know the Right is basically useless and the Left is basically wicked—but what do we do about it?
Suggested answers weren’t exactly few and far between, but the conference was not brimming with them. Those from the free marketeers fell badly flat, failing to see themselves as part of the problem. The more worthwhile answers were usually merely principled gestures in the right direction, with a few specific tips: truth will out, study history properly, prepare to lose friends, find a proper community, join the Free Speech Union.
Yet we must start somewhere. The scandal of the British conservative mind is basically the same as what Mark Noll said about the evangelical mind: there isn’t one (not anymore, at least). As a nascent movement, perhaps this was all necessary for NatCon UK: a good, hard debrief now, with constructive ideas to come. And this brings me on to my main, peculiarly Christian point.
A body in search of a soul
As the gulf between the Tories and conservatism opened up this week, and as tentative constructive steps were considered, a fundamental question overshadowed proceedings: what is the role of religion and Christianity within the future of British conservatism?
Of course, this question strikes many as ludicrous. British politics doesn’t do God, and so a movement emphasising religion and Christianity just won’t fly here. As I’ve written before, the British cultural settlement since the Civil War has been not to take things too seriously—especially religion and politics.
Now, I do not pine for any “Good Old Days” in British public life. The poor we have always had with us, along with the nasty gits in power who often keep them poor. But it is undeniable that Britain has lost both a sense of social cohesion and at least the expectation of virtue among our leaders, if not its consistent existence. In less than 60 years, we have gone from John Profumo bowing out of public life entirely after the Profumo affair to Matt Hancock appearing on I’m a Celeb. This cannot be detached from the decline of British Christianity. So it is entirely sensible to ask: is the moral renewal which British conservatives desire at all possible without a revival of the Christian beliefs which created the very things they wish to conserve?
Whilst acknowledging Christianity’s historic role in once forming Britain into a basically cohesive nation with a relatively (and again, I stress relatively) virtuous leadership class, NatCon’s secular conservatives had basically no answers here (though I heard at least one concede that, whilst agnostic themselves, religious revival is probably our only hope). But largely they wanted moral law with no moral lawgiver. To any religious believer present, they displayed a Boris Johnson level of metaphysical cakeism.
This was exemplified in Douglas Murray’s eloquent after-dinner speech on Monday night. He accurately diagnosed the dangerous weapons in the woke Left’s armoury: Envy, Resentment, and Struggle. Murray then gave us one of NatCon’s moments of constructive solution. The Left’s weapons only destroy, he said; they do not create. Principled conservatives must respond by investing their time in building things with Love, Gratitude, and Aspiration. Murray supported this argument by way of a lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime”:
Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.
Stirring stuff, much quoted in the early days of COVID. But Lewis, of course, was a Christian, and “Learning in Wartime” was not one of his neutral literary essays, penned with his Oxford don cap on, but a sermon delivered at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford in October 1939. The only thing that allowed Lewis to say any of this—even with the many references to pre-Christian classical Greece—was his Christian view of life, the universe, and everything. If you read the whole of the sermon, that becomes quite evident. As anachronistic as it may seem to say, the fact is that an inestimable burden of proof rests on any British conservative who wants to argue for a renewed public morality that doesn’t stem from an organic religious revival among the British people.
NatCon has, I hope, begun to build a new body of British conservative thought. I was far from agreeing with all that was said, but there were good people there, contending sincerely for the things that make up a healthy society. But it is, at present, a body in search of a soul, matter in search of form, true opinion in search of knowledge. And I do not say that as a condemnation, merely as an observation. It is my sincere hope that it finds what it is looking for.
And I am hopeful that it might. The final panel of the event (perhaps cannily scheduled as such) was on “God & Country”. Rev. Daniel French, Sebastian Milbank, Fr. Benedict Kiely, and Sebastian Morello all spoke brilliantly (unfortunately, none of their recordings are available yet). I will confess that I found Sebastian Morello, a Roman Catholic philosopher, particularly thrilling. As an evangelical, he made my heart sing with lines that any fellow evangelical would have loved—the man exhorted us all to “just evangelise more!”
British evangelicals have long been lulled into the belief that, when it comes to politics, the choices are either secular liberalism or oppressive theocracy, and we have been conditioned to affirm the former as the obviously God-ordained option on this side of Christ’s incarnation. However, this is a dichotomy which an increasing number are refusing. It both historically ignorant and socially disastrous. Church history offers us numerous ways of working this out that do not involve the kind of religious coercion, legalism, and lethal spiritual nominalism which evangelicals (rightly) fear.
There is an ultimate spiritual dichotomy in politics though—one which British evangelicals have tried to dodge just as much as secular conservatives. But it quite simply can’t be done. The real two options are even starker than liberalism or theocracy, and British evangelicals must begin reckoning with this if we are to love our neighbours as we are called to do. Sebastian Morello put it perfectly, and for this line I award him the NatCon Goal of the Tournament: “The choices remain: nihilism or God”.