American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia

I think I'm pretty clearly out of the closet now as at least a conservative sympathizer--so long as "conservative" refers to the dispositions of Burke et. al. and not the neoliberalism and libertarianism that currently marches under the banner of "conservative." Really, how could any enthusiastic Americanism, founded in revolution, ever be "conservative?" That tiny little problem notwithstanding, I've been spending the last couple of days dipping into American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. (It's publication garnered quite a bit of attention, including a review in the New York Times.)

I should admit that if I'm a journal junkie, I also have a soft spot for encyclopedias of this sort. They still represent for me veritable educations in themselves, so I love wending through them, dipping in at a whim, then following the cross-referencing to pursue a thread. For instance, I followed a thread that began with an entry on Cleanth Brooks, which then took me to an entry on New Criticism, to ones on Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, pointing me to Southern Agrarians and The Sewanee Review. Another foray began with the entry on Eugene McCarthy (who emerges as a fascinating character in Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago), which then pointed me to an entry on Hilaire Belloc, landing in the entry on distributism (which I think I just might be).

The encyclopedia does a pretty decent job of exhibiting that "conservatism" in America is a contested philosophy. While all the luminaries of neoconservatism receive praise, other strains of American conservatism that contest this vision also receive coverage. So, for instance, Jeremy Beer 's entry on Schindler, David L. notes how Schindler's ecclesially-centered conservatism (for which I have great sympathy) is a trenchant critique of the "John Courtney Murray project" of assimilation carried out by supposed "conservatives" like Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel (all of whom get their own entries, too). Or the constellation of entries related to the Southern Agrarians (including entries on Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and I'll Take My Stand) sketches a kind of conservatism opposed to the nationalism (not to mention "big government") that now passes for conservatism in federal politics.

Admittedly, there are pieces of the encyclopedia which are incestuous, hagiographic, and bordering almost on the ridiculous. (In the last category I point to Robert Sirico's entry on liberation theology, which is pretty much like asking Jeff Sharlet to write the entry for Ted Haggard in something like the InterVarsity Encyclopedia of Evangelical Saints.) But these weaknesses aside, this will be a book I keep on my desk, and close to my reading chair, as a mini-education in a movement.