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Without healthy communities and institutions, our future is in peril
Among the signatories to the Freedom Conservatism Statement of Principles are experts on taxation, health care, education, constitutional law, national defense, foreign affairs, and many other issues.
We champion reforms that expand economic opportunity, roll back the administrative state, promote choice and competition in public services, and defend American interests and principles. But we also recognize that the fight for America’s future is as much about culture as it is about electoral strategies or policy details.
Here are examples of FreeCons working within the institutions of civil society to promote marriage and family, integrity, community, self-reliance, tolerance, and other traditional American values.
The new punk rock
One of the FreeCon signatories seeking to renew America’s cultural institutions is Grace Bydalek. Director of the Dissident Project, which educates American high schoolers against authoritarianism, Bydalek is also a New York-based writer and actress who has performed on stage and in such TV shows as HBO’s High Maintenance.
As theater critic for the New York Sun, Bydalek promotes excellence in the dramatic and comedic arts. She also writes frequently on culture for such publications as Reason, National Review, and The Conservateur, which “challenges progressive orthodoxy with an uplifting pro-women and pro-America message.”
In a Washington Examiner piece, for example, Bydalek ridiculed a since-retracted FBI report that described “Radical Traditionalist Catholics” as a threat to racial minorities and domestic peace.
“As the cultural pendulum swings, forget about dodging the feds during a Monkees show,” she wrote, tongue firmly in cheek. “Instead, keep your eyes peeled during the six o’clock service at the Parish Church of the Holy Innocents. Steer clear of the men in black sunglasses, cargo shorts, and short-sleeved T-shirts.”
“Traditional is the new radical. Trad Cath is the new punk rock.”
John Tillman chairs the board of the Illinois Policy Institute and serves as CEO of the American Culture Project, an organization that attracts, educates and mobilizes independent voters around the ideas of freedom and opportunity.
Here’s how it describes its mission: “Politics is culture. And the persuadable middle will determine its future.”
“The nuclear family is falling apart, education is corrupting the next generation, our fellow citizens no longer have shared values or vision, and our future seems one of anger and even violence,” he wrote. “Conservatives of all stripes understand that if we hope to save our country, we have to start by reforging our culture.”
What FreeCons like Tillman understand — and too many nationalist-populists seem to overlook — is that conservatives can’t succeed by emulating the coercive tactics of the Left. “Government is a blunt instrument,” he wrote. “It can easily destroy, but it cannot create. It can easily sow division, but it struggles to cultivate unity.”
Tillman called on conservatives to contend for every institution that influences our culture, by “either co-opting or creating competitors to Hollywood, higher education, Broadway and big business.”
But we must also “defend the individual liberty that enables us to work together and through other institutions. That is perhaps the greatest danger of National Conservatism: It seems willing to abandon freedom in pursuit of order.”
Garrett Ballengee is the President & CEO of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. A member of the American Enterprise Institute Leadership Network and a George Washington Statesmanship Fellow at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Ballengee was one of the first signers of the FreeCon statement.
In their policy work, Ballengee and his colleagues apply foundational ideas of freedom to such issues as parental choice in education and worker choice in occupations. But they also champion cultural and community renewal.
On his popular podcast Forgotten America, Ballengee talks about the “many places that get flown over, driven past, or completely forgotten and the people who call these places home.”
In each episode, he and his guests diagnose the unique challenges faced by rural America and “share the culture, stories, and perspectives of Forgotten Americans from the hilltop to the holler and the desert to the delta.”
Enhancing the prosperity and quality of life of West Virginians will certainly require policy change, Ballengee argued in a newspaper column, but it also means changing the self-image of state residents. “For this to occur, West Virginia must celebrate its heroes.”
Our shared heritage
A former appellate judge and school administrator, Trey Dimsdale now leads the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy as its executive director. Among other projects, the center publishes a journal on religion and civil society.
“The dynamic interrelationships between the human person and social institutions — particularly the family, commercial enterprises, churches and faith-based organizations, and governments — are both permanent features of human society and simultaneously formed by cultural and historical contexts,” the journal observes in its mission statement.
Dimsdale, a FreeCon signatory, wrote a recent essay for Public Discourse on art, beauty, and the soul of a university. Such institutions “should be repositories of culture and our shared civilizational heritage,” he wrote.
“They should be centers of intellectual inquiry and creativity” and “seek to be what their name implies — universal communities of teachers and scholars that pursue knowledge for the sake of preserving it in the minds of future generations.”
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