Local conservative’s Web site catching on nationally
Caleb Stegall is a Christian conservative, but not in the way most people think of the phrase.
He opposes abortion. His four sons are home-schooled. He decries the crassness of popular culture.
But he also dislikes suburban sprawl, questions whether unfettered business growth is a good thing and tries to grow his own food whenever possible on his family’s 18-acre plot of land near Perry.
Stegall believes many of the country’s problems come from unrestrained individualism, and he doesn’t merely practice what he believes. He preaches it on the Internet as editor-in-chief of “The New Pantagruel,” a Christian-oriented political journal that’s attracting national attention.
“I think that our journal really is at the crossroads of politics and religion,” said Stegall, a 33-year-old graduate of Lawrence High School and the Kansas University School of Law.
Stegall’s site, www.newpantagruel.com, has been published only since January, but it’s catching on. He was featured this summer in a New York Times article about a group of young thinkers trying to redefine the nation’s conservative movement.
“To me the political right and left are to a large extent holding hands under the table,” said Stegall, who works as an attorney for Foulston Siefkin in Topeka. “You can take the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement on the left and apply it to economic principles, and you have a George Bush speech.”
He and his wife, Ann, have four sons, ages 2 through 9, whom she home-schools. The two met while attending Geneva College, a Christian liberal-arts school in Pennsylvania, and now much of the work he does is in commercial litigation.
Talk with Stegall for a while, and you’re likely to hear him mention both “the culture of death” — referring to abortion — and “the ugliness of suburbanism.”
He said many on the political right didn’t define “moral values” as broadly as they should to include environmentalism.
Lawrence’s growth, for example, concerns Stegall. He said the question of whether Lawrence “gives in to unrestrained progress and unlimited consumption of land … and putting up of strip malls and big-box centers” is a question of moral values.
He believes true conservatism is about sustainability: of families, traditions, the Earth.
“I think that what we’re advocating is a respect for and an acknowledgment of the natural constraints that are on all of human life,” he said. “It’s really an agricultural metaphor: Are we putting back into the soil everything we’re taking out of it?”
The New Pantagruel is named after the protagonist of a 16th century novel by Francois Rabelais. It’s aimed mostly at a Christian audience because Stegall and his associates — many of whom he met while writing for a similar journal in the late 1990s — fear traditional Christianity has bought too much into mainstream, secular values.
But much of the site’s content is political. With help from the New York Times exposure, traffic at the site has grown steadily since early summer, from about 1,000 readers per week to between 5,000 and 10,000 per week.
The site’s contributors come across as exasperated with the state of two-party politics. One writer recently said he saw the choice between Republicans and Democrats as a choice between “Imperialism, Plutocracy, and Capital Punishment” and “Imperialism, Plutocracy, and Abortion.”
Several of the site’s editors wrote recently that they voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000, either because they believed in his ideals or because they wanted to give a boost to third-party politics.
“Somebody who thinks abortion is a bad idea, and so is capital punishment, and so is going to war with people because it seems like fun at the time — who is he supposed to vote for?” asked Thomas Heilke, an associate professor of political science at KU and a contributing editor to The New Pantagruel.
On the farm
The Stegall family’s rural homestead, not far from the home of Stegall’s father, reflects Stegall’s desire to create “a place that’s going to be a real presence for our kids’ lives.”
Having children, he said, was one of the major experiences that’s shaped his intellectual life. He’s also been influenced by Nader and the environmentalist writer Wendell Berry.
“Most of the conservative outlets of opinion are very uncritical of the notions of progress, the free market and the dispiriting aspects of popular culture,” he said.
Many of the problems he sees with society — abortion, divorce, gas-guzzling SUVs — he attributes to “nihilistic individualism.”
People aren’t rooted in traditions, places or communities anymore, he said, and they pursue their own freedom of choice without regard to larger concerns.
“T.S. Eliot wrote that ‘Love of one’s country begins with love of one’s own field,'” Stegall said, standing in his front yard on a recent evening with the children playing around him. “Not many people have the sense of love of their own field.”