If someone were to ask me what values undergird my political convictions, I would respond that I am guided by a belief in an enduring moral order, the importance of tradition, culture, and the plurality of human society, ordered liberty, action rooted in prudence, a sense of purpose for civic life, and a sincere devotion to the Christian faith.
I would tell them: I am a conservative.
I realize that declaring one’s conservatism is a statement open to interpretation. Depending on where you are coming from, this could mean a variety of things: from a lover of Ronald Reagan, to a flag waving, gun-loving patriotism, to perhaps (as many depict conservatives to be) unfeeling bigotry. I’ll start by saying that when I describe myself this way, I am not referring to the historical Republican party, nor am I referring to the populism of our former President. Obviously conservatives intersect with these coalitions on multiple fronts. The problem of where and when they should however, is an entirely different question than the question of what conservatism means as a philosophical stance on politics, culture, and religion.
Talk to me in person about the former issue and I am happy to entertain you with my thoughts on the state of American conservatism as a movement. I am critical of much said and done under its banner. But to state this is not cognitive dissonance – far from it. From my perspective, it is healthy to be self-reflective when your principles collide with the praxis of those who associate with the same values. Recognizing when your position is distorted or inconsistently acted upon is not an acknowledgement it is false. It is an admission that truth is more important than simple partisanship. But alas, that is a subject for another essay.
One mistake I see a lot of conservatives make when explaining their beliefs is to frame them in an inherently negative light. What I mean by this, is that conservatives often communicate their convictions by what they are against, rather than what they are for. Which is valid, certainly, because one of the key goals of the conservative mindset is to restore. In framing this task with clarity and with force, however, I believe it must be done positively. That in part, is what I hope I can do.
Six reasons why I consider myself a conservative.
Principle, not ideology: I am a conservative because it avoids the trap of ideology. It is important to note that conservatism is not formulated as an ideological system. It is rather, as Russell Kirk states, “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” It carries an inherent disposition to conserve what is true, just, and permanent. How this is expressed varies considerably depending on context.
When I say that conservatism is not ideological, I am not referring to its political expression. Many individuals and politicians formulate conservative ideas and rigidly incorporate them into theoretical systems. For example, I think this is particularly true of those who adhere to capitalist economics. In seeing its utility and worth as an expression of individual liberty, many confuse the means with the ends. While I think that a free-market economy is important in many ways to the conservative ideal, rigid defenses of its flaws often substitute principle for ideology as a guide to social order. I am particularly wary of making this mistake.
Conservative principle as a guiding force, in contrast, is “the negation of ideology.” It does not pretend to have a formula to solve all of society’s moral ills. It does posit, however, that “there do exist general principles of morals and of politics to which thinking men may turn.” (1) I am conservative because I believe, as David Koyzis argues in his book Political Visions and Illusions, that ideology is an expression of idolatry. For me, conservative principle properly understood stands as a defense against the dangers of ideological thinking so prevalent today.
Order and tradition: I believe that all of life is rooted in a morally enduring order, something conservatism in particular is keen to express (a discussion on what kind of order, as expressed structurally, is another subject worth discussing elsewhere). For the conservative, order is concerned with both the inner self and the outer community at large. Questions of politics can never be reduced to their material parts, but must always take into account transcendent moral norms and other factors, such as tradition, culture, and the plurality of human society. Without this, the authority structures governing society will inevitably become rootless. Why? Because society is “is no machine, to be treated mechanically,” but rather, an organic body defined by custom, convention, and shared experience. Continuity of these things is what links generation to generation. Recognizing this, I believe, is an important starting point when approaching politics.
Many would critique conservatism as antiquarian, as simply a desire to conserve the past for the past’s sake. This would be a misunderstanding, however. Tradition, culture, and convention are not substanceless. They carry depth, meaning, and beauty. They are not perfect either. The conservative recognizes their importance to social harmony while also recognizing the need to weigh them in accordance with wisdom, justice, and moral truth. The conservative is not opposed to change.
A people eager to reject tradition without respect for the past, coupled by a desire to replace it in favor of wholesale alteration is evidence, I believe, of an ungrounded society. As Garry Wills helpfully stated, “accepted tradition makes talent serve the community,” and that when “a nation has no tradition to appeal to but a “tradition of revolution,” it has confessed bankruptcy; it can no longer marshall the potentials of the populace to serve the common stake.” (2) I agree with him. As a conservative, I see value in prescription.
Liberty: I believe that liberty is necessary for any nation to thrive and by this I do not mean the freedom to do whatever one desires. I concur with John Adams’ formulation, that liberty is “a power to do as we would be done by.” And with one of our contributors, as she brilliantly stated, that liberty is “the freedom to choose virtue.” In other words: liberty is the ability for choice to be guided towards moral wisdom, rather than unrestrained passion. This is what many have termed, “ordered liberty.”
Ordered liberty, that is: liberty properly expressed under the law, seeks to create a free society by expanding the conditions for virtue in the public square. Institutionally, this means that the state should foster environments providing individuals with the ability to make wise choices. In their pursuit of the good, individuals will inevitably choose a wide variety of things. Some are more beneficial than others. But the task of liberty is not to compel people to choose the good, but for it to be able to take place without arbitrary restraint. That is why I believe in the importance of constitutions to define the parameters of government. That is why I will defend religious liberty, pluralism, and the free market. It is also why conservatives are so skeptical of coercion. While the kind of state action necessary for liberty to thrive is a subject of huge debate (and another article), as a conservative I believe it is a necessary value to promote.
Prudence: As a matter of approaching politics and even life, prudence is a value core to the conservative mind I find quite appealing. It sees ethical, social, and political problems as issues to be guided through by a reliance on reason, experience, tradition, and an appreciation for the enduring moral order. Prudence is multifaceted and requires humility, knowledge, and wisdom. No one person is all-knowing or all-wise, thus, it also requires both a reflection of the past and thoughtful deliberation.
As noted before, the conservative is not opposed to change. In fact, he/she believes that change is essential to a healthy society. What the conservative does not approve of however, is change labeled as “progress” unreflective of moral order, out of touch with experience, and contradictory to the reality of human nature. As Kirk states, change is necessary for the body and must occur “in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise [it] produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host.” The conservative believes that change is a restorative process, not progressing us further as if humanity can magically improve its condition in accord with some abstract ideal, but leading us from disorder to order. From my perspective this is not a task to take lightly. That is why I believe prudence is a necessity.
Purpose: I am a conservative because it takes seriously the duty which bestows purpose and meaning to not only civic life, but also every sphere of living. While rights are important, rights divorced from duty are shallow and meaningless. The conservative believes that one cannot exist without the other. To illustrate this point, I like to use abortion. Consider the woman met with a situation where she is pregnant and unable to care for herself. What does she do? Much of our culture claims that she has a “right” to abort her child, but what does duty say? Duty rooted in morality says that there is no right to take an unborn life. Duty should compel the father to support both the woman and the baby. Duty should move that woman’s community and the broader society at large to take seriously the issue before them and support her the best way it can. Whether that be through charity or through law, it is unjust to do nothing. When conservatives support the right to life, it is always bound by this duty.
Duty grants meaning to every task of life and provides depth to every issue. What is the individual’s responsibility to the family? To society? To their nation? What is the government’s duty to its citizens? Such questions must be answered with prudence, but the answers are discernable. Conservatism seeks to address these questions with care, nuance, and from a desire to live in accordance with what is true.
Faith: Lastly, I am a conservative because its principles are a natural outflow of my faith, not a substitute for it. Conservatism (implicitly and explicitly) takes seriously the problem of the fall, our task to live restoratively, and recognizes the foolishness of establishing paradise here on earth. It is vividly aware of our world’s imperfectability.
As a Christian, I believe that mankind is inherently flawed, sinful, and that our sin affects all of creation. While God originally created things good, the world is now woefully distorted. As expressed through the Gospel, my call is to live restoratively by sharing with others the means of salvation (Christ) and by pursuing approximate justice here on earth. Part of the messiness of us doing justice is that it will never be perfect or complete, but God calls us to be restorative in whatever sphere of life we are in. If you are a politician, your task should be to pursue politics in accordance with duty, loyalty, and moral conviction. If you are a teacher, your job is to teach to the best of your ability and to the glory of God. If you are a doctor, you must treat people with compassion and demonstrate the love of Christ. Wherever you are in life, God is calling you to pursue what is good, just, and beautiful.
For me, being conservative is simply an extension of this task. The act of conserving is to restore back to life broken individuals, communities, and societies. Whether the problem is concerning race, sexuality, or religious liberty, I believe the task of the Christian is to point to God’s goodness, justice, and moral will as a guide. In my opinion, conservatism is highly compatible with this call.
Hopefully what I have written will provide some insight into not only my convictions, but of conservatism in general. My reasons for being a conservative will most likely differ from others. Some who would be predisposed to agree with me might even disagree on quite a few points. That is the beauty of the conservative position, in my opinion. The more I learn about it, the more I learn of its diversity and variety. Some people I agree with wholeheartedly, while others I disagree on many of the most widely discussed issues of the day. Conservatism for the most part however, is fairly unified in its philosophy. It provides direction and wisdom into how to approach politics, culture, personal discipline, and other important subjects. On that, I am excited to write more about in the future. Until then!
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. God bless.
- Kirk, The Conservative Mind pg. 474
- Wills, What is Conservatism? pg. 209
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.