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Kearneysville, WV. Barack Obama was swept into office as a firm and unmistakable repudiation of George W. Bush. After enduring the longest war in our nation’s history, after cringing at a brazen foreign policy, after watching the economy stumble and begin a slow implosion, Americans were ready for “change,” as the Democratic candidate so memorably put it. The “arrogant” conservatism of the Bush White House gave way to the “thoughtful” progressivism of Obama. Even many of those who were reluctant to sing the praises of Obama were hopeful that this young, dynamic president could bring meaningful change to Washington and to the nation.

The sweeping reforms pushed through in his first one-hundred days bore testimony to the energy and expansive vision of Obama. The world financial crisis legitimated his aggressiveness, for the experts argued that the entire economic edifice was teetering on the brink of an abyss and without bold and decisive action, the whole structure would come crashing down. The reforms were sweeping, to be sure, yet the bold new direction was, well, not really new at all. In order to jump-start the economy, the Obama administration, along with the newly formed democratic congress, inaugurated a spending spree the scale of which would have made FDR or LBJ blush. And now, with the health care reforms, the size and scope of the federal government only promises to increase.

Progressivism, it seems, is alive and spending. Conservatism is dead or at least in need of a serious overhaul. But what, exactly, is conservatism? The word is used, indeed overused, to describe a political and cultural position, but what position? While most conservatives embrace some version of market capitalism and limited government, self-identified conservatives don’t agree on the substantive contents of term. As a result, the word has become so elastic that it can be used to describe anything from George Bush to Pat Buchanan, from Andrew Sullivan to Pat Robertson to Rush Limbaugh. Is a concept that is so watered down that it can be credibly used to describe this range of individuals and their views really worth much at all? Is the word, itself, worth conserving?

Conservatism is often contrasted with liberalism. Liberalism derives, etymologically, from the Latin liberalis, which means liberty. Liberalism is a relative new-comer on the political scene. The primary political unit is the individual and the primary concern is individual liberty. Entailed in this is the notion that humans are beings with the capacity to choose. Liberalism, then, is the political school of thought that emphasizes the free choices of individuals. The language of human rights goes hand-in-hand with liberalism, for these rights refer primarily to the moral status of individuals. Along with the notion of human rights goes the idea of human equality: all humans are equally endowed with certain rights. When Thomas Jefferson writes that “all Men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” he is giving voice to concepts firmly rooted in the liberal tradition. In this sense, then, a major strand (and perhaps the major strand) of the American founding is tied to liberalism.

Most liberals are progressives. Progressives believe that things are, or at least can, get progressively better. They are optimistic about human nature and the human capacity for good. They understand human progress to consist of, at least in part, progress toward greater individual freedom. Progressives tend to be optimistic about the human capacity to solve problems. They look forward to the possibility, perhaps in the distant future, of a world without wars, famine, or sickness. Some progressives look for a future without government or private property, but in America most look forward to one characterized by democracy and free markets.

At this point, an obvious problem emerges. According to this definition of liberalism, it seems that Americans, both Republican and Democrat, are liberals. That is, they emphasize individual liberty, individual rights, and usually are committed, whether overtly or not, to the idea of progress. But Republicans, when they hurl the word “liberal” as an epithet, are not accusing Democrats of their love of liberty and rights. Instead, they are suggesting several things depending on the context. If the subject at hand is fiscal policy, then liberalism means a propensity to increase taxes, especially on the wealthy, and to increase state spending on social programs. If the subject is defense, liberalism means anti-militarism and a propensity to coddle the enemy. In the area of sexual ethics, liberals are libertines who want to destroy the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman and instead permit marriage between any two consenting adults. A liberal is pro-choice on abortion and against capital punishment. Liberals coddle pedophiles (and may be one). They love the poor and resent the rich. When some call their opponents liberals they mean, at root, that they are irreligious god-haters or at least Unitarians. Liberals tend to drink Pino Nior and things with funny little umbrellas. In short, a liberal, in this colloquial sense, emphasizes expansive personal liberties and favors state solutions to social ills. The high rate of taxation that makes the latter possible may, in fact, truncate the former, but that is beside the point.

When Democrats hurl names at Republicans, they can, in the wake of the Bush administration, simply accuse them of being a Bush supporter. Because George Bush tended to find his highest approval ratings among the Christian right, and because some Democrats believe that this group, secretly or not, has designs on turning the United States into a Christian fundamentalist theocracy, the term “conservative” sometimes carries these connotations. At the very least it is used to designate a group of people who have certain moral beliefs that they want to impose on the rest of society. Furthermore, conservatives tend to be selfish and unconcerned about the poor and the destitute. Conservatives do not favor capital gains taxes or inheritance taxes and this has the effect of funneling more money to the rich at the expense of social programs that help the poor, whom conservatives resent as shiftless drags on society. Conservatives are selfish partisans of big-business who, at the same time, want to impose a strict morality upon everyone else. They also tend to be flag-waving jingoists who love the military, thrive on militarism, and own at least one handgun. Conservatives tend not to read books, they watch NASCAR, and drink beer from a can (unless they are Baptists in which case they drink Mountain Dew). The use by big business of salacious themes in advertising may not be compatible with the moralizing rhetoric of the culture warriors, but that is beside the point.

Both of these descriptions are caricatures used by one group to discredit another. And while they don’t get us far, they can give us some hints about what each side deems most dangerous. Those on the right are concerned about the libertinism and statism of the left, while those on the left worry about the moralism and social apathy of those on the right. The liberals want the right to be left alone in the bedroom, and they highlight the rights of the poor and disadvantaged. The conservatives seek the right to keep their own money and the freedom to raise their children in a decent society. Both generally recur to the language of individual rights to make their claims. In this sense, partisans on both the right and the left drink deeply of the well of liberalism.

At the same time, leaders on both the right and the left have, at various times, expressed their conviction that things are progressively improving, even as they lament the slippage that occurs when the opposition is in power. Ronald Reagan famously claimed that it is always morning in America. Talking heads on the right regularly equate progress with economic improvement and argue that if the federal government would simply step aside, a new era of economic prosperity would dawn. Commentators on the left argue that if conservative culture warriors would stop trying to pry into the private lives of others, peace and happiness would reign. In recent years, it is impossible not to hear politicians, on the left and the right, speak of “moving forward” or “moving ahead.” Apparently, they all assume that forward is the only viable direction and that things will get better if we continue to press onward. In other words, the doctrine of progress seems deeply embedded in American political discourse. If partisans of both left and right express themselves primarily in terms of individual rights and think of politics in terms of an underlying and open-ended progress, then we don’t really need the term “conservatism” at all. Both sides are firmly rooted in the soil of liberalism. They agree about the purpose of government (to protect individual rights) and the direction of history (progress). They may disagree about which individual rights to privilege and what, specifically, constitutes progress, but these are really in-house debates among liberals.

We are at this point confronted with a startling question: is conservatism a term that is useful or meaningful in the American context? At best “conservatism” as it is generally used today seems to represent merely one shade of liberalism. When the issue is framed in this manner, the raging debate between “conservatives” and “liberals,” while dealing with important matters, is really a series of tempests in one particular political tea-pot. The foundational questions have, it seems, been laid to rest. All sides are committed to the fundamental ideas of individual rights and progress.

But is there an alternative? Consider, for a moment, the word “conservative”. The word “conserve” comes from the Latin conservare, which is a verb meaning to watch over, preserve, protect, to continue to dwell in. Conservatives understand themselves as stewards. They commit themselves to preserving the good things of this world. Together they dwell in their various places, watching over those places and the goods inherent therein as they tend them in trust for the next generation. A conservative, then, practices the habits, arts, and disciplines of stewardship in community with others. Stewardship gives birth to acts of responsibility and care that are oriented toward the long-term preservation of the natural, social, and institutional goods we have inherited even as it seeks to cultivate them and thereby improve them in the process.

How would our political and cultural debates change if this authentic conservatism took hold?

In a climate of increasingly shrill and partisan debates, where the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are used as terms of abuse, where important matters are torpedoed by special interests seeking to aggrandize their power, Americans are looking for a better way. They are seeking a political and cultural direction that offers a viable alternative to the current offerings. They want something that is not simply the retreads of short-sighted ideas born of partisan politics and failed ideologies. Fortunately, there is hope, for many on both side of the political spectrum are coming to the conclusion that neither the left nor the right, as currently constituted, are capable of leading wisely. Something is seriously amiss and one more massive government intrusion will not make things better.

Perhaps a renewed vision is in order. Perhaps the notion of stewardship in community opens new possibilities for a renewed public sphere. Perhaps it’s time for conservatives to once again start thinking about conserving.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

24 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. It seems to me that the Republicans are moving more towards the Libertarians, who are the true liberals. That might lead to a reaction by the Democrats to move more towards socialism. I think we can see these forces at work in the current debates, although it seems like in American politics, nothing is ever 100%; the need to win elections and appeal to a wide audience means we never get pure libertarians and pure socialists. But who knows? The anger we see today on the streets might mean we get there this time.

    As for coming up with an alternative to liberalism, it is clear to me that with teleology once again philosophically respectable and rightly understood, the Western liberalism which grew up around the rejection of teleology is doomed. The main reason is that the cracks in the pillars of liberalism are now so deep, and the foundation so undermined, that the only reason the entire edifice hasn’t come crumbling down is that there has been nothing on offer to replace it. No one believes in the traditional liberal view of the self, no one believes that utilitarianism is correct, nobody believes that universal rights are a priori moral principles, and everyone believes the nihilistic replacements that have been offered–post-modernism, emotivism, deconstructivism, multiculturalism–are even worse. Liberalism has just been standing on its own inertia awaiting a gust of wind. In place of utilitarianism which sought to replace nature’s ends with human ends, virtue ethics will again be the name of the game. In place of non-cognitivisms such as emotivism and prescriptivism, moral realism will again thrive. In place of universal values, local historical contingencies will be respected. Instead of demands for abstract rights, claims will be resolved on the basis of social functions. Instead of seeing oneself as an isolated monad, we will see ourselves as a part of a historical tradition. Instead of rejecting culture, tradition, and heritage, these things will be seen as ones identity, great inheritance, and moral guide. See my “Teleology and the Death of Liberalism” http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/07/teleology-and-death-of-liberalism.html

  2. Mark, a fine piece..honing in upon the prevailing caricatures but bringing us back into focus with one apt word: Stewardship. This represents a recognition that there is something worth stewarding and there is a responsibility……. something greater than a mere “right”……… to do so.

  3. Thanks for an excellent statement that performs a much needed corrective to the current political entrenchments.

    But I can’t help thinking that the essay ignores what can be and I think is a divide between the Christian and the secular conservative.

    The secular conservative could well be like Cato of old, wanting to preserve traditional society as it is and, at most, “cultivate it” to improve it. One practical consequence of this is the belief that those who are in power deserve to be and ought to stay in power. There is a “preferential option for the powerful.”

    But the Christian conservative knows, like Jesus did, that we live in a fallen world. There is radical sin abroad and Christ’s commands for discipleship are radical–you know the verses as well as I. Even the leaders of “the people of God” are sinful and need to be reborn. One practical consequence is the belief that not everyone in power deserves to be and ought to stay there.

    Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an excellent exposition of how the radicalism of the Bible should work out in efforts toward ending injustice. It is hard to want stewardship, if it means preserving things the way they are, when you “have waited for more than 340 years for your constitutional and God-given rights.” (BTW, I think every school should make this letter required reading, a Christian college most of all, for purposes of learning rhetoric (it holds up amazingly well though it was written on the fly from jail), history, political science, and theology.) But if stewardship means taking care of God’s commands, that is something else.

    So, even if we embrace your definition of “conservatism,” the difficult questions remain: What are we stewarding? In our cultivation, what do we grow and what do we weed out? But I recognize that these points are largely beyond the scope of your article.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful and edifying piece.

  4. Indeed, a fine piece. I use the term “conservative,” with a lower case “c,” to describe thoughts and activities of a preservationist nature. There are things about the post-WWII experience of growing up in America that I wish to preserve as a baby boomer, in my writings; a world fast disappearing. Stephen Spielberg, a big Hollywood Liberal boomer, preserves the voices and stories of Holocaust survivors in his Shoah Project.

    The young, I notice, even those raised in generally conservative households, have internalized the lessons and vocabulary of multiculturalism and diversity learned in school, and therefore have a generally more liberal world view than their parents, in the common sense usage of the word. Thus there is something of an age divide along the lines of liberal and conservative in America today.

  5. “…Americans are looking for a better way. They are seeking a political and cultural direction that offers a viable alternative to the current offerings. They want something that is not simply the retreads of short-sighted ideas born of partisan politics and failed ideologies. Fortunately, there is hope, for many on both side of the political spectrum are coming to the conclusion that neither the left nor the right, as currently constituted, are capable of leading wisely. Something is seriously amiss and one more massive government intrusion will not make things better.”

    Mark, I agree with this and praise the essay. However, whenever I read one of these ‘hopeful’ essays on a rising or recovering America I am reminded of those millions of citizens on welfare. People who haven’t worked, won’t seek work, and wouldn’t work if they could find a job. And, I hope I’m wrong and some smart dude can show me the statistics but I’m getting the ‘feeling’ this number is growing significantly. A permanent underclass that must be fed, clothed, housed, and entertained by the producers. And, I am intimately aware that over the past fifty-sixty years ‘we’ve’ shipped much of our manufacturing base overseas, so there are few decent paying jobs.
    So help me out here. What, if any, will be the effect of the professional welfare class on any American economic recovery, or on the question of a ‘renewed vision’ and ‘stewardship?’

    • Bob,
      You’ve touched the heart of the issue. A permanent underclass, if it is large enough, can in a democratic society derail everything. I think one of the significant goals has to be trying to see that as many people as possible have a stake in the system and one of the best means of doing this is private property. Furthermore, the ownership of property serves to cultivate some of the virtues that are essential for self-government including self-reliance, self-control, and good judgment. How can the idea of property be revived and the reality be expanded? Well, we’re back to some of the principles that John Medaille and other distributists advocate. I think you and I both agree that something is broken. Pushing down the same path we’ve been heading for decades is not going to fix things. The challenge, as I see it is this: how do we reinvigorate and expand the ownership of real property?

  6. Not that I am especially proud of it, but I have been on welfare twice in NYC. The first time I was too ill from bronchitis to work or do much of anything for two months; the second time was a more serious stint of several years because I was too old to find permanent employment with my limited set of office skills, which I had used to support my writing. It was no picnic, I can tell you. I had $115 per month for food stamps and too little cash to do anything. I was eventually hired by the city during the Giuliani administration, which swept the workfare/welfare rolls in NYC.

    If you want to find an issue worthy of your powder and shot, go after illegal immigration, which will change your way of life more than anything. Illegals, who work like beavers and don’t beg, are overrunning NYC, especially Brooklyn where I live. The Mexicans and their ilk are driving out whites long established in neighborhoods like Bensonhurst that once gave you Ralph Kramden and The Honeymooners.

    The Dems speak with a forked tongue on this issue, saying they will not allow illegals to access health care under the legislation before Congress, but are unwilling to support SAVE and other efforts to determine their documentation. The Dems want to empower and legitimize the vast numbers of illegals here and their millions of newly minted children to form a permanent majority voting block. This is your real underclass, and no matter how fair minded and generous in spirit you may be, I guarantee you, you will not like the results.

  7. Hudson: Amen!
    Mark, If we’re going to try Medaille’s distributism now’s the time..sink or swim. Hudson, above, gives us an accurate summation of the urban problems and the Marxist solution.

  8. Thanks, Bob Cheeks. Anyone who wants to read more of what I have written on this subject can do so at WordPress.com; search “Brooklyn, Migrating South” in their search window. The direct link does not seem to work.

  9. But the Christian conservative knows, like Jesus did, that we live in a fallen world. There is radical sin abroad and Christ’s commands for discipleship are radical–you know the verses as well as I. Even the leaders of “the people of God” are sinful and need to be reborn. One practical consequence is the belief that not everyone in power deserves to be and ought to stay there.

    Speaking of well known verses, as a conservative Christian I am not at all clear on how this sentiment lines up with Mark 12, as in “render unto Caesar what is his.” Caesar thought of himself as deity and had little to no regard for private property or love for the people of God, all traits of a perfectly un-born again—yet he we are commanded to be submissive and obedient to him. I see nothing that suggests that “not everyone in power deserves to be and ought to stay there.” That sounds more American (read: liberal) than Christian.

    Or how about another well known text, Romans 13: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?”

    So if our leaders need to be re-born to be trustworthy, what gives with all this scripture? And, anyway, who ever said that being re-born diminishes the immediate effects of sin and increases trustworthiness? Maybe the Pentecostals, but not the conservatives Presbyterians.

  10. Mark, your emphasis on stewardship as the moral basis of conserving is SO right that few “conservatives” seem to understand it. Russell Kirk, among others, did. The older distributists, like Chesterton, also got it. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity was their main source for this insight, contrasting completely with the antinomianism of MLK Jr., featured above by Mr. Filiatreau (“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”). Stewardship, however, is taught in the church, and the family, and the neighborhood, all of which have been under siege from both the state and the religion of “stuff” for many years. I’m maybe less hopeful than you, but applaud your conviction.

  11. Both Cheeks and Willson have accused me of being an optimist. I must defend myself, for I surely don’t want to wear that label! 1) I think little enterprises like FPR demonstrate that there are still sensible folks who might consider a renewed emphasis on stewardship to be essential to an authentic conservatism. I may be wrong, but something is in the air. And the left-right distinction is not adequate to describe it. 2) Chesterton said once that the optimist thinks all the world is good except the pessimist, while the pessimist thinks all the world is bad except himself. I hope to avoid either pitfall. Instead, I like to think in terms of hope, for hope is a theological virtue that acknowledges that we are not in absolute control and that things can in fact change even at the darkest hour. Yes, the hour may be dark, but…

  12. Good response, Mark! I didn’t really call you and optimist, I just said that I’m a “bit less hopeful.” Christians, of course, are required to hope, but are degrees….

  13. I’ve been thinking about this. “Hopeful,” “optimistic,” versus pessimism and despair? Well, now we know who the myth tells us wins, now don’t we, and the truth is buried in the myth. Evil does not destroy the Good. Jesus is not defeated by Satan!
    The rest, the part we play, is the “drama of humanity.” So that’s why we can only tolerate the truth, that’s why we must reject the bs!
    My goodness, why are we not celebrating?

  14. Hope as a theological virtue applies only to our supernatural good, and not necessarily to temporal goods, which may be taken away or lost as a fitting punishment… God’s justice is tempered by His mercy, but His mercy is manifest in His giving of grace to us–which can and does accompany the (negative) consequences of the actions we have chosen, individually and as a society.

  15. Again, (and again and again and again, I’ll say it) yes, liberalism as a final philosophy is wrong. Rawls is not the Philosopher. Nor is Locke. Nor is Nozick, Popper, Hartz, etc., and so on. And you get closer to the political truth that applies in the best case scenario by reading Mitchell, Chesterton, etc.

    But almost 99.5% of human political life is not the best case scenario. Win the culture wars, via cultural means, and we’ll have an electorate ready to vote the way Mitchell and FPR would prefer. Meantime, we have the electorate we have. We have the U.S. history we have, “tied to liberalism,” as Mitchell admits.

    Does not the above column suggest that the political answer of the hour is for a conservativism to emerge that is distinguished sharply from classic liberalism, that is no longer a “shade” of liberalism? Does it not also suggest that this would mean a conservativism that did not speak very much [or at all!] of our government’s stated purpose to “secure these [largely individual] rights”? But rather one that would emphasize its also stated purpose [in the Preamble of the Const.] to ‘establish justice’ ‘promote the general Welfare” and ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty’?

    What is this conservatism going to say about the Declaration? What is it going to say to the average American, right-wing or left-wing, about his average understanding of what rights are? That it’s all wrong, that it has been from the git-go? Mark, are your conservatives going to say, “We hold the truths of the Preamble to be true, but not those of the Declaration? And P.S., it’s the Distributivists who can tell you more about what ‘establishing justice’ is than the Founders can, b/c the Founders (and Lincoln too!) were at bottom…boo, hiss…LIBERALS?”

    One cannot learn from you here, Mark, why a thoughtful Catholic political thinker like Christopher Wolfe, a man almost anyone would call a conservative, advocates something he calls “Natural Law Liberalism.” And there are many other thinkers like him that, while seeing beyond the philosophies of Locke, Rawls, etc., while sympathizing with the likes of you on most issues, nonetheless are willing to call themselves some sort of liberal or some sort of conservative that accepts that they have to work closely with liberalism.

    And what is the evidence for your claim that the bitter rhetoric and partisanship of our time stems from the absence of your true conservatism? I mean, I can count off several different theories of why things are so mean right now…there’s Peter Wood’s theories about the legitmation of angry discourse across the spectrum due to cultural developments(A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now). Or there’s the idea of A. Solzhenitsyn and Chantal Delsol that the bitterness of our era is fundamentally linked to two centuries of progressivist over-expectations. Or there’s the simple fact of leftist bias in the MSM and higher-ed over a long period, and the push-back against it. And this is to say nothing of pretty thoughtful ideas in Madison and Plato for why republican politics is ALWAYS angry-faction empowering, ALWAYS a race against public insanity. People adopting your ideas as an alternative to “liberal” and “conservative” as presently understood is going to get past all that? The Left (to say nothing of the Right) is going to let you establish a centrist politics that says, “oh, we don’t do rights talk,” and not have some bitter and defamatory things to say about y’all if you become a political factor? It just doesn’t add up.

    I might add that at the moment, I’m particularly grateful for the ire/spirit of the anti-big-gvmtn Americans, without losing my cautious instincts towards the likes of Levin and Beck. That rally in DC was wonderful given what it might help stop.

    Mark, don’t pave the way for those who are tempted to develop a “Liberalism = Evil” politics/overall-explanation. I’m beginning to get seriously disturbed by the growing attraction to this sort of thinking, especially among more intellectual Christians. It’s bad political thinking, and lends itself to bad theology about politics…this is what is fundamentally bad about it, but yes, to my mind it is not incidental that in practice it tends to favor the worse of the two national parties, the Democrats.

    Okay, off to a camp trip, so I won’t be able to respond if need be until Monday…happy weekend everyone.

  16. Carl,
    1) I never suggested that the bitter tone of our politics is caused by the absence of true conservatism. I was merely noting that despite the heated rhetoric, both sides are, generally speaking, in the same liberal camp.
    2) Given your insistence that we must play the political game within the context in which we find ourselves suggests that you would not have been one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, which was a game changer. That’s a bit curious since I’m going to guess you venerate that document. True, we must deal with political realities, but don’t be so short of imagination as to think that the way things are today is the way they had to be or the way they always will be.

  17. Mark, okay, fair enough on 1).

    2) does not follow, even if the basic point about political imagination is sound. With due respect to the ordeals of good loyalists like gov. Thomas Hutchinson, and to the real bravery of the signers of the Dec., it was not that difficult in 1770s to conclude that either a British Empire that included colonies like the American ones would have to provide them a modicum of representation in Parliament, OR, independence was necessary/inevitable-at-some-point. And once British intransigence got you to admit the latter, one also had to realize that some appeal to natural political morality and legitimacy would be necessary.

    I cannot say for CERTAIN, of course, what my present character and political instincts would result in given the counterfactual whereby some similar but historically plausible “I” would be a member of the Continental Congress in 1776.

    But your case, here and now, is more interesting. Are you expressing a willingness to distance yourself from the Declaration’s principles today AS MUCH AS the typical American Revolutionary distanced himself from the principles of loyalty to Crown, Brittania, and Parliament? I know you don’t want to be a Jaffite, fair enough, I don’t either, but how do you propose to articulate the relation of your conservatism to the Declaration? Or to the Constitution?

  18. You can tell people’s attitudes to others by what they say as well as by their actions. When have you much heard Republican and Democratic politicians as well as Libertarians banging on about the need for empowerment of the people by broadening the base of business capital ownership with control? When have you heard them calling for a referendum on the subject? Extremely rare I would suggest. This has to tell you their true ego desire is one of maintaining mean spirited privilege.They will decry the feckless poor and the evils of welfare dependency but ownership empowerment with responsibility which can change these things has to remain the province of the few. Of course, many of these people will go to church but what is the point when they are deaf to the central lesson of their religion which is to avoid mean spiritedness!

  19. Thanks for the thoughtful essay. It is sorely needed. Some 20 years ago I was having just such a conversation with a colleague who was arguing conservatism is reactionary. I told him that the root of conservative is conservation, and the best way to conserve is to plant the right crops, plants, or produce.

    In a talk I just gave at my church a week ago on stewardship as we approach commitment Sunday I put stewardship, reflected in the offering, this way:

    “The offering is not a free market exchange process in which we exchange labor for pay and pay for goods and services. It’s an organic, ecological process of growth. We are like potted plants that the master gardener is preparing for a special and beautiful place in a new creation He is planting, and giving as an act of worship is part of the process by which God nourishes and feeds us so that we may grow into a plant ready to be taken from the pot and deeply rooted in good soil.”

    That metaphor doesn’t just apply to the Sunday offering, it applies to any area of stewardship, even the stewardship of precious ideas and cultural heritage. If our goal is to stop erosion, we have to plant, tend, and nurture. If that’s reactionary then color me reactionary.

    I have long hungered for a new model. Neither Left nor Right has it, currently. I don’t like to identify myself with either party or either ideology, but I am far from moderate. I hold firm beliefs, convictions and principles. Though I worship in a concrete mainstream faith community, I mostly consider myself a ‘little o’ orthodox, Protestant, Nicene Christian. Politically I would identify myself, not by party, but by influences (James Q. Wilson, Senator Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, Jacques Barzun, John Diggins and Patrick Deneen to name a few).

    There are a lot like me. In fact, I think that most of the so-called religious right feel similarly. It’s not that they have a choke hold on the GOP; quite the contrary, it is the GOP who have a coke hold on them simply because many can not vote for someone who supports abortion. Like Jefferson, they tremble for their country when they reflect that God is just.

    If I could draw I’d make a political cartoon. A winding road with a car in the right lane with America painted on the roof. The license plate reads Nixon. Next panel, same car, license plate reads Carter and it’s in the left lane. Next panel, back in the right with Reagan/Bush. Next, back in the left with Clinton, next back in the right with G.W. Bush. Final panel it’s back on the left with Obama on the plate. Up ahead a sign: Hell-in-a-Hand-Basket 5 miles ahead.

    Progress indeed.

  20. I am late to this discussion and new to this site. Agree that it is a good essay. I wonder about 2 things:

    1. Does the term stewardship apply to conservatives only? Certainly, it is a concept that should be embraced, but doesn’t everyone? Mark F above asks what is being stewarded. Wouldn’t/couldn’t almost every environmental group, that I presume would be mostly labelled as “liberal” claim that they are involved in stewardship. I am certainly not saying that conservatives would not be in favor of stewardship of the environment, but neither do the reluctance to consider global warming as a threat nor the recent mantra of “Drill, baby, drill” fit neatly into that concept. Aren’t you back to saying that the means to fulfill stewardship is the distinction between liberals and conservatives.

    2. How does stewardship apply practically to tax policy? It used to be that the conservative position was fiscal responsibility. That seems to have morphed into all taxes are bad. To me, stewardship would require that you pay for whatever it is you want. Smaller government would mean less to pay for, but there have been few administrations that have balanced the budget in recent memory. Theoretically, conservatives were in charge of Congress and the White House during much of the GWB administration. If stewardship is to be viable, then I would think that raising taxes as well as cutting spending would have to be on the table as an option.

    So what is a conservative? Certainly, the Founding Fathers would never have envisioned what our government has become, yet were they conservatives? Breaking with your King to found a republic does not seem conservative, nor was the assertion that all men are created equal. The argument we are having is as old as the Republic…should the central government be strong and active or smaller and less intrusive?

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