Kearneysville, WV. As this election cycle grinds on, and as Washington prepares for CPAC’s 2012 event, each Republican candidate continues to claim that he best represents the conservative ideal. In this on-going contest over a word, the various contenders have even made so bold as to accuse the others of being frauds or at least lacking the deep conservative values and ideas that, we are told, are the necessary remedy for the excesses of liberalism, socialism, Obamaism or any other “ism” deemed dangerous to the republic.
In this war of words, “conservative” seems to mean fiscally responsible, pro-market, pro-marriage, militarily strong, if not aggressive, all wrapped up in a thick coating of civil religion where American Exceptionalism blends seamlessly into the theology that God favors America above all other nations (with the possible exception of Israel).
Now, far be it from me to gainsay God’s good gifts. We have certainly enjoyed more than our share of blessings, but these are not our due; God is not obligated to bless us because we are so wonderful, giving, grand, or, ahem, humble. It should, furthermore, go without saying that such a national story is simply bad theology.
Nevertheless, conservative is, apparently, what the candidates think the voters want, and this forces us to poke the concept a bit. It seems to me that attempts to define “conservative” and “liberal” too often focus on policies ostensibly supported by each. But an analysis of policy positions is merely taking the consequence for the cause. If we scratch beneath the tumultuous surface, we can begin to see that the differences may not be all that dramatic. Ultimately, what passes for liberalism and conservatism today are in many respects variations on a common theme. In other words, many so-called conservatives and liberals are often singing the same song.
Let’s begin with a short quiz.
Question 1. Do you speak, think, and act more naturally in terms of individual rights or in terms of duties and responsibilities?
Question 2. Do you have duties to the past? To those who are no longer alive? To those yet to be born? Yes or No.
Question 3. Humans are progressively getting better technically, socially, politically, morally. If this is not true, it is only due to the bad will of some. True or False.
Question 4. America is the last best hope of the world. True or False.
Now let’s consider the answers. First, have you noticed how the language of individual rights pervades our political discourse? Of course, the concept of individual rights has been central to the American political tradition since prior to the founding; however, to the extent that rights grew out of the larger context of natural law, duties were primary and rights claims were logically secondary. With the gradual erosion of the idea of natural law, natural rights lost any possible connection to nature, so that today we speak of human rights or simply rights without assuming any of the philosophical and even theological baggage that once undergirded (if often only tenuously) the concept of rights. The language of individual rights, of course, fits well with the image of the autonomous individual who believes that every obligation and responsibility is rooted in individual choice. The notion that there are responsibilities into which we are born does not sit well with the autonomous chooser who rejects such ideas as impositions on his freedom. On the other hand, the conservative acknowledges deep and abiding debts that manifest themselves as duties. He understands that a society of autonomous choosers enamored with individual rights will be a society that is rotten at its core. The liberal will gravitate toward politicians who promise expanded liberties even if the fiscal and moral books don’t balance. The conservative will be attracted to candidates who, when facing a situation such as ours, will not hesitate to speak hard words. Imagine a politician uttering the following lines:
“We have for some time been living beyond our means. We have squandered our inheritance on riotous living, and now we must brace ourselves for the consequences. However, if we work together, we can overcome even this. We can, with our mutual sacrifices, hard work, and dedication, rebuild the capital we have spent down. The way will not be easy. It may take years. But what we build together will be something we can pass on to our children not with the shame that is the inevitable fruit of selfishness and irresponsibility but with a deep sense of satisfaction born of the knowledge that we have done our duty.”
Would you vote for this person? If you would, then you are likely a conservative (even if you imagine yourself a liberal). If, on the other hand, you prefer to hear sunny platitudes about growth and your right to infinitely improving standards of living, you are something other than a conservative.
Is it possible to have duties to the past? To dead people? To people not yet born? Obviously this is related to the first question. A conservative is interested in conserving and one feature of that concern is a commitment to conserving the best that has been inherited. This opens the conservative up to the accusation that he is stuck in the past. Rather than mucking around with dead concepts and the memories of dead people, we should stride boldly into the future, for it is, after all, the future and not the past that waits for us. The conservative, on the other hand, is not unconcerned about the future, but he realizes that a proper knowledge of and respect for the past is necessary for a wise and informed view of the future. The future apart from the past is merely an abstraction born of the optimistic belief that things are necessarily getting better.
This brings us to the third question: Are humans getting better? This is a trick question, for it is undeniable that humans are progressing at a break-neck speed in the areas of science and technology. However, it is an error of significant consequence to take these particular examples of progress and derive a general principle. In moral terms, humans seem to be stuck with variations of the same old vices. Politically, the problem of power remains even though our optimism about progress dulls our fear of abuse. The liberal tends to be optimistic about progress, and this explains why the liberal is optimistic about the future. We are on an upward trajectory, and the future is our destiny. The conservative, on the other hand, may appear somewhat dour, but this is only when compared with his liberal counterpart. In fact, the conservative is sober, for he has resisted the heady wine offered by the prophets of progress. He realizes that the human condition is basically the same through the ages even if technological packaging is every year more dazzling.
Finally, is America the last best hope of the world? So-called liberals and conservatives both seem required to at least pay lip service to this notion, and to question this axiom would be the kiss of death for a politician, especially on the right. The religion of Americanism is the belief that the nation can do no wrong, for it possesses a divine mission to spread the ideals of free markets and political liberty to a waiting world. While not all conservatives are religious, many are, and conservatives, both religious and non, reject the idolization of this nation or any nation for that matter. For the Christian, the last best hope of the world is the church, through which Christ is made manifest. The conservative recognizes the theological danger of confusing the State for the Church, and he also sees the political danger, for baptizing the nation undercuts any ability to criticize its actions. “My county, right or wrong” is not the cry of the patriot but the chant of the idolater.
Now let’s reflect on some of this. It seems that those who call themselves conservatives and liberals today by and large emphasize their rights rather than duties; they show precious little concern for the past, both as a repository for knowledge or as a source of duties; and they tend to speak in the glowing terms of progress. Finally, they all too often lack the humility that the conservative feels deep in his bones. The conservative knows that all good things are at root a gift. This disposition of gratitude fosters humility, and humility is necessary if we are to live responsibly, for humility acknowledges limits and a denial of limits is a key feature of the liberal mind.
When we consider all of this in light of our current political climate, it becomes clear that the apparent differences between conservatives and liberals in America today are far less dramatic than we are often tempted to believe. What we have is a variety of liberals, some more radical than others, but a truly conservative position is illusive and, what is more important, probably not desired by most of the electorate; although, there is always a remnant, and this remnant, I believe, would grow if a truly conservative alternative was articulated in a clear and compelling way. Of course, Rush Limbaugh and the folks at Fox News—those standard bearers of “conservatism”—will find this analysis implausible, for their deepest commitments are to the very things that are antithetical to a legitimate and historically informed conservatism. Nevertheless, any attempt to continue using this fine word should include a conscious effort to resist abusing it for the purpose of political gain. It is, after all, a word worth conserving.