Conservative in America

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.”

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