Letter #3: What is a Conservative?
Many Republican presidential candidates in the 2012 Primaries claimed that “I’m the real Conservative” while charging that their opponents were not real Conservatives. So what is a Conservative? Is there a litmus test of some sort?
The word itself implies a desire to preserve, to save, to conserve things. Fundamentally, conservatives value the principles of previous generations that have resulted in greater liberty, justice and opportunity for us today. We value order and civilization over chaos and destruction. Financially conservative people generally don’t buy things they cannot afford; they don’t get into debt that they cannot repay. In fact they try to save money and they take less risk with their investments because they don’t want to lose money they have worked hard to earn.
Socially conservative people value life and typically oppose abortion and euthanasia; they value traditional marriage between a man and a woman and traditional families consisting of a father, mother and children, as the bedrock of civilized society. They value goodness in art, music and culture, whether it is new or centuries old. They don’t assume that new is better – in fact many times it is greatly inferior to the old.
There should be no litmus test for the Conservative banner. Conservatives can and often do disagree with one another on specific issues of public policy (such as the war in Afghanistan, or how to reform Medicare or the U.S. Tax code). Conservatives must agree to disagree on some issues, but to hold fast to a core set of fundamental beliefs. What are those core beliefs?
Benjamin Franklin wrote “There is no freedom without order, and no order without virtue.” Conservatives believe in a Higher Power, a Creator that established Laws of Nature, or the Moral Law. In America, laws were based in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments and writings of the Bible. The American Founders followed the British legal scholar, William Blackstone, who wrote “Man considered as a creature must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator … it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his Maker’s will … This will of his Maker is called the law of Nature … Hence it follows that the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain these absolute [God-given] rights to individuals.”   So the first core belief is belief in a Creator and a Moral Law to which man is accountable. We don’t get to define right and wrong, rather, it is defined by our Creator.
Tim Goeglein, George W. Bush’s liaison with conservative leaders, wrote “Conservatives believe Western civilization and American history find their firmest, truest, and most bounteous foundations in the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian traditions; that human freedom and flourishing find their taproot in moral excellence, which is virtue … The Scriptures were and are the ancient and lasting moral code for the overwhelming majority of Americans then and now.”   Marriage, family and religious life comprise the three indispensable supports for the growth and success of America in our first 200 years. A consensus built on both faith and reason formed the basis for an ordered and flourishing society.
We can compare Conservative beliefs with Leftist or Progressive beliefs (admittedly simplified) as follows. Dennis Prager sums it up nicely: “The Bigger the Government, the Smaller the Individual.”
Morality is defined by a Creator/Natural Law
Morality is defined by society
Man is the pinnacle of Creation (but fallen)
Man is an animal (morally good by nature)
Evil is real
Bad behavior is caused by the environment, etc.
Government should be limited
Government is the solution to social problems
Personal responsibility for family and community with government safety net
Government responsibility, big social programs
Affirm Religion in public institutions
Deny Religion in public life
Acknowledge truth from Revelation and Reason– Value ancient truths
Prefer new ideas, social experiments, fads, unproven social experiments
Fiscally conservative – responsible control of spending and limited/no debt
Spend more to stimulate the economy, don’t worry about the future
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking about.” G. K. Chesterton
I confess that I don’t understand many well-meaning Christians who adopt Progressive ideas, because hard-core Leftism is fundamentally opposed to Christianity. They will argue “that’s only in the public sphere… we don’t want politicians to wear their religion on their sleeve…” but that is a hollow argument, given the increasing hostility of the Left to Christianity and their attempts to suppress and control religion in many areas of life. Using the tactics of Political Correctness, the Left has clearly silenced Christians in our Universities and many Government-sponsored organizations. When will Christians wake up? The core principles of Conservatism are aligned with Christianity. The core principles of Progressivism are opposed to Christianity.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a thoughtful liberal, once said “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” For the conservative, culture drives politics, although culture is also influenced by politics. It is more important to change people’s worldview than to simply get their vote.
Goeglein wrote of a Conservative American Renaissance “We need to imagine a Judeo-Christian culture in sync with this new era. We need a creative community that will challenge the idols of our present age. This worldview is consonant with ordered liberty, with a vibrant, healthy culture for the arts, and with a rededication to the first principles of family, marriage, parenting, and faith … Conservatives give an incomplete answer when we communicate conservatism as a political and economic program of lower taxes, small and limited government, fewer regulations, and a strong national defense. All of these things are utterly fundamental and foundational and at the heart of what we believe. Yet the scope needs to be widened to include spiritual and cultural matters that reflect our historical consensus in America, one consonant with our founding … If we are seeking a restoration of America then we must articulate a rebirth of a culture that springs from religion. This could be the heart of an American renaissance.”
He continues “We have a country, a culture, and a civilization to preserve and to reform. This is the task before us, and the primary challenge of our era. To do so we must refocus on the spiritual values and beliefs common to our national life and its founding. American conservatives must offer a renewed vision that embodies the ideal community where everyone is welcomed and which remains true to the fundamental and vibrant religious truths of the Jewish and Christian traditions upon which America was founded and which in turn impacted and influenced the scope of our greatest national institutions, none greater than our families. We must place renewed emphasis on order in each soul. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, we must push back against the culture as hard as it pushes against us, and instead of relegating religion to the corner of the debate about American renewal, we must instead re-center it where our founders always placed it, in a place of prominence, reflecting the inherent spiritual nature of man and recognizing that healthy culture grows from it. We must do so civilly, diplomatically, and prudently, just as the framers did. Contemporary conservatism needs not only strong leaders who show unbridled fortitude, passion and imagination; but also it needs those moral principles, rooted in religion, that will in fact help renew the civil and social order that has eroded and decayed precipitously.”
I pray that God will raise up quite literally millions of young people who see clearly, who seek the truth with an open mind, and who follow Christ fearlessly, to bring about this American renewal. May you play your part in this movement, whatever that may be.
 Recommended books and authors: Whittaker Chambers’s Witness; Alexander Sohlzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo; Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose; William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale a; Russel Kirk’s The Conservative Mind;  Dennis Prager’s Still The Best Hope, and Timothy Goeglein’s The Man in the Middle.

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