Although the contributors here are by and large conservative, this site is not simply about conservatism, it is fundamentally about Christ Jesus. We profess Christ Jesus, and Him crucified. It is to Him that we commit ourselves without qualification, not to conservatism.
Still, we are more conservative than not. In this regard we perceive that conservatism bears a notable and vital relationship to our carrying out fully and wholly the Christian calling to embrace the Truth and live it in true freedom (i.e. freedom in the sense of John 8:32).
“Conservative” has taken on so many meanings to so many people that in usage it has begun to bear no more than a vague direction of an idea. However, not so long ago it did have a more determinate meaning, and it is still fair and honest to demand respect for that meaning as still recognizable, and demand recognition of the word as still capable of carrying that earlier meaning more truly than other meanings. I aim to set forth, again, what that is.
“Conservative” is not solely a political term: one can be politically conservative or religiously conservative or culturally conservative. Or, of course, all three. This is because it stands for a meaning that transcends the boundaries of each one of these areas of life.
I don’t propose to give a simple Aristotelian definition of genus and specific difference, and leave it at that. Instead, I propose to go at the project as a process of enumerating the sorts of things that are commonly or distinctively found in conservatives. And, after that, to speak to a more formal definition. As I work down the list, the items included are gradually less definitive in exhibiting conservatism.
(1) Conservatives respect the past’s contribution to today. We conserve what is, insofar as it is good. We also give that (good) which is now, the benefit of the doubt over that (good) which might be in the future, all other things being equal: Conservatives resist change except for good reason.
(2) Conservatives respect tradition and custom, which is an aspect of what the past contributes to today. Customs hold positive obligations over us, even when they are not encoded in positive law.
(3) The conservative is grateful for the goods he has received from others. This starts with what he has received from God, what is in Nature, and what human nature consist in, and extends to all the good built up over the centuries by his forbearers.
(4) The religious conservative holds fast to the religious truth that has been held out to him by his forbearers as a gift.
(5) Religiously, the Christian conservative believes what the Apostles believed. This implies a commitment to the preservation of the Church and her teachings from the Apostles. The Christian conservative, therefore, not only reflects deeply upon the Bible, but also listens attentively to the immemorial teachings about that Bible handed to us in the Church. True novelty of meaning and interpretation are, therefore, considered with hesitation or suspicion.
(6) Conservatives believe in human nature as something definite, and “given” by God in the sense of fixed in all men. I.E., this nature is not capable of substantial modification by such things as sentiment, preference, culture, or knowledge.
(7) Conservatives believe in natural law, which follows from God, Nature, and human nature. The conservative believes in moral principles and norms that oblige all men, that exist objectively even when embodied imperfectly in human cultures.
(8) Conservatives believe that political society is natural to men, that “the political order” is an expression of man’s social nature and for his good. Conservatives resist the notion that politics arises originally from a purely pragmatic admission that a constant state of war that otherwise holds between men is worse. (For simplicity, I will below speak of “the political order” as roughly the equivalent of “the state”, though I recognize distinctions.)
(9) Conservatives recognize that though the state is good for man, the state is not man’s ultimate good, and that it is in many contexts more true that “the state exists for man’s good” than that “man exists for the good of the state”. This implies that there are limits to matters that fall within the state’s authority to govern.
(10) Politically, the conservative believes that in very many contexts, freedom from government control is the normal default condition, and that government regulation of a part of life that has not before been under government regulation requires specific justification more than a mere judgment that the state might achieve some good by so regulating.
(11) With regard to government authority as implied in 8, 9, and 10, the conservative typically need not be dogmatic about the concrete limits of government involvement in affairs: prudence and judgment in a culture and in specific conditions count for much (excepting the limits implied by absolute moral norms and human nature itself, from which political authority finds its wellspring.)
(12) The conservative is, within the limits indicated above, a strong proponent of respect and honor due to the state, and to its legitimate government, qualities beyond mere obedience to the laws. This respect and honor can be summed up under the name patriotism, and is a positive human virtue associated with the virtues of justice and religion. Properly understood, patriotism is not derogatory toward others’ societies.
(13) The conservative loves the communities close to him: his family, his neighborhood, his local church, his city, his place of work, and his school. The conservative resists diminution of these communities’ vibrancy and life through misplaced pursuit of “larger” solutions that controvert subsidiarity. The conservative is in the best sense parochial in attitude and behavior.
(14) Since each community in which we live maintains its life by a mutuality of giving and receiving that requires and implies conformity to a purpose held in common, the conservative insists on recognizing and maintaining communities by distinguishing who is part of the community and who is not, who is committed to the same identical common good and who is not. This starts as close-to-home as the family and continues to the school, business, the church, the city, and the state. Since the human person is physical as well as spiritual, his communities are often based on physical location. Hence the conservative insists on borders: “Good fences make good neighbors” applies politically and culturally as well as in neighborhoods.
(15) The conservative believes that just as the government cannot claim oversight and control of all aspects of life, so also the government cannot claim sole right to exercise force in defense of individuals and their property. As a result, personal right to use force in defense of life and property should not be made subject to a default presumption of criminality. In this time and place in America, this entails the right to bear arms.
(16) The conservative accepts that the state is one natural community, yet there are other natural communities, one of which is the family; and that the family is in a certain sense prior to the state. As a result, the family holds a special place of significance to the state, and is to be accorded official recognition as a communal entity by the state. The conservative holds that the parents have authority over children that is not given to them by the state or any other social entity, and cannot be taken away from them except in extraordinary contexts.
(17) The conservative Christian believes that God made a gift of the world to mankind, and that this implies that mankind has been granted authority to use the world especially for man’s benefit. He regards man’s energy and intelligence combined (i.e. creativity) as gifts that he is called upon to use to participate in God’s ongoing creation of good things.
(18) The conservative holds that generally he is rightly free (in the sense of Sirach 15:14, “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel”) to choose for himself the ways he will endeavor to bring benefit to mankind by applying himself to the resources at hand, taking into account certain social obligations and existing limits on those resources. Hence the conservative holds that the free production side of a free market is the normative default state of affairs, granting certain limits.
(19) Likewise, the conservative holds that when a man has applied himself to resources available to him and generated something good that others may want, he is rightly free to decide how to distribute the good so generated – if at all – again taking into account certain social obligations and existing limits. Thus, the conservative holds that the free distribution side of a free market is the normative default state of affairs, granting certain limits.
(20) However, due to sin, to local variation in resources (both natural and historical), to variation in men’s abilities, and to variations in customs, the conservative recognizes that an absolutely unrestrained marketplace will not best serve all of the needs of men, and thus men have other social obligations besides those of participating in a free market. These include constructing such constraints on the market as are needed to ensure that it remains free in the truest and most noble senses, a humanly ordered market, (for instance, promoting transparency and restraining fraud); and include extra-market activities to deal with needed distributions of goods that cannot be met by the free market unaided. The conservative does not believe that all social obligations can be the subject of the marketplace, nor ruled solely by the principles of exchange.
(21) The conservative generally approves men perceiving and interacting on the basis of mutual benefit with neighbors, including trade and many other types of organized interaction. The conservative does not think that the normative state of affairs is constant warfare with all others, nor is all-out competition ultimately achieving economic conquest. The Conservative prefers that men mostly endeavor to achieve a state of peaceful cooperation of mutual benefit with neighbors, and recognizes that extending this behavior to those far off in the distance is also a good, within certain limiting constraints. One such constraint is the obligation to respect those wholesome but diverse customs of those others with whom we trade or otherwise interact, and the fact that not all customs can be easily tolerated by every other culture. Another is the inherent limits of time and space: great distance is a rational reason to limit one’s trade and other social interactions with others (including charitable giving). Hence travel and foreign exchange are good, but not absolute goods that trump all others.
Let me now move to a list of the sub-types of conservatives that men speak of.
A. Paleo conservatives – emphasize family and local communities, support strong defense and reject foreign interventionism. They tend to be agnostic about specific economic policies, other than “getting government out of our business”.
B. Neo conservative – a form of conservatism given to the policy of low taxes allowing for stimulated economy, and moderately aggressive interventionism internationally to “build democracy”. Culturally, neos are more or less OK with government promoting traditional social mores, but stop short of allowing that promoting to take on a cast special to Christianity: they do not want government stepping on the toes of religious pluralism. In this they oppose traditional or reactionary conservatives.
C. Traditional conservatives – emphasize the transcendent order which infuses both the moral and political spheres with interlocking lines of loyalty, the distinction of competence and virtue in persons, and the need to order society in recognition of those distinctions: they typically argue in favor of a cultural and political order that, if not explicitly monarchical or aristocratic, tends in that direction. They exhibit a strong aversion to democratic modernity across many layers. They sometimes use the label “reactionary” without “conservative” added to it.
D. Economic conservatives – place their emphasis on the economic order, and often allow the conservative principles applicable to economics to be their delegates for what presumptive principles should be applied in other areas. “Free Market” principles thus may come to be used in education, in government, in religion, etc.
E. Social conservatives – support the strong cultural defense of traditional Christian morality, in accordance with the 10 Commandments, and if they don’t urge laws requiring such morality per se, at least they urge legal recognition of such morality as implicit in the social order and constituting an important layer of meaning for law. Other than supporting traditional morality, they want government to be minimalist, letting other social communities run their own spheres.
F. Burkean Conservatives – In the tradition of Edmund Burke, these are largely social or traditional conservatives who generally avoid dogmatic “solutions” to social problems, preferring to locate solutions that belong to one time and place. The Burkean is uncomfortable with the conservative who speaks of general principles of politics and social order, though he generally operates in ways that recognize such principles. The Burkean attitude carries into mainstream conservatism a deep distrust of utopianism, though tendencies of utopianism are found in some small degree in Neocons and Economic conservatives.
G. Crunchy Cons – associated first with Rod Dreher, the attitude in favor of good family order and economics, with “intentional” small communities, situated effectively in a largely plastic mental framework regarding anything outside those minute communities; this permits almost any other “ism” as long as it leaves the family whole. They are not clearly opposed to liberalism or libertarianism, and in fact many Crunchy Cons are rather libertarian in their economic outlook.
H. Fiscal Conservatives – want balanced budgets and little to no government debt, and usually want to shrink the size of government. They want to reduce government oversight of society. Other conservatives usually go along with these attitudes as general trends, but are not as dogmatic about it.
Conservatism can also be understood from the movements and thinking that are generally understood to oppose it.
Liberalism – holds that man’s individual autonomy is the foundational principle of man in society, and that human happiness arises in the conditions that recognize that autonomy as absolute in principle, limited in practice only to leave the autonomy of others intact. Liberalism more naturally aligns with denying any fixed human nature, though it also can be accounted as accepting an extremely limited “nature”, only to the extent of claiming for all men the autonomy to “be whatever I choose”. Liberalism proper ends up denying that God’s position over man has any normative bearing on man insofar as political authority goes, though many liberals don’t realize this and would be unwilling to say it explicitly. In practice, they are comfortable with effectively denying that “God said not to” can be a grounding for law, or even for custom. Liberals typically are moral subjectivists of one form or another.
Libertarianism – holds that man is not by nature ordered to a social good, and that he must retain his innate “freedom” (meaning lack of constraint) as much as possible in all matters to be happy. The Libertarian is usually a Liberal of some sort as well, though some few are not. Often they are closely allied with fiscal and economic conservatives, but often without underlying common principles.
Progressivism – holds that the ultimate good of men is to be sought and found here on earth and can be achieved by progressive change. They generally deny original sin, and typically deny any fixed human nature. Progressives are generally moral relativists.
Marxism – denies any fixed human nature and any supernatural facet to man, and holds that man can and must be molded to conform to a rationalized materialistic pigeon hole subservient to the good of the state.
Alt-Right: Although conservatism in America generally is associated with the Right, it is not exactly true to say that the Alt-Right is a branch of conservatism, as that movement attempts to distinguish itself from conservatism by an explicit effort to distance itself. The Alt-Right urges the position that conservatives have swallowed hook, line, and sinker the liberal tenet that whatever is decided democratically must be accepted politically. This is a misunderstanding of conservatism, but it helps the Alt-Right to claim distinction from conservatism. The Alt-Right resistance to the nonsense of democratic degeneracy (especially PC nonsense) often makes it look like the Alt-Right is closely aligned with Traditionalist Conservatism / Reactionary Conservatism, but in practice it is more anarchic than given to principled models of hierarchic authority. The Alt-Right has little regard for the traditional morality in any principled sense, seeing in tradition mainly a tool with which to oppose PC and progressivism.
From all this, we can attempt a sort of working definition of conservatism, if we mean by that the root concepts that inform the conservative as such. It should be a definition of “simple” conservatism, without hyphenation, recognizable to most conservatives.
Conservatism means that perspective about humans in society which recognizes inherent value in retaining such social forms and goods which already subsist in society (often implicitly), and which thus implies an ordering standard between goods that are and competing goods which do not yet exist. It is a recognition that man, being social by nature, cannot be truly happy in the absence of some stable social forms around which development of new good is more in the nature of organic growth than fundamental mutation, and thus the conservative is not at all opposed to the change of growth or perfection. Conservatism does not deny the possible need for such fundamental mutation in some cases, but rather sets a high evidential hurdle as a default against fundamental social mutation, in favor of stability. (It is important to note that this implicit inclination against fundamental social mutation is not opposed to Christian conversion, which Christian conservatives urge most strongly.) The conservative recognizes in many social orders sufficient good that it is conceivable to correct their failings and purify them of grave evils while leaving their core essence intact, and thus is quite willing to see various monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies continue apace. Conservatism is naturally opposed to relativism, including moral, religious, and philosophical; recognizing in the mind’s desire for truth an undeniable compass indicator that truth and moral right both exist independently of what a person thinks. Conservatism includes a commitment to some moral and philosophical absolutes.
As a result, in my opinion those Crunchy-cons, Neocons, and Economic cons who are quite comfortable with relativism – whether in morals or in philosophy – are more in the nature of ”fellow-travelers” with conservatives than actually being conservatives themselves. Reactionary conservatives who would overturn current democracy, not only because of its many modernist degeneracies, but in principle and in no matter what democratic form, are perhaps less properly conservative than they are reactionary, but they can work with other conservatives in regard to many basic moral principles applicable to social order. I think that conservatives generally would be well-advised to accept that many of their fellow conservatives, especially many of the above hyphenated-conservatives, may not have delved into the implicit principles behind their picture of the world, and may hold various conservative conclusions for reasons that are less compatible with the best conservative underpinnings. When they are viewed as allies, this is not a problem, and we should welcome working with them. When they purport to speak for conservatism, it can be a problem and often that should be contested - but not always, for the sake of greater good.
Conservatism is not really an ideology because it is neither a belief system per se nor a comprehensive social system. It is not a belief system because it does not take its foundational standards from belief but by reference to more basic truths that can be demonstrated or are self-evident. In contrast, progressivism for example is rooted in beliefs that could not be established firmly even in principle. Conservatism is rooted in an attitude of respect for that which we have received, for human nature, and for the divine order, which respect can be justified by truths which are capable of suitable accounting by reason.
And Conservatism is not a comprehensive system: it provides some starting points and a certain default setting about change, but it leaves available many different “systematic” solutions to social problems. It does not purport to set forth the best social or political arrangement for man worldwide. It is not utopian, and is not a faith system. Conservatism is not primarily a negative attitude (against things), it is primarily a positive attitude, for its primary focus is the good which we have received, and in respect of which we have some obligation.