What is Conservatism?

Since I can be described as both a Christian and a conservative, some clarity as to what exactly that means may be in order. Here I wish to concentrate mainly on the second term. Another article would be needed to define exactly what I mean by the ‘Christian’ tag.

I want to offer some simple introductory remarks about what the conservative disposition is all about. Given that there is much confusion on this topic, it needs to be addressed in a bit more detail. Indeed, some people have told me that conservatism somehow has something to do with Hitler and the Nazis.

Never mind that what we had there was a ‘National Socialist’ party. But plenty of other types of confusion abound here, so teasing these matters out can be a worthwhile exercise. There would be different types of conservatism for example. What I am primarily referring to here is what has been called Burkean conservatism.

Thus it is not a type of libertarianism, which in its extreme forms can become indistinguishable from leftist anarchism. It instead looks at the importance of social order, transcendent morality, and the recognition of our fallen condition.

There would be a number of examples of this which could be appealed to here. Let me focus on one individual. A leading American conservative thinker of recent times was Russell Kirk (1918-1994). He wrote dozens of volumes highlighting the conservative temperament and what it means in modern society.

In his important 1953 volume, The Conservative Mind, he listed six principles which characterise conservatism. I offer here a slightly abridged version of these six features as found in the 1986 (seventh revised) edition of his valuable work:

One. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.

Two. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.

Three. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’ With reason, conservatives often have been called ‘the party of order’.

Four. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

Five. Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

Six. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.

He goes on to list some features of radicalism, including the belief in the perfectibility of man and the inevitable progress of society; contempt for custom and tradition; and an emphasis on economic levelling. When all is said and done, says Kirk, a radical “is a neoterist, in love with change”.

What Kirk demonstrates here is that the rift between conservatism and radicalism is not just on minor social or political points, but amounts to an all-out war of worldviews. These are competing ideologies and ways of looking at life. In many respects they are mutually exclusive.

Others have written about these contrasting and competing worldviews. Thomas Sowell for example has spoken much about this theme, and I have described how he delineates this ideological battle elsewhere, eg.:
Please have a read of that piece along with this one to get a fuller picture of what I am talking about.

So what is the Christian connection here? I think no one political ideology or party can ever claim exclusive allegiance to or representation of biblical Christianity. But on the whole it seems that some of the features of the conservative disposition more closely align with Biblical emphases than do the radical ones. (Again, I have written numerous articles seeking to explain this in more detail.)

In fact, there has been a long-standing correlation with Christianity and conservatism, in the sense that both speak to common themes and values. Kirk could say for example that Western Civilisation and Christianity are “unimaginable apart from one another”.

Indeed, much of the story of the West is the story of Christendom. The many great freedoms and social goods of the West are part and parcel of the West’s Christian heritage. But the radicals seek to jettison or overthrow both. They tend to dislike equally Christianity and the West.

Thus for example we find the rather odd alliance between the secular left and radical Islam. They may not really like each other, but they seem united in their hatred of the free West. Thus the radicals are forever advocating change, while the conservatives are shouting, ‘not so fast!’

The conservative credo can in part be summed up with the phrase, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”. While change has its place, and there is nothing virtuous about absolutely maintaining the status quo, history tells us one thing quite clearly: radical changes usually result in much worse outcomes.

However bad things may have been in the older regimes, the revolutions which have toppled them have generally resulted in much worse scenarios. The French and Russian Revolutions are classic cases in point. Indeed, add the sexual revolution of the sixties as another prime example.

Radical change may seem to be vitally imperative, but sometimes slow and steady reform is much preferable to radical and rapid social change. Again, that is not to baptise the status quo, and shun all change. Change is often necessary, if done carefully, wisely, and prudently. Indeed, ‘prudence’ is another key term in the conservative vocabulary.

Because conservatives take seriously the biblical description of fallen man, they are loath to engage in radical social experimentation without good cause. And they are especially loath to hand power over to the state, or to a cabal of elites who think they know better than the masses.

The secular radicals are in many ways the complete antithesis to religious conservatives. And these two groups comprise the major contestants in the explosive culture wars we now find ourselves in. On the one side are the secular humanists, bent on remaking man and society in their own image. On the other side are those of the Judeo-Christian tradition who see much good in the existing order, despite all its imperfections.

They are rightly concerned about abandoning a known good – even if laden with shortcomings – and having it replaced with some radical social experiment which may be far more unwelcome in the long run. In the light of the current Australian election, this bigger picture scenario may help us to see what the current political battle entails.

A Labor-Green victory will certainly see further expression of the radical impulse. A Liberal-National win will hopefully see the conservative vision maintained, at least for the short term.

[1159 words]

24 Replies to “What is Conservatism?”

  1. Thanks Bill.
    A good essay with some salient points about conservatism as opposed to revolutionary radicalism.
    However, there is one crucial point not emphasised: conservatism in regard to politics stresses limitations of power, checks and balances, and limitations of role. The state has no power to invade people’s homes and tell them, e.g. how to discipline their children, what level of electrical power they can use, what type of light bulbs they have in their sockets, what kinds of food they can and can’t eat, and so on. Yet all these things are either in place or fervently agitated for by our modern totalitarians. On the contrary, apart from suspicion of a serious crime (for which a warrant is needed), the jurisdiction of the state ends at the front gate.

    The state has no role in a whole range of activities, which are often quite expensive. It is not to be e.g. an arts or sports entrepreneur, a patron of the automotive industry or a whole range of other industries – just to name a few. Rather, its role is to control crime and to be a terror to the evildoer, and to promote the common good. See Rom.13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14. yet we see billiions of dollars being spent on these sorts of enterprises (sports and entertainments), and a de-emphasis on the proper role of government, even to the privatisation of prisons!

    Another point concerns the rule of law and the importance of constitutions and systems of law. Modern leftists believe that a constitution is a “living and evolving document”; hence the original meaning can be set aside without a flutter of an eyelid. This is outrageous! It means that these statist totalitarians can remake a constitution in their own image, according to their own whims. Likewise, we can see elsewhere how the rule of law is set aside when it fails to suit the statists, e.g. in the asylum seeker issue. The conservative, by contrast, believes in the rule of law and the original meaning of the Constitution.

    Murray R Adamthwaite

  2. Hi Bill,

    You say “I think no one political ideological or party can ever claim exclusive allegiance to or representation of biblical Christianity.”

    Do you mean only that in practise it is not possible to create a perfectly Biblical society anywhere on Earth because man is fallen?

    Or, do you mean that it will never be possible to develop even a perfectly consistent Biblical political theory; because man’s intellect also is fallen?

    Or, do you mean that the fall somehow has made it impossible for a perfectly consistent Biblical political theory to exist even in principle?


    Mansel Rogerson

  3. Thanks Mansel

    I probably had the first of your three options in mind when I said that. Indeed, I am just now writing an article on utopianism, in which I will flesh this thesis out in more detail. So stay tuned.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Well said Bill.

    There are the radicals of the left urging revolution and we also ought to be aware of those socialist seeking incremental change bit by bit, vis the Fabian Society. I think they have made significant progress.

    Their coat of arms is a sheep in wolf’s clothing!! Many of our politicians have been involved.

    Greg Cadman

  5. Bill, I am really pleased to see your brief outline of conservatism. It is necessary at this time because many conservatives appear unclear about how philosophical conservatism differs from a rationalist political theory. Some of your readers might be interested in a short piece I wrote about R.G. Menzies: Was the founder of the Liberal Party a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’?
    Gerard Wilson

  6. Many thanks Gerard

    A very good article indeed, and a very helpful website by the look of it. I will have to give it a closer look soon.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Bill,

    I know many Christians of a ‘liberal’ bent (not in terms of theology, but in terms of political and social persuasion) and out of the points you have outlined above this one will cause them most revolt.

    “Three. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’ With reason, conservatives often have been called ‘the party of order’.”

    I think that further elaboration of this point is needed. Indeed, even I find this statement to be somewhat problematic if left unqualified, and I am someone who has shifted from a liberal to a conservative perspective over the last 10 years.

    Jereth Kok

  8. Thanks Jereth

    Ah, but you just want me to write another article! I cannot really properly spell out my response for you here in a short comment. So I will have to add it to my list of forthcoming articles! But first let me finish the piece I am just now working on – the third for today – on utopianism.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. “radical changes usually result in much worse outcomes.” My definition of political revolution: A usually-bloody event in which a bad regime is replaced by a very bad one. Most of the evils that rule our (Western) world, today, can be traced back to the French Revolution, or the (18th century French) philosophies and ideas that inspired it (the “Humanist” world-view, etc.).
    John Thomas, UK

  10. You have been very prolific of late Bill!

    There’s so much to respond to here, but just a quick point elaborating on what you said at the beginning of this article about false comparisons between conservatism and Nazism. Anyone who believes this to be the case is sadly ignorant of political history and political philosophy.

    On most counts, conservatism is completely inimical to Nazism. Whereas conservatism values incremental change (being distrustful of wild and sometimes deleterious reform, as you correctly point out), the philosophical energy animating Nazism vigrorously supports the complete and unbridled transformation and radical re-orientation of society and man’s nature in the service of totalitarian goals (indeed, within Nazi “philosophy”, man’s nature can only ever be fully realized in a totalistic system).

    And whereas conservatism values the inherent mystery and diversity of human experience (which you highlight), that pillar must be contrasted starkly with the totalising zeal of Nazism, which wipes away all variety, and therefore all freedom of thought and action.

    Much more could be said, but what you have written amply demonstrates the very different philosophical roots of Nazism and conservatism. Anyone who begs to differ doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

    A great article!!

    Scott Buchanan

  11. Thanks Scott

    Yes quite right, the Nazis can hardly be labelled as conservatives. For a full length treatment on this, see Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2007). He carefully documents how Hitler and the Nazis were clearly of the left. For example, Hitler “despised the bourgeoisie, traditionalists, aristocrats, monarchists, and all believers in the established order”. The Nazis were in favour of “the expropriation of land without compensation, the nationalization of industry, the abolition of market-based lending” among other things – hardly right-wing activities.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. A good quote to add to Murray R Adamthwaite’s contribution:
    In one of his famous speeches in the House of Commons in 1763, William Pitt declared: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. His cottage may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter. All his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”
    Without property rights there can be no freedom. Freedom and prosperity go hand in hand. These are essential elements of conservatism.
    Bob Day

  13. Glad to see that Kirk appealed to the metaphysical grounding of conservatism. The Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition that underwrites natural law and conservatism is far too neglected by conservatives today.
    Damien Spillane

  14. I like that quote, Bob. I’ll have to think about that.

    Just wondering, is it possible to be too conservative? Or are the people labelled as conservative something else? I’m talking of the way the media labels some Christians as “ultra conservative”; are these people really conservative, or is the term not being used correctly? I hope I don’t confuse you as much as I just confused myself…

    Christie Ewens

  15. Thanks Christie

    It may well be possible to be too conservative, depending on what is meant by that. But bear in mind that the mainstream media is for the most part well to the left on most issues. Thus anyone to their right they tend to denigrate as “ultra-conservative”. So beware the inaccurate and politically correct labelling of a very biased media.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Forget “conservatism,” please. It has, operationally, de facto, been Godless and thus irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:?

    ?”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It .is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”??

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    ?John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican

  17. Thanks John

    But in your continuing bitterness over Republicans/conservatives in the US, you throw the baby out with the bath water. In my first line I mention both Christianity and conservatism, and it is quite clear that conservatives like Kirk also reject purely secular conservatism.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. Bill, I think this article would be more accurately titled “What is American Conservatism?”. The term has many different meanings and branches and the conservatism you describe is somewhat peculiar to America, as demonstrated in your reliance on the views of Russell Kirk. The term has rather different connotations in Australia and Europe where the connection you make with biblical notions of fallen man is almost non-existent.

    I also can’t agree with your suggestion that revolutions generally produce worse results. What of the American Revolution? And surely the French Revolution with its toppling of notions of nobility and aristocratic privilege was an inevitable and worthwhile outcome without which France might not have become a significant unified power? Protestantism and the Reformation might also be seen as revolutions against aristocratic authority.

    Modern Western political ideologies, while they may pay lip service to traditional left/right differences, in practice converge on a common centrist view that combines ideas from both camps, i.e. a capitalist economy with strong concessions to protect the weak and the vulnerable. I’m not convinced that the old ideas of an ongoing conflict between liberal conservatism and radicalism reflect the reality of today’s world.

    Ray Williams, Sydney

  19. Thanks Raymond

    I take it you have not read Kirk, who can hardly be accused of being parochial. Indeed, the subtitle of the volume I noted is “From Burke to Eliot”. I of course did not claim to be writing an exhaustive analysis of conservatism worldwide. And I did not say all revolutions were bad. And many careful studies have noted the major differences between the American Revolution and the French and Russian Revolutions. I certainly am not with you on the French Revolution, its main contribution being the Reign of Terror. And I am not aware of any objective scholarship putting the Reformation in the same category as the radical bloody revolutions just mentioned. And the conservative/radical paradigm, while not perfect, still seems to offer plenty of significant explanatory power for the West today and the culture and worldview wars being fought there. As I say, see some of the many volumes by Thomas Sowell on all this, for starters.

    But it may be that we will have to agree to disagree on just about everything here!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. Are you kidding, Bill? Kirk WAS, operationally, de facto, a “secular conservative.” He had no Christian/Biblical view of civil government and attacked those who did, men such as Dr. RJ Rushdoony. I remember well a talk of his at the “Heritage Foundation” in which Kirk warned of the “dangers” of trying to construct a Christian society. In any event, the modern conservative movement, because it was and is Godless, is dead. And not a moment too soon.

    ?John Lofton, Editor, http://TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican

  21. Thanks John

    But having some concerns about how Christian Reconstructionism and democracy can peacefully coexist does not render one a secularist. Indeed, I have some queries about all this as well, but readers would be hard pressed to describe me as a secularist, or someone on the Anti-Christ’s side.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  22. Christians, Bill, I believe, should be trying to, FIRST, build a CHRISTIAN society, according to God’s Word; they should be putting Christ FIRST and not “conservatism” or any other man-made “ism.” T.S. Elliot wrote about this in “The Idea Of A Christian Society”, an idea Elliot did not believe “dangerous” as Kirk did.I’d be interested to hear your analysis of why the modern conservative movement has been a failure.

    John Lofton, Editor, http://TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican

  23. Thanks John

    I have said dozens of times on this site that Christianity transcends all ideologies and isms. None can claim to be the one Christian option. But in a fallen world, some places along the political spectrum may be closer to biblical concerns than others.

    And who says conservatism has been a failure? Sure, it will never fully succeed, since no earthly system in a fallen world can ever fully or finally succeed. All we can hope for is to work for Christian principles and values, and seek God’s help as we work toward those aims. We are called to be salt and light in this needy world, and that I shall continue to try to do and be.

    But we may simply have to agree to disagree here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  24. I have researched homosexuality for many years. The culture is freely chosen, no genetic scientific research has established or identified the so called “gay gene”!! (A word that originally meant happiness has been degraded to those that practice this obscene, extremely dangerous lifestyle! A culture that is supported and promoted by the Greens Party, the ALP and most of the Liberal party as an alternate lifestyle! Simply sickening!! My website is http://www.australianspirit.info and if you visit this site, you will fine several volumes with regard to homosexual diseases, psychology, physical behaviour and paedophilia!

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