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.