By Andrew Petiprin
In 1953 Russell Kirk published his famous manifesto The Conservative Mind, which offered a narrative account of a movement that contrasts with post-Enlightenment progressivism. From its beginning, conservatism has been against things and for things. It is not an inexplicable series of reactions. It is neither standing still nor walking backward. Some changes are intolerable, but many changes are desirable, provided that they are the right kind. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.” But how do we know where we are?
Kirk proposed six canons of conservative thought to lay atop a centuries-long literary and philosophical project, and the first was “belief in a transcendent order.” Political conservatives do not necessarily have to be Christians — see William F. Buckley’s heavy inclusion of Jews in National Review, and the role of Mormons in the conservative moment today — but the overlap with many Christians is predictably large. The gospel of Jesus Christ is inseparable from “belief in a transcendent order.” A particularly Christian conservation project emanates from there, and it takes place across denominational lines.
The common mind of conservative Christians is not mere grouchiness, but rather a desire to protect and hand down what they have received. Conservative Christians think this legacy delivers the goods for a better individual life and a better society than its alternatives. But this identity has been forgotten (or never learned) by many who identify as conservative Christians, leaving those of a different persuasion with a caricature instead of an accurate portrait. Sadly, some conservative Christians are content to be the caricature, at times even wallowing in the misperceptions of those who see faith and culture differently. This is a mistake that serves neither the Church nor society well. The pairing of conservatism and Christianity therefore needs rehabilitation.
In the spirit of Kirk’s famous canons, here are six truths that have traditionally occupied a conservative Christian mind. To see the relevance of this exercise, each is paired with current social or political concerns.
1. God is God. We are not.
The Apostles’ and Nicene creeds insist upon this fact from their opening lines. The Church’s explicit “I believe in God” displaces the culture’s implicit “I believe in me.” The opening words of the Bible teach the same: “In the beginning, God.” St. Paul reminds the Corinthians and us, “You are not your own.” In contrast, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s chilling opinion from Planned Parenthood v. Casey epitomizes the modern West’s transgression of this principle: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In fact, this right instead encourages a person to languish in the misery of self-construction, always chasing a false god of personal fulfillment. A culture, not to mention churches, that do not bat an eye at multiple divorces and remarriages take us further away from the right ordering of God and humanity
2. The world is good.
Dualism is an attractive narrative with an ancient pedigree. But it is wrong, and Christians, as well as secular people, have often misunderstood. The devil is real and demons are real, but they’re losers. Sin is devastating, but forgiveness is far greater. God’s truth, beauty, and goodness are indomitable and accessible here and now. Life is enjoyable, and conservative Christians enjoy it. When this principle is ignored, a porn addict, or a person with gender dysphoria, or even a kid who cheated on his history test is treated as a hopeless wretch, instead of a beloved one. In this way, progressives are right to call out Christians who ignore this principle for their “hate.” Of course, the progressive view of “love” (see principle 5) is equally misapplied.
3. The world is broken and we can’t fix it.
In the Bible, God often restores his people; but even the greatest dreams come true eventually turn into nightmares. Christ’s return as king and judge is the only final remedy we know. Fear of the stranger is a result of the Fall, and only the grace of God at work in the hearts of the faithful over time can heal divisions among peoples and nations. Racial reconciliation is a long game, and may never be fully won this side of eternity. For now, much human striving is valuable salvage work; but some of it may be foolhardy, sinking people with their treasure before they ever get to shore.
4. History has no sides.
Various projects antagonistic to the gospel have been enshrined in law and custom; but things can just as easily go otherwise. As T.S. Eliot said, “There is no such thing as a lost cause, because there is no such thing as a gained cause.” Many things change, and some things change back. Take same-sex marriage, which is proving to be the great crossing over the Jordan moment (for now) in American culture. Conservative Christians’ experience of cultural and political defeat should not necessarily inspire deeper consternation. If Christians truly love those who are same-sex attracted, their best bet is to celebrate the sanctity of chaste friendships, and to highlight the value of celibacy as a gift, not a punishment. The instinct of a conservative Christian should usually be much closer to sublimating disorder than condemning it. And if by refusing to toe the line on “marriage equality” Christians are made to feel like persecuted bigots in this age, let no one forget that Jesus said it would be this way.
5. Moral limits are for the sake of human flourishing.
The Bible and tradition depict reality as distinct from myriad false alternatives. The saints put human faces on this principle. A good life is the result of constant vigilance against many things that make a person less than fully human. Accordingly, progressives cannot have exclusive use of the word love. God is love, and a conservative understands that God knows each of us better than we know ourselves. Christians desire God’s best for others (the very definition of love, according to Thomas Aquinas), and they set examples of sacrificial living. They oppose abortion because they champion the fully realized lives of women and babies. They favor preserving whole families and communities from the guilt and shame of killing their most vulnerable members. After all, why turn heartbreaking situations into diabolical ones?
6. The scope for improvement is limited, and the task is great.
Conservative Christians do not expect to see lions and lambs lie down together very often in this age, but they do believe God uses ordinary creatures to do his will. Conservative Christians start close to home — in the home, in fact — and they broaden the mission of God only on the strength and orderliness of what is nearest to them. In Christ, the family is not the state, but it is an expansive identity with many members possessing different types and quantities of gifts. Accordingly, they respond to the needs of others in various ways. We can debate the merits of a “war on poverty,” but helping specific poor people is both one’s duty and one’s joy.
Variations of these six principles are infused into the work of Christian thinkers from St. Augustine and Martin Luther to Pope Benedict XVI and Tim Keller. Self-designated conservative Christians ought to ask themselves if the edifice of their faith is built on the foundation of principles like these. And the culture ought to have a template for evaluating Christian objections to today’s progressive agenda. Conservatism among Christians, properly defined, is venerable and useful. It is time to talk about that.