Being conservative can mean many different things. One could be conservative with the environment, advocating for its protection, or someone could be conservative with their approach to government power. At the heart of all conservatism is the veneration of tradition and existing order while being skeptical of drastic change.
What does conservatism mean in the American context? Very simply, it means the protection of the values that have created and made the United States the great country it is today. Conservatism in America is closely tied to a few things: Christianity, small government, freedom and duty.
Christianity is the backbone of this nation and conservatism. The founders created this nation for a moral and religious people. When setting up the government, the founders understood that there can never be utopia. This is the first block of conservatism.
James Madison said it best in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Madison understood in the Christian perspective that man is flawed and prone to the abuse of power. Because of this, we must set up a government that is limited in size and scope.
Being a conservative also means the prescription of Judeo-Christian values. Conservatives believe there is an objective moral reality that was instilled by God. Morality has been the same for all of history and is rooted in what God has explained to us in the Bible. Goodness, truth and reality is eternal and human nature is constant. What is right and what is wrong is the same today as it was for Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc and Aristotle. For example, murder was evil in 1500 B.C. and is evil in 2022 and will be evil for all of time.
It is only through God that the true meaning of life can be revealed. This once again means that a government’s job is to be limited and in its proper position. Government will not and should not be where we find meaning in life. Government should get out of the way of the family, church, and community. These are the areas of life where we find true meaning.
Then what is the government’s role? To protect life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and property. Government was instilled upon men to protect their rights. These rights are not given by government. Rather, these rights were instituted by God to all of humanity.
Our rights presuppose the existence of government. These rights are also explicitly negative (as opposed to the view of positive rights). Our rights are not things to be given but rather things that cannot be taken from us. For example, this is our right to speech, to assembly or to religion. The government has the duty to protect these from infringement.
A conservative is also skeptical of change. Roger Scruton, a highly influential conservative philosopher of the 20th century, said it best: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” History doesn’t bend toward justice but rather always has the threat of evil.
What we have today and the freedom we enjoy can very easily be taken away by a few evil humans. Just look at the history of the 20th century for the extent that this is possible. Conservatism therefore abhors all levels of radicalism. Whether that be Fascism, Nazism or Communism, every form of radicalism is dangerous. There is great good and wisdom in tradition.
Conservatism allows for change; however, it must be slow progress that doesn’t undermine societal order. Once again, everything good is easily destroyed. The collective wisdom of our forefathers should be venerated. Prudence is therefore essential for a conservative.
The final idea that is important to a conservative is duty. Freedom is incredibly important, but not more than the duty and responsibility that comes with it. You can be free to do whatever you may choose, but conservatism reminds us that this doesn’t mean we ought to do whatever we desire.
Conservatism, as opposed to progressive humanism, understands that man’s ultimate meaning is outside of himself. This means that we have responsibility outside of ourselves. This is a duty toward our family, community, church etc. This duty transcends our own well-being and desires. What is right isn’t always what we desire or want.
A conservative understands that it may feel better to stay inside and play video games all day when it snows, but she has a responsibility or even the obligation to shovel her elderly neighbor’s driveway. This is because life’s ultimate meaning is not found within our own desires but through God, community and family.
Conservatism is complex and I have only scratched the surface. I hope I have done it justice.