Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Does It Mean to Be a Conservative?

I have to admit that one reason I like this label more and more is that mainstream, modern, Western liberals despise it! If the people who think that the sexual revolution is “progress” hate it so much, then there must be something to it.

A conservative loves family, the land, hard work, stability, community, self-sacrifice, nature and tradition. A conservative prefers family and local community self-reliance, rather than dependence on centralized government. A conservative may have to live in the city, but knows that there is something stiflingly artificial about city life, whereas liberals find small town life stiflingly artificial and city life liberating. Why? It makes sense that those who live by the creed of Individualism would be drawn to the anonymity of urban life. Wendell Berry is a conservative. The Amish are conservatives. His Mennonite background makes Yoder conservative in many ways as well. Most farmers are conservatives and much of the industrial working class finds conservatism congenial.

Conservatives are suspicious of all large concentrations of power including multinational corporations with interlocking board of directors, the modern bureaucratic nation state and their particularly reprehensible progeny, the military-industrial complex. The division of powers is a principle that has made the West great; from the Dark Ages to the 19th century political and religious power never was concentrated in one set of hands, although there were many close calls. In all the world empires that preceded Western civilization, religious political and economic power was all vested in one set of hands – the King or Emperor. This was true in the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Greco-Roman empires and the exception was Israel, a major contributor to Western culture. Because of the division of political from religious power, there has always been a push and pull between the Emperor and the Pope in the West. In modernity, a diversified capitalism, constitutional monarchies and republics with built in division of powers have been the ways in which power has been dispersed among many centers.

But coming out of the Enlightenment have been two great secular religions that aim to replace Christianity and to reverse this historical trend. Socialism makes the State all powerful and makes the Party the custodian of all power. Monopolistic capitalism has a tendency toward concentrating all power in a few hands as large corporations become so powerful that even governments lose the ability to challenge them. A conservative opposes the one as strongly as the other.

It is a fluke of contemporary history that has led to a situation in which people naturally assume that all conservatives are naïve about capitalism, support capitalism over socialism and think that the market is so godlike as not to require democratic supervision. Neoconservatives may be pro-capitalist, but genuine conservatives realize that allowing all political power to fall into the hands of an economic oligarchy is just as bad as allowing all economic power to fall into the hands of a political oligarchy. Both ways the result is the undue concentration of power in too few hands and the outcome is tyranny. Conservatives think that government should do all it can do to encourage as many small business as possible and to defend the family farm against agribusiness. Small scale capitalism that allows for actual competition and diversity of ownership is good. Monopolies and multi-national corporations are not the same thing on larger scale but something else entirely.

Real conservatism does not merely cling to whatever traditions happen to exist or supporting the ruling elite of a given society. In fact, conservatives today oppose the ruling elites of Western culture for the most part and oppose contemporary traditions that are the result of the modern subversion of older Western traditions. Real conservatism is rooted in Christian Faith and particularly in two doctrines that St. Augustine articulated with profound truth 1600 years ago.

The first is Augustine’s teaching that we live in the saeculum, the time between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ and the second is his teaching that we humans are fallen creatures dominated by our lusts. On these two doctrines rests true conservatism.

With the general decline of belief in God, immortality and the soul in the West since the Enlightenment, there has been a trend toward re-defining salvation in immanent terms and ignoring (if not denying) transcendence. Salvation must be achieved in history or it is irrelevant according to modernity. Sin is re-defined as subsisting in unjust social systems rather than within the hearts of individuals. This then leads to the embracing of utopian projects of perfecting man by perfecting social structures and the results in modernity have been a string of total disasters from the French Revolution to Western Imperialism to Nazi Germany to the Gulag to the Cultural Revolution. Conservatives wonder how anyone can be anything but a conservative after the 20th century.

Augustine speaks for the Church in teaching that man cannot achieve salvation here in this life and that the problem is within us as individuals, not in social structures and systems. Of course the structures are imperfect too, but that is because everything built by human hands is imperfect. By distinguishing between the city of God and the city of man and by locating the city of God in an eschatological future that will only be realized after the return of Christ and the Last Judgment, he instructs us in the humility necessary to avoid the kind of hubris that has become destructive in modernity. The Church is real and visible, but imperfect. It signifies the city of God but the heavenly city has yet to be realized on earth and will not be fully realized by human striving apart from Divine intervention. This makes us suspicious of all utopianism and inclines us toward a kind of "Hippocratic Oath for politics" in which our first concern is to do no harm. We conserve whatever measure of peace, stability and justice we already have as a matter of first priority. Then we work incrementally and humbly at specific problems one at a time, rather than embracing grandiose utopian schemes.

Not all conservatives are Christians, but all conservatives accept these two Christian doctrines and order their lives accordingly.

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