Conservatism, as a political and moral philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition, has a long history that is usually traced back to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke, the Irish-born philosopher and politician, was not against all change. He generally supported the American colonies, seeing American independence not as a revolution but as an exercise in British citizens directing their own affairs instead of being mismanaged from afar.
The French Revolution, however, was another matter. Burke thought it folly for the French to think they could start over as a people or that human nature could be made anew. Burke thought people were guided by passions and sentiments more than by reason. He feared that if you strip away everything you know, something worse and more tyrannical will take its place. For Burke, we are born into the world with a civilizational inheritance to maintain, whether we like it not, much like parents are obliged to care for their children, and children are obliged to obey their parents. Burke insisted that Britain should be grateful for the habits, institutions, and principles that gave them unrivaled freedom and prosperity, and that this cultural heritage ought to be conserved rather than violently overthrown (for more on Burke, see Yuval Levin’s excellent book The Great Debate).
This is not the place to sketch out the history of conservatism, but suffice it to say it has been, like every other earthly ism, a diverse and imperfect tradition, including (in broad strokes): politicians like Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher in England and Calvin Coolidge, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan in America; authors like Whitaker Chambers, Henry Jaffa, George Santayana, Richard Weaver, and Roger Scruton; economic theorists like Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman. In its American form, conservatism has counted groups as varied as classical liberals, early Federalists, and southern agrarians among its intellectual heroes. In its more recent form, conservatism became mainstream with the rise of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the launch of National Review in 1955.
What’s the Point?
I’m not writing about conservatism because I think the Christian religion requires a conservative political philosophy, let alone because I think the two are identical. And yet, there are good reasons for Christians to know more about conservatism than they do.
(1) For starters, most white Christians in America think of themselves as conservatives, but I imagine few have read much, if anything, from the centuries-old conservative tradition.
(2) It has often been assumed that Trump and conservatism are the same thing, or that Republican policies and conservatism are the same thing, or that conservatism is the same as a disdain for the elite nexus of Hollywood, the media, and the academy.
(3) Conservatism, without any definition, is often invoked as an explanation for someone’s political views. This happens from the right (“but I’m a conservative”) and from the left (“you are too beholden to your conservatism”). In both claims, the moniker “conservative” is little more than an ideological label that quickly identifies someone’s views as obviously trustworthy or obviously hijacked.
(4) While I’ve argued before that Christian pastors and ministry leaders would be wise to provide less in the way of political punditry, this does not mean Christian theology and political philosophy have nothing to do with each other. If we can talk on the level of moral philosophy and anthropological assumptions and political first principles (away from the constant clamor of the 24-hour news cycle and polarization of national elections) we may be able to have a more meaningful conversation. If nothing else, the conversation will be deeper and richer and (likely) wiser for reading and evaluating the most important thinkers in the conservative tradition of the last two centuries rather than just listening to the loudest voices who claim to speak for conservatism today.
Concise Guide to Conservatism
With that last point in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at one answer to the question posed in the title of this post. If someone wants a short, straightforward, and seminal exploration of conservatism he can do no better than to read Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism (Regnery Gateway, 2019). Originally published in 1957 as The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (a jab at George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Women’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism), the Concise Guide is much more accessible than Kirk’s larger work (a revised dissertation of all things!) The Conservative Mind (1953).
Kirk was born in 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan (now a suburb of Detroit) and went on to earn degrees from Michigan State, Duke, and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. After teaching for several years at his alma mater, Kirk left Michigan State in 1959 and returned to his ancestral home in Mecosta, a rural community an hour north of Grand Rapids. In 1963, Kirk converted to Catholicism and married Annette Courtemanche. Together they had four children and often welcomed guests, literary figures, refugees, and vagrants to “Piety Hill” (their country home). Through his teaching, his writing, and his involvement in the leading conservative journals of the day, Kirk gained the reputation as a key theorist, moralist, historian, novelist, and philosopher of post-war conservatism. Russell Kirk, lauded by his friends as “the benevolent sage of Mecosta,” died in 1994.
In the Concise Guide, Kirk lays out ten characteristics of conservative thought.
- “Men and nations are governed by moral laws; and those laws have their origin in a wisdom that is more than human—in divine justice” (2). Kirk made clear that “Christianity prescribes no especial form of politics” (9). At the same time, he believed that conservatism was built on a religious foundation and that religion in the modern world was largely defended by conservative people (9). “The conservative believes that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (10)
- “Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization. Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence” (2-3). In rejecting absolute equality, Kirk did not mean equal treatment under the law, but an equal outcome enforced by the state.
- “Justice means that every man and every woman have the right to what is their own—to the things best suited to their own nature, to the rewards of their ability and integrity, to their property, and their personality” (3). Society, said Kirk, is a partnership in which all have equal rights but not all have equal things.
- “Property and freedom are inseparably connected: economic leveling is not economic progress” (3). Kirk argues that the three fundamental rights in the Anglo-American tradition have been life, liberty, and property (what Thomas Jefferson described more expansively as “the pursuit of happiness”). If there were no private property, we would not all be rich together; we would all be poor together (56-57). Private property is not only a good in itself; it is also a means to culture and freedom. The role of the state is to protect man’s property, not to allocate it. For his part, the virtuous citizen understands that property comes with duties, and by our property and possessions we ought to serve God and serve our fellow men (60).
- “Power is full of danger; therefore, the good state is one in which power is checked and balanced, restricted by sound constitutions and customs” (3-4). Kirk is not anti-authority, nor even anti-government. He considers government “a necessary good” provided it is just, balanced, and restricted. Men with power cannot be trusted, so ambition must be made to counteract ambition.
- “The past is a great storehouse of wisdom; as Burke said, ‘The individual is foolish, but the species is wise’” (4). The conservative knows he was not born yesterday. He is eager to listen to the “democracy of the dead.” The conservative does not idealize the past, but he believes that we will be wiser if we listen to the wise men and women of the past.
- “Modern society urgently needs true community: and true community is a world away from collectivism” (4). Conservatives are public-spirited. They believe in doing one’s duty to town and country, to his business and to his church, to his school and to his union, to his civic association and to his charitable fund (44). In genuine community, decisions are made locally wherever possible, and philanthropy and neighborliness are voluntary virtues.
- “In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image” (5). Kirk is less interested in a specific foreign policy than in a general inclination that urges America to be virtuous, without necessarily being interventionist.
- “Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions. We cannot make heaven on earth, though we may make a hell” (5). Human nature is not malleable. We must deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be. This means, as Kirk says elsewhere, “politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the ideal.”
- “Change and reform, conservatives are convinced, are not identical: moral and political innovation can be destructive as well as beneficial” (5-6). The conservative does not believe in change for the sake of change. He is not eager for revolution. He does not believe in the abstract cult of progress. When in doubt, permanence should be favored over progress. Choose what is old and tried, even if it is imperfect, before what is new untried. Conservatives prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.
Kirk was writing in the 1950s so the great enemy, as he saw it, was collectivism and totalitarianism. Like many conservatives, he did not see the injustices in his country as well as the injustices in other countries. In general, the conservative movement since World War II has been proven right on the issues of communism and socialism but has often been proven slow (or wrong) on the issue of race. Of Kirk’s ten points, I’d say 1 is undeniably Christian and 4, 5, 6, and 9 can be drawn from Christian principles, but they are certainly not the last word on moral philosophy or a Christian approach to society and politics. As I said earlier, I do not offer this summary of conservatism because I think it should become a confessional standard for Christians. Perish the thought! We have an inerrant Bible, not to mention our own dogmatic tradition. But I do believe Kirk’s definition of conservatism (or something like it) is worth our careful consideration, not least of all from those Christians who call themselves conservatives.