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Conservative or Christian?

Written By
William O. Einwechter

Political conservatism is often considered the natural avenue for the expression of the Christian principles of politics and civil government. It is the common understanding of the media and of the political parties that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who are active in politics are “conservatives.” In fact, this is the comprehension of most Christians on both the left and the right. The religious right is perceived as an expression of political conservatism. And fittingly so, for those Christians involved in the religious right largely rely on conservatism for their identity, ideas, and inspiration. If you would ask a political activist, politician, or voter of the religious right to identify their political stance, nine out of ten would simply call themselves “conservatives.”

But is this identity between Christian political activity and conservatism a good thing? Is it advantageous to Christ's interests in the world that His followers have so closely aligned themselves with political conservatism?

The Nature of Political Conservatism

To answer these questions we must begin by considering the nature of political conservatism. Conservatism is hard to define in a precise fashion. William Buckley, in his introduction to American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, informs his readers “that reasonable and well-informed men differ in their understanding not merely of what conservatism is, but of what are its provenances, political, historical, and philosophical.”[1] He says that conservatism defies a “one sentence” definition, but when a questioner persists in seeking one, he gives (with a straight face) the one formulated by Richard Weaver that conservatism is “the paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation”[2] (got that?).

Conservatism is difficult to define because it is not so much an “ideology” as it is a perspective on the state of things. Conservatism gives great respect to history and tradition. The very term “conservative” indicates that its goal is to conserve and apply the wisdom of the past forged on the anvil of the collective experience of society to the problems and challenges of today. The key concepts of conservatism are history, convention, custom, and tradition. As such, it is opposed to abstract principles of liberty and social theory, and clings to the tried and proven; i.e., that which has been tried and proven in the common experience of men in society. The conservative puts his emphasis on society as opposed to the libertarian who stresses the individual. Paul Henry states:

Political conservatism is a tradition of political thought having its origins in reactions against the libertarianism and individualism of the French Revolution of 1789. Its earliest spokesman was Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) attacked the theoretical and abstract notions of liberty being voiced by the French revolutionaries. Burke maintained that a priori declarations regarding the rights of man were meaningless until given substantive applications within the historical context of a given society. Government, argued Burke, was a matter of practical wisdom stemming from the historical experiences of a given people.  Hence, reform of political life could not be achieved simply by abstract declarations based on a priori argumentation. Accordingly, Burke stressed the importance of history and tradition as the basis for social and political change, and argued that a society is a partnership not only of the living, but of the dead and those yet to be born. Burke’s conservatism was not based simply on opposition to all change, but rather the belief that change must always be incremental and evolutionary and generated from the self-conscious and historical traditions of a given people.[3]

Conservatism, according to Russell Kirk, is “not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata,” but rather, its essence is the “preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.”[4] Therefore, the goal of conservatives is to re-express these ancient traditions for their own time.[5]

Although political conservatism is not a fixed body of doctrine, it does, nonetheless, exhibit a certain set of principles that conservatives adhere to with some consistency. These principles are considered to be the basic wisdom inherited from the past moral traditions of Western society and culture. There is some difference on how to catalogue these principles. Henry reduces these principles to four, while Kirk comprehends them in six. Henry says:

Twentieth century political conservatism has been characterized by several recurring themes. First, political conservatives have generally acknowledged some sort of universal moral order. . . . Second, political conservatives concede the inconsistencies and imperfections of human nature. . . . Third, political conservatives are generally agreed that some inequalities within society are both natural and beneficial. . . . Fourth, political conservatives stress that man must be regarded as more than simply a purely rational being; symbols, traditions, and feelings are important to men, and hence to the governing of society.[6]

Kirk delineates the principles of conservatism as follows:

(1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. . . . (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarian, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. . . . (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society”. . . . (4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked together. . . . (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. . . . (6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than the torch of progress.[7]

Conservatism and Christianity

By considering the principles of conservatism, one can understand why Christians have been attracted to it. There is much in conservatism that appears to align, at least partially, to biblical truth. In accord with Henry’s summary of conservatism, the Bible agrees that there is a “universal moral order;” that human nature is imperfect; that due to God’s providence there are and will be some inequality in society; and that man is a spiritual being. Equally, the synopsis of conservative principles by Kirk is paralleled by the scriptural teaching that a transcendent body of law rules over society; that human existence has been endowed by God with variety and mystery; that society has a prescribed order; that liberty and property are closely joined together; that the abstract designs of thinkers and philosophers are poor foundations upon which to build or reconstruct society; and that reform may be nothing more than anarchy and revolution.

But the supposed affinity between conservatism and the Word of God is more apparent than real. The ostensible agreement of Christian truth as revealed in Scripture with the principles of conservatism is not due to a conscious effort on the part of today’s conservatives to construct a social order on the foundation of biblical law.  Rather, the agreement is due to the conservative reliance on history and tradition. The historical tradition and political conventions of the West have been significantly influenced by Christianity and the Bible. As the West has consisted primarily of Christian men and nations, so its collective experience has been affected in large measure by the church and the Word of God. Hence, the affinity of conservatism to aspects of biblical truth is best explained by recourse to Western history and not by any present motivation by conservatives to obey the teaching of Scripture and build their society upon it.

Furthermore, the political traditions of conservatism are a mixed bag; by no means are they only of Christian origin. The political and social experience of Rome, Greece, and the corrupt Roman Catholic Church (to name other primary factors, but not all—each individual nation having its own experiences stretching back even to the days of paganism) have all made major contributions to the “conservative mind.” Elements of the conservative tradition may be Christian in origin; but they may also be non-Christian, descending, for example, from Rome.

Another factor that must be kept in mind when considering the correspondence of conservatism and Christianity is that modern conservatives have overtly rejected the divine authority of Scripture in political and social matters. The modern conservative is often as secular in his politics as his liberal counterpart. Therefore, the conservative adherence to Christian principles is the vestige of a past Christian consensus, a consensus that he consciously rejects even as he unconsciously defends some of its principles. The controlling force for most conservatives today is Enlightenment rationalism. How long will it be until the principles of conservatism are defined from the perspective of the Enlightenment rather than from the perspective of biblical faith? It has already happened. In conservative circles, Christ and biblical law are out, while Locke, rationalism, and natural law or legal positivism are in.

Explicitly Christian Politics Instead of Conservatism

We believe that it is not advantageous to the cause of Christ for Christians to align themselves with political conservatism. Why should they?  What benefit is there in it for the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Yes, there is some concurrence between biblical truth and conservatism. But that concurrence is, as we have seen, more apparent than real. And as Christian culture fades more and more into the dim memory of the past and the more recent cultures inspired by Enlightenment rationalism, deism, and common-sense realism push it aside, the principles of conservatism are now being defined by modern conservatives in a non-Christian context. Divorced from a Christian context the principles of conservatism become deadly enemies to the cause of righteousness. 

The Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7). Conservatism rejects the fear of the Lord and despises the wisdom and instruction of Scripture.

The Bible says that Christ is King of the nations and calls on all magistrates to bow in humble submission to the authority of Christ (Ps. 2:10-12; Rev. 1:5). Conservatism says that man is king; it has no place for the exalted Christ, and despises His scepter (cf. Ps. 2:1-3).

The Bible says that the entrance of the Word of God gives light (Ps. 119:105, 130). Conservatism says that the Bible is unnecessary in the councils of state, and advocates the dim and uncertain rays of natural law and human experience (cf. Ps. 74:20).

The Bible says that we ought to reconstruct our culture on the express teaching of biblical law (Deut. 4:5-8; Isa. 58:12). Conservatism calls upon us to preserve “the ancient moral traditions of humanity.”

The Bible says, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). Conservatism says, “To the deposit of wisdom forged in the collective experience of men in society.”

What is needed is an explicitly Christian approach to politics.[8] The time has come for Christians to disassociate themselves from the ranks of conservatism. In casting their political fortunes in with conservatism, they have grievously erred and aligned themselves with a movement, that in spite of historical ties to Christianity, is now as much an enemy of Christ as is liberalism because of its rejection of the fear of the Lord.

When Christians are asked if they are conservative or liberal in their political orientation, may it be true, and may they learn to say: “I am neither a conservative nor a liberal, but rather I adhere to an explicitly Christian approach to politics.” As John Fielding so aptly admonishes us: “May God help us to shuck Thomas Jefferson for King Jesus.”[9]

1. ^ William F. Buckley, American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1970), p. xvi.

2. ^ Ibid., p. xvii.

3. ^ Paul Henry, “Conservatism, Political,” in Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), pp. 130-131.

4. ^ Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 7th ed. (Chicago, 1986), p. 8.

5. ^ Ibid.

6. ^ Henry, op. cit., p. 131.

7. ^ Kirk, op. cit., pp. 8-9.

8. ^ For a collection of essays setting forth such a vision see William O. Einwechter, ed., Explicitly Christian Politics (Pittsburgh: The Christian Statesman Press, 1997).

9. ^ John A. Fielding III, “Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Christianity,” The Christian Statesman, vol. 140 no. 5 (September - October 1996), p. 14.

This article is a slightly revised version of the article that originally appeared in the Chalcedon Report, January 1998.