It’s all about history. It’s always all about history. It’s the story of what it means to be conservative. And a little bit about what it means to not be progressive.
In the beginning there was Edmund Burke. In his day Burke was a “liberal” of sorts. But he was not at all like today’s liberals. He believed that there was something eminently practical about natural law. The morality of natural law should guide the actions of both society at large and government. Both, he taught, exist under a higher law. This perspective on natural law is reflected in the Declaration of Independence with its reference to Nature and Nature’s God.
But not all natural law is the same. All worldviews accept some form of natural law. Even the Marxists view their dialectical materialism as natural, as axiomatic. Burke drew his natural law from Aquinas. And Aquinas employed Christian theology coupled with an Aristotelian framework. These natural law principles would then cover the whole of society. That would be justice.
The proposals of Burke’s teachings were not merely academic discussions. Burke would be separated from the contemporary revolutionaries in France. The Jacobins had a bloody class-based revolution. Behind the method was an alternative principle. The Jacobins allowed no dissent. Burke proposed the idea of “his majesty’s loyal opposition.” In other words there can be a strong difference of opinion without having to brand it all as treason. While this principle may have existed from time to time throughout history it is because of Burke that we have it enshrined in our social conscience.
It has been said by many that the American Revolution was Burke’s conservatism at work. Remember, too, that the American Revolution did not begin for its own sake but for the charge of a set of injustices that were ignored. Thus
Burke never believed that the colonies sought independence on speculative or ideological theories of abstract “rights,” but rather that they rebelled as disaffected subjects of Britain who wished to preserve their constitutional rights. Burke never referred to the conflict as the American Revolution, but as the American war, a civil war within the British Empire, in which America “was purely on the defensive.” As the war of rebellion continued, Burke became convinced that the colonies were lost to Britain, and he was among the first to willingly grant independence to the colonies.
Burke’s conservatism ran parallel to the classic liberal movement. The movements shared a number of features, notably their libertarian principles for individual liberty, notably as one saw in the French revolution. But liberalism tended too much toward libertarianism (or radical democracy) for Burke. He went the direction of an ethic informed by a Christian ethic.
These principles were at one time reflected in the Republican party. That was a long time ago. The principle of republicanism as a form of government finds part of its home in Burke’s views. The structures of a representative system allow for both individual freedom and hierarchical responsibility to governing authorities. Today this is but a minor plank in the modern Republican party. But it is enough to encourage a certain patronage.
We have a tendency to idealize the republican principles of the Constitution. Our nation’s history of slavery, apartheid, and other errors cannot be dismissed. What we do know is that this type of system is one of the few that is responsive to the Christian ethic (paired at the time with those classic liberal principles) which would terminate much of this abuse. The termination of the slave trade had its clear Christian influence in the US in the north as well as in England through Wilberforce and Newton. (John Newton’s song “Amazing Grace” is about more than God’s saving grace as mere principle. It is as much about God’s grace in saving him from being a slaver.)
If all of this sounds like a portion of today’s evangelical political perspective, you would be right. But what happened to liberalism? Why do evangelicals part so with liberalism?
Liberalism went through its own changes. It tended toward certain other teachings, beginning with Malthus and Kant, then proceeding through Marx and Woodrow Wilson. The version of liberalism that reigns in the US today is called “progressive” and that is its goal. The progressive makes promises of the new world, a just world. Listen to the lyrics of 1940s-1960s folk music. All sorts of promises are made. That’s the progressive ideal.
Progressivism borrowed from Christian theology just as much as did Burke’s conservatism. But it borrowed it in a different way. Instead of being informed by a Christian ethic it borrowed the structures of something called postmillennial theology. To state it briefly, the postmill taught that the church could bring in God’s kingdom. The progressive believes that the same better world can be brought about through natural means — through just law and regulation, and through education. John Gray’s book (Black Mass, Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia) covers this history nicely. They borrowed the structures and goals of the theology but left God out. One may not this yet today when progressive quote the Bible. They most always quote passages about social justice. What they are doing is take a principle that God wants to put into play and telling the citizen that the government is either (a) the agent of God or (b) that government can do it and God is not needed. But in either sense they’ve borrowed the structures and dismissed the substance. But it does have an effective emotional appeal to the hear.
Unfortunately some of the core principles of the progressive come straight out of Marx. And in concert with these some of the popular cultural notions that progressive promote come directly from Malthus. Thus we had toward a managed economy, a managed population, the abortion movement, the green movement, and an almost innumerable number of other issues.
The difference for the evangelical theologian is that the progressive movement will not allow itself to be informed by a Christian ethic. To do so would be to admit that there is something higher than people, something to which people must answer. That, to the progressive, is unacceptable. And that is where the evangelical has separated for many decades, and must continue to separate.
On might fairly say, and fairly I think, that the evangelical is sold out to small-r republicanism but is indifferent to the capital-R political party because of its compromises. It seems to be a lesser-of-two-evils choice these days.
It’s not that evangelicals are generally sold out to the Republican party. That is certainly not the case. But they stand firmly against the various levels of socialism and nationalism that are promoted by the progressive movement. This is reinforced when progressives take the side of not only the socialism of other nations, but even with the abuses of the communists who butcher Christians. If modern liberals were anything like the classic liberal there might be a good deal of dialogue. But when the modern liberal uses the language of the classic liberal as a mask to cover up radical progressive practices then the evangelical cries “Foul” and separates.
It is not that conservatism and evangelicalism go hand-in-hand. There is no theological or political bond between them. Evangelicalism existed before conservatism and will exist after it is gone. But progressivism has rejected evangelicalism. That leaves a vacuum. There is no longer a classic liberal home where the evangelical might find an alternative dialogue.
John Gray, Black Mass, Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind
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