Russell Kirk in 1962 (Public Domain).

What is conservatism, and who can rightly call themselves conservative? I don’t think there is a single silver bullet answer to that. I believe drawing from a consensus of thought can develop some guardrails to what defines conservative thought. 

Conservatism, first and foremost, is about principles, not personalities, and not even politics. It’s a lens with which we view society. Conservatism is not about Ronald Reagan, and it is not about Donald Trump. 

If we sacrifice principles for politics or a personality, we are no longer operating from a conservative worldview. 

I started reading American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, a collection of writings representing a century of conservative thought curated and edited by Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.

The first essay in the book is by moral philosopher and social critic Russell Kirk (1898-1994), a Burkean conservative who is considered the “Father of American Conservatism.” He reflected on what defines conservatism in an introduction to the Portable Conservative Reader published in 1982.

He wrote, “Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology. In the phrase of H. Stuart Hughes, ‘Conservatism is the negation of ideology.’ Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the civil social order. Although certain general principles held by most conservatives may be described, there exists wide variety in application of these ideas from age to age and country to country.”

Kirk notes that “unlike socialism, anarchism, and even liberalism, conservatism offers no universal pattern of politics for adoption everywhere.” 

He states that there are six general principles advanced and embraced by conservative thinkers over the last two centuries that we should consider.

Conservatives generally believe in a transcendent moral order.

You don’t find many conservative atheists. Not to say they don’t exist, but they are rare. This particular conviction in the West typically takes form in a belief in natural law. We see this referenced in our Declaration of Independence. 

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation,” it reads (emphasis mine). 

This principle reflects our understanding that our rights come from God, not government. A truth that is also reflected in the Declaration and affirmed by our Constitution.

A belief that not everyone shares. 

“This conviction contrasts strongly with the liberals’ utlitarian view of the state… and with the radicals’ detestation of theological postulates,” Kirk wrote.

Conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. 

Conservatives, Kirk writes, “prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.”

“Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice,” he continues.

Generally speaking, conservatives do rebuff radical, rapid change. Not all change is wrong, and sometimes change is necessary, but it must be prudent. And Kirk says it should be gradual and discriminatory. 

“Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills,” he wrote. 

Conservatives believe in the principle of prescription.

“Conservatives sense that modern men and women are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time,” Kirk explained. 

“Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste,” he added.

We rely on ideas and precepts that have withstood the test of time. Kirk quotes Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish 18th-century moral philosopher who was a critic of the philosophy that arose from the French Revolution, who said, “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” 

We do not trust new ideas that run contrary to centuries of conventional wisdom. 

While it’s unlikely that we will make “brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste,” it is interesting to note that Kirk did not say anything about innovation and science. 

To call conservatives “anti-science” is inaccurate. When science jumps out of its lane into the moral and political lanes, we tend to object.

The principle of prudence guides conservatives.

“Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative holds, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evil they hope to sweep away,” Kirk wrote. 

The second sexual revolution is an excellent example of this. Traditions, norms are thrown to the wayside to make room for social change, but no one pushing this agenda wants to consider the long-term consequences. 

What will this do to marriage? What will this do to the family? These things are the bedrock of any thriving society.

We already see one natural consequence of abortion, fewer marriages and smaller families. Our birthrate is starting to decline to the point we won’t be able to replace ourselves. 

Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.

“(Conservatives) feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems,” Kirk writes.

This notion is wildly unpopular with socialists who want everyone to be equal in every way. But that kind of “equality” can’t exist in a healthy society. 

“The only true forms of equality are equality in the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling lead, at best, to social stagnation,” Kirk noted.

Social orders and classes will always exist, but what is unique about the American dream is that we have opportunity. People do not have to be stuck. People can move. People can change. That comes through entrepreneurship, education, and hard work. It shouldn’t come through social engineering. 

“Society longs for honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences among people are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality,” Kirk said.

The principle of imperfectibility chastens conservatives. 

As a Christian, I call this the depravity of man. This doctrine is why I reject ideas of utopia. I believe dystopian novels are a more accurate picture of human nature than liberal views of a perfect society. 

It will not exist, it can not exist, because we are not perfect people. The only “utopia” will come when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to judge and rule. Heaven will be perfect. 

Earth, not so much. 

“All that we can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering continue to lurk,” Kirk writes. 

That’s not to say we don’t attempt to bring order to these things; we should. However, this truth is why I reject the notion of abolishing the police. Because we live in a sinful world filled with sinful people, we will always need police. And, by the way, the police need to be policed.

But this reality also means that while we should always cherish liberty, it must be ordered liberty.

A warning.

Kirk gave a warning about how to implement these principles. 

“Principles are necessary to a statesman, but they must be applied discreetly and with infinite caution to the workaday world. The preceding six conservative principles, therefore, are to be taken as a rough catalog of the general assumptions of conservatives, and not as a tidy system of doctrines for governing a state,” he wrote.

Very true, these principles are broad enough to encompass a variety of ideas and policies. 

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