What does it mean to say, ‘I am a conservative’?

Robert Schwarzwalder's picture

At a time when some candidates are vying aggressively for the title of “most conservative,” it might be worthwhile considering exactly what that term means.

Conservatism, it has been said, is not an ideology but a way of viewing the world. This is partially true: conservatives seek to impose no utopian vision upon an imperfectable humanity.

At the same time, conservatism presupposes both human dignity and fallenness, and argues that personal virtue must be the foundation of political self-governance. Conservatism is suspicious of schemes to change humanity through external constraints, or reshape human nature through insistent indoctrination.

At Independence Hall in 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, “The Declaration of Independence gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”

An “equal chance” because, as the Declaration says, all men are of equal merit in the sight of their Creator. This was not only Lincoln’s claim; it has been the principle claim of our Republic since its founding.

Despite its protestations to the contrary, the Left argues that most men are not, in fact, created equal: The “masses” are too reactionary to know what’s good for them, too benighted to recognize the obvious truths of political liberalism, too fearful of the bracing, brave new world that secular man can create.

Most people understand, intuitively, that grand plans for social engineering and cultural transformation will collapse under the weight of human arrogance, incompetence and elitism.

They grasp that there are limits to human commitments and even love, which is why one man and one woman marry each other, and do not have multiple partners.

It’s why each of us cares for his own children more than those of our neighbors. It’s why one can have only so many close friends: People are finite, and there’s only so much of each of us to go around.

This is not a cynical perspective, but neither is it naive. It is conservative, taking and enjoying reality as it is.

“Conservatism advocates that the wisdom of the past be used to create a promising future,” writes constitutional scholar Patrick Garry in his book, “Conservatism Redefined.” “It does not seek to simply confer a basket of benefits in the present, without regard to whether those benefits will build a foundation for a more lasting and promising future.”

Grounded in a belief in a personal Creator and human equality, conservatism honors life (from conception to natural death), liberty (ordered, that is, and not to be confused with licentiousness), and the “pursuit of happiness” — as understood by the Founders, this meant ownership of property and the quest for virtue.

Conservatism recognizes the moral and practical benefits of Judeo-Christianity and the centrality of the traditional family to any genuinely good society.

Edmund Burke, the most articulate early proponent of what we now think of as conservatism, wrote, “Restraint and discipline and examples of virtue and justice. These are the things that form the education of the world.”

They are also the things that form a just and secure culture, a thriving civilization and sustained prosperity.

This is why, writes political philosopher Bruce Frohnen, that “the conservative, far from defending whatever happens to be old, recognizes that societies are good only if and to the extent they promote right conduct.”

Conservatism does not generate perfection, only decency, freedom and honor. Given the unobtainability of the former, the latter are not only desirable and valuable but noble.

[Robert Schwarzwalder is senior vice president of the Family Research Council (www.frc.org) in Washington, D.C.]

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