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Conservatism and Religion: The Inseparable Tie Broken?

15 Aug 2017

I read a very intriguing article yesterday in the National Review Online by Eliott Kaufman, with the title of “Are Conservatives Really Just Liberals?”  By the title you might think the author is about to criticize conservatives in Congress or in the Federal bureaucracy who aren’t acting like conservatives.  However the article actually poses a serious question about definition, and even further, about how conservatives and liberals (of a certain kind) ought to define themselves. But the article also draws on one by Bill Kristol, the neo-conservative editor of The Weekly Standard, who asserted that conservatives should “rebrand” themselves as liberals.  By that, Kristol meant: “We’re for liberal democracy, liberal world order, liberal economy, [and] liberal education.”  This is really, in his mind, classical liberalism, not modern liberalism of the Left-leaning variety.  Kaufman wants to push back on this, and writes,

This view, that American conservatism crossed the River Styx into philosophical liberalism with its embrace of the free market, is too clever by half. Really: Are we so devoted to Gladstone that we have learned nothing from Disraeli? So preoccupied with the Wealth of Nations that we have forsaken the Bible? All Locke, Smith, and Friedman, without Fortescue, Burke, and Kirk?

I think Kaufman is on to something important, even if I might disagree a bit with details.  The question for conservatives, the American and modern type that is, is essentially where they would draw the moral/ethical lines.  It is important to note that there is a real difference between classical liberalism and conservatism.  But this is not an irreconcilable difference, as Kaufman points out.  It is a matter of how we properly characterize the two.  This is how Kaufman puts it:

“What emerges is a complicated picture of conservatives as not wholly liberal yet not wholly illiberal either. Conservatives, it seems to me, are more than liberals; or, put it this way: We are liberals secondarily. By this I mean that we have commitments that precede our liberalism, and these commitments are themselves pre-liberal. Their authority is ancestral, not chosen. They are the first, the permanent things, and contra Locke, conservatives find their authority legitimate.”

It is not, for example, that conservatives are anti-market; most (except for a few paleo-conservatives) support free trade and largely unregulated markets.  It is rather as Kaufman said above, that conservatives (true American conservatives) do possess and are driven by a set of presuppositions that establish the boundary conditions for institutions like free markets.  At times this “limited liberalism” has clashed (at least in theory) with classical liberalism.  Kaufman quotes Irving Kristol’s criticism of Friedrich Hayek (which I believe is a little unfair, but which serves as an example):

“Irving Kristol had a similar worry about liberalism in economics, the unrestrained “free society” of Friedman and Hayek. “It is interesting to note what Hayek is doing,” wrote the elder Kristol in 1970. “He is opposing a free society to a just society — because he says, while we know what freedom is, we have no generally accepted knowledge of what justice is.” Kristol thought Hayek’s characteristically liberal move was dangerous. “Can men live in a free society if they have no reason to believe it is also a just society?” he asked, “I do not think so.” We need liberalism to bring our nation freedom, wealth, power, and peace. But that same liberalism weakens the pre-liberal commitments that form its very foundation.”

Again, I think Irving Kristol was unfair to Hayek, but the point is well-taken.  If we go all the way with an unrestrained liberalism, we can lapse into something closer to radical libertarianism.  And this is where a Christian worldview comes into the picture.  Christianity (or more broadly, religion) is a central element of true conservatism (see Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind; see also William Harbour, The Foundations of Conservative Thought: An Anglo-American Tradition in Perspective).  No version of liberalism, classical or modern, has been particularly concerned with religion, at best tolerating it but at worst, viewing it (as more recently) as an obstacle on the way to utopia.

I don’t believe (and neither does the author of the article) that free markets (properly defined–this is not an absence of laws) are incompatible with Christianity.  But we do have to know, based on a well-conceived theology rooted in the Scriptures, where to draw ethical limits.  This is true not only for markets but also for politics per se, what government ought to do and not do, how power ought to be distributed, etc.  One question will be however, where should we draw those limits?  Unfortunately Christians disagree, sometimes significantly, with each other on that question.  If I argue the lines should be drawn more broadly, I will no doubt be accused of being too classically liberal as a conservative, being “in bed” with big corporations, supporting inequality, advancing “consumerism,” opposed to rights, and so on.  I can assure my readers however that I have good reasons for my position that do not place me in an untenable position with respect to Scripture.  But this blog is not the place to elaborate, since I have already used too much space.  

No doubt this piece is for many a bit less exciting than others, even a little boring.  But the principles I have discussed are central to what it means to be a conservative,  Moreover, if a Christian is a political conservative, he or she must come to grips with what that means and what the role of Christianity is in that thinking.