What Kind of Conservative?
It is generally thought there are two types of conservatives: fiscal and social. Fiscal conservatives focus on economic policy. They believe in free market capitalism and consider government regulations on business to ultimately serve only to hinder growth. Regulations may provide an illusion of stability, but the market functions best when it is allowed to correct itself. Their mantra includes “lower taxes and deregulate.”
Social conservatives focus on the preservation of “traditional values.” They lament things like the legalization of abortion, “homosexual rights,” and the removal of the Bible and prayer from public life. Their principle hope is in the appointment of conservative judges whose legal philosophy stresses strict interpretation of the U. S. Constitution; their mantra is “remove judges who legislate from the bench.” Most social conservatives are also fiscal conservatives.
There are problems with both approaches to conservatism as they have been expressed in recent years. When fiscal conservatism is void of concern for social/moral issues it becomes a functional materialism. It appears to assume that the greatest good is wealth; money is the solution to all problems. Here it disagrees with liberalism only in approach to the distribution of wealth. Liberalism believes the government has a responsibility to redistribute wealth; fiscal conservatives believe strict capitalism is the best approach to the distribution of wealth. According to the Federalist Papers, which provided the guiding philosophy for the founders of American government, capitalism is founded on the acknowledgement of the universal sin of greed. Everyone has desires for material possessions; the best economy is one that works with greed, not against it. Greed is the best motivator for the exchange of goods and services. In capitalism, everyone is allowed to exchange what they have for what they want. The role of government is to stay out of the way and intervene only when the powerful use their power to abuse the less powerful. Fiscal conservatism that fails to build on values reduces human rights to the right of ownership.
Social conservatives offer a different set of challenges. Social conservatism can be traced back to what is known as Northern Humanism (Northern Renaissance) beginning in the late fifteenth century. Unlike Southern Humanism which had focused on art, music, and personal enlightenment, Northern Humanism focused on rediscovering and appropriating the truths of ancient Western civilization. The quest was for social transformation, to build nations suitable for the kingdom of God and the core conviction was that the road map to Christian civilization had been drawn in classical Greece, Rome and Israel. The emphasis was on ancient literature (and therefore classic languages) and the need for universal literacy. In other words the values that should guide us into the future have been revealed in the past.
One problem with modern social conservatism is a nearsighted backward view of life. The truths and values that need preservation are not necessarily the truisms passed on to us by our parents. Conservatism that seeks merely to keep social mores static is not true conservatism. Such efforts are stuck in the near past without an impetus for social transformation; they are reactionary rather than proactive. The ideal they propose is a mere recapitulation of comfortable social patterns. The conservatism that is needed is one that is driven to build a better future by continually applying the lessons of the past. The point is not to resist change but rather to pursue change worthy of gifts we have inherited. The standards by which we must measure ourselves have long been given but require ongoing interpretation (in contrast with the liberal/progressive philosophy that calls upon every generation to establish its own standards). This conservatism challenges us to discover truth and live out of it.
Another problem with modern social conservatism is that it fails to articulate and consistently apply its values (a problem shared with liberalism). This shortcoming flows out of the nearsightedness of focus. As noted earlier, “pro-life” needs to be equally applied to all aspects of human life. Social conservatism needs to take time to clarify the core values that must guide society and resist knee jerk reactions to hot-button issues. For example, conservatives must make a non-negotiable commitment to justice-for-all and proceed to correct injustices wherever they appear. (Granted not everyone will agree when an event/condition is unjust, all should agree to work toward justice.)
What we need is a conservatism that is proactive about building a better society, one that values fiscal restraint, but approaches material resources as being entrusted to individuals for the glory of God and the good of others.
[a little more to come]