In the previous iteration of this blog, updated last more than two years ago, I asserted that we are all Liberals in America. In fact, that’s true. What’s even more alarming is that we are all conservatives. Each of us, even the most ardent of progressives and radicals, look back longingly, even if just to the last election cycle, for something to preserve about our lives. No one unmoors himself completely from history.
What each of us is trying to conserve is the operative question. Some long for the days of optimistic progressivism symbolized by the Obama campaign. Some long for the prosperous 90s, marred only by irrelevant personal scandals. Some long for the days before Facebook, Youtube, the Internet, cell phones. Some long for the spirited age of the civil rights movement. Some long for the Old South. Some long for the days when the original liberal spirit enlivened the American people and compelled them to break with their brothers across the sea and embark on an Adventure about which we have not heard the end, though it may come soon.
Just as we are all liberals in America because of this philosophical and political patrimony, our conservatism is a particularly limited one, indeed a particularly progressive conservatism. Americans tend to think back to our Founders (always capitalized) and ascribe to them both political genius and moral strength. So much so that any political theory, social order, or religious philosophy that came before is immediately suspect. Monarchies are oppressive and unjust, nobility is a construct that must be torn down, the people are no longer chattel slaves but have finally come into their own as their own sovereigns. We in America have been given, finally, the system to end all systems. In point of fact, it will probably end itself.
This limited conservatism, and any conservatism that sees some point of of human development as a point of departure from all of human thought and culture before it, will very likely squeeze the life out of our brittle society. We do not have a broad conservatism because we do not truly believe in the value of history. We only see it as a warning about what we might become. We do not have a deep conservatism because we do not truly believe in the foundations of society and culture. We are always asking ourselves to remake everything. We do not have a strong conservatism because we do not believe in any binding truths and realities. Instead, we depend on a scientific system based on skepticism to show us what is true and what is false.
We must look to something much older, much more enduring than America if we are to have a more radical conservatism. Our beliefs must be based on something more universal than the philosophy of the enlightenment that sought to break itself from history. If we are to be truly human conservatives, we must know what it is to be human. This means knowing our history and being able to recognize the good and the true in all eras and in all systems. But most of all, we must have something or someone to tell us what it means to be human and what all of this means. Without that, we are left with our present faults and shortcomings on which to depend, and this is a liberalism that is tyrannical.
What is true liberty, equality, and fraternity? We fear to explore that question further than our narrow liberalism teaches because we would find that the answer would be demanding. We might have to step outside of the comfort of our rights and privileges. We might have to respond to our obligations. Not obligations based on mere human contract, contingent and fleeting, but obligations based on the demands of our human nature. A radical conservatism seeks to conserve whatever is good and true, despite the cost.
Liberalism both classical and progressive can not give a proper account of human nature and thus can not truly promote human flourishing toward a common good. Only one way of life has given a comprehensive and enduring account of the human condition and human history and that is the Christian Faith. Without an acknowledgement of God’s part in history, our politics are limited in addressing the full need of the human race. The temporal good — living a happy and fulfilled life — is ordered toward a spiritual good, eternal bliss. Without this, our idea of the temporal good will skew toward the utilitarian and the materialistic, where humans are seen as dispensable, useful tools toward an abstract good.
The good of humans is not abstract, but is the fulfillment of all of our needs, both physical and spiritual. Our society should be concerned with this, first and foremost, and it should be the foundation of our policy, our social action, and our own individual lives. Our conservatism should be about conserving all that aids in the flourishing of each and every person. Any conservatism that breaks from this will fall into violence, as man is pitted against woman, child against mother, rich against poor.
Man was made to cooperate for survival, not compete. The divisions sewn by our liberal conservatism work against our human nature and create an inhuman politics. Is it any wonder that all of our main candidates for president support the mass murder of children and civilians or the destruction of peoples?
Let us look to God so that in our theology, we may better understand ourselves and so better serve each other toward our common good. This faith in God is the ultimate conservatism, depending not on the passing and temporal but on the eternal, preserving our link to the Author of Life who sustains our lives, our families, our nations, our world. This is true conservatism and in it we can find true liberty.