Conservatism and Liberalism (of the Conservative and Progressive Sorts)

What is conservatism? Etymologically it refers to an attitude of conserving (and thus valuing) the past. But what if one has a thoroughly liberal past? Is valuing and conserving the liberal beliefs and attitudes from the past a species of conservatism or liberalism?

This knot of questions has been foremost in my mind the last several months for three reasons. First, I continue to read The Front Porch Republic, and its communitarian vision has continued to increasingly influence my thinking. Second, I taught U.S. History from the European invasion of the Americas to the Civil War last semester. I realized, particularly as we considered the founding documents and the philosophy that legitimized the Revolutionary War, how radically liberal the American experiment was. Third, for four months I was immersed in an evangelical Presbyterian environment. What deeply impressed me during those four months is just how liberal (in terms of conserving old but radical religious ideas) Protestantism (even evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism) is.

It has been one of my mantras over the last decade or more that the evangelical Presbyterians and the Eastern Orthodox have a great deal in common. After immersing myself in an evangelical Presbyterian environment, I will once again reiterate my belief that there is a remarkable continuity between the Presbyterians and the Orthodox. But, that being said, it slapped me in the face that there is very little authentically conservative that exists within Protestantism. Republicans and evangelical Presbyterians are both conservative liberals (in contrast to the political progressive liberalism of the Democrats and the theological progressive liberalism of the mainline Presbyterians). As an Orthodox Christian, it was this fundamental and pervasive liberalism of the PCA and REC (the fundamentalist wings of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches) that made me squirm for the last four months.

And this brings me back to the original question. What is conservatism?

It’s actually easier to answer that question by first explaining what classical liberalism is and from whence it came. Political historian and philosopher Patrick Deneen says (I know, I quote this article a lot), “We have come to accept that Conservatism in America means fidelity to the founding principles of America, particularly those embodied in our basic documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” (I will say more about the relationship between political and theological philosophy in a later essay. For now, let’s follow Deneen’s argument about political conservatism.)

The Declaration is our nation’s work of high philosophy, a distillation of Lockean principles deriving from his Second Treatise on Government. Yet, thinkers from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk have shown the deeply anti-conservative bases of the social contract theory of Lockean (and Hobbesian) origin, one that is premised upon a conception of human beings as naturally “free and independent,” as autonomous individuals who are thought to exist by nature detached from a web of relationships that include family, community, Church, region, and so on. The Lockean logic subjects all human relationships to radical scrutiny, valorizing choice and voluntarism as the sole basis of legitimacy in any human bond. This logic radically destabilizes all existing ties, making individual calculation the primary basis on which to assess the legitimacy and claims of any association.

So, classic liberalism (which comes from the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) begins with the premise that individuals are naturally free and independent. (These are the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence.) This “natural freedom and independence” results in the detachment of the individual from the institutions that Conservatives (prior to 1651 – the publication of Hobbes’ Leviathan) have traditionally claimed persons are attached. First and foremost is the detachment of the individual from the monarch and the nation. In the Liberal tradition, if the nation no longer serves the “self-evident” needs of the individual, then the nation can be assumed to be illegitimate and revolution becomes not only the legitimate but necessary step. (This is the logic of the Declaration as well as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.)

But these same “self-evident” needs of the individual which detach him from the nation also detach him from other institutions that include “family, community, Church, region, and so on.” Thomas Hobbes, in his highly influential social contract theory, argued that it is not accurate to say we have been “detached” from these institutions because the only thing that attaches us to them in the first place is the institution’s ability to serve the individual’s self-interest. This is the essence of volunteerism: The individual voluntarily attaches himself to an institution because it fulfills a need. When the institution stops fulfilling the need the nature of the social contract demands that the individual detach himself and seek out another institution that fulfills his self-interest or need.

Great Britain no longer served the colonist’s self-interest. It was therefore incumbent upon them to break that social contract and create a new one (the American Constitution). But Deneen goes on to point out the obvious.

This logic not only places the polity under its legitimizing logic, but all traditional relations, even finally the family itself. The logic used to justify America’s break with England worked like a steady solvent throughout its history, first detaching people’s allegiances from communities, from Churches, then from the individual States …

Of course institutions – even those founded upon these liberal philosophies, such as the Federal Government – recognize the deleterious effects of such ideas even if the individuals the institutions serve don’t. The Civil War was truly a “Second American Revolution” (as Stonewall Jackson said) which simply followed the logic of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, Abraham Lincoln, trying to uphold the institution of the American Government from the twin solvents of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, said the South had gone too far and Lincoln undermined nearly every Constitutional limit imaginable in order to deny the South the very thing the American colonists had claimed for themselves a century earlier.

Conservatism (in this classical sense prior to Hobbes, Locke, and the Founding Fathers), then is the belief that it is “self-evident” that persons are not autonomous. Institutions, including the state, the Church, the family, and the region, have a legitimate claim upon the person. In turn, personhood in its fullness, cannot be understood without the context of these same institutions. A person needs a state, a Church, a family, and a region in order to be fully human. To view the person as autonomous from these institutions (as in the philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and Paine) leads to that person becoming something less than human – a mere individual.

But it is this very individuality that American conservatism (including Protestantism) celebrates. Is this true conservatism? I will argue that it is not, that it is better identified as conservative liberalism (as distinguished from progressive liberalism). The classically liberal view of the individual in relation to the world (or, not in relation to the world, as the case may be), is the cornerstone of why we must maintain that this four hundred year old philosophy will always be fundamentally liberal in its perspective. I will say more about this in a theological context in the next essay.