Conservatism is the philosophy that the wisdom of the past is still just as applicable today as it was then. Conservatism is an ancient wisdom in itself, for every age has its conservatives and liberals, and it is always the conservatives who succeed and pass their wisdom down to the next age where some new brand of liberals will rise up to challenge that wisdom once again.
This philosophy of conservatism can be applied to any area of life. We most often think of it in terms of government, economics or religion, but it is equally applicable to such diverse categories as science, education and even athletics. In each of these areas, the conservative seeks to learn from the wisdom of those who have preceded him and to build on the foundation which they have laid. The liberal, on the other hand, seeks to blaze his own path ignoring the advice of his predecessors and attempting to build where no foundation has been established.
Edmund Burke is often recognized as the father of modern conservatism because of his eloquent opposition to the liberality of the French Revolution. The French chose to reject ancient wisdom in light of their new found enlightenment, and Burke warned that their decision would lead to their destruction. Burke’s arguments were proven true within a decade, and his writings have been the champion of the cause of conservatism ever since.
Burke described conservatism in this way:
“Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty which were understood, long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our per loquacity.”
Here, Burke identified the two fundamental principles of conservative government. The first and most important is the principle that there are no new discoveries to be made in the realm of morality. That which is good has always been good; that which is evil has always been evil, and no amount of time or change will ever cause an evil thing to become good. (Mal 3:6, Matt 5:18, James 1:17) This is the first principle of conservatism.
No one can be a conservative without adhering to the principle of an unchanging morality, for without it the entire argument for conservatism falls apart. If morality can change, then there is no inherent value in anything, for the very concept of inherent value is itself a moral concept. Without an eternal morality, value is reduced solely to desirability, and the wisdom of the ancients thus becomes valuable only so long as it is desirable. One must accept the eternality of morality in order to be a conservative.
The second principle that Burke identified was that there are very few discoveries yet to be made in regards to the principles of government and liberty. Those principles upon which good governments were established in the past are still a sound foundation for good government now and will remain a sound foundation for any government of the future. Those principles which led men to liberty in the past will still lead men to liberty today and will continue to lead men to liberty in the future. It may be that we can discover a few more principles to add to these foundations, but as a whole, the foundation for a good government and a free people will always be the same.
This does not mean that the structures built on these foundations will all look the same. The specific application of various principles will change with the exigencies of the times. For example, the principle that rulers should be selected from among the body of the people and not from among foreigners carried a different application in ancient Israel than it does in modern America. In Israel, the principle was simply stated with no specific restrictions (Ex. 18:21, Deut 1:13) except in the case of the king who was to be a natural born citizen. (Deut 17:15) In America, that same principle is applied, but with our unique national composition, it was thought best to apply the principle with specified directions. Thus we require our representatives to have been citizens for at least seven years, our senators to have been citizens for nine years and, of course, our President is to be a natural born citizen. The principle of a government composed from the body of the people is thus applied in different ways, yet it remains the same principle throughout.
These two principles – the eternality of morality and the antiquity of good government – are the only real foundation of conservatism in the realm of government, but Burke also identified the foundation of liberalism in government as well. He wrote of the enlightened liberals of his day that:
“They have no respect for the wisdom of others; but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.
“They conceive, very systematically, that all things which give perpetuity are mischievous, and therefore they are at inexpiable war with all establishments. They think that government may vary like modes of dress, and with as little ill effect; that there needs no principle of attachment, except a sense of present conveniency, to any constitution of the state.
“They always speak as if they were of opinion that there is a singular species of compact between them and their magistrates, which binds the magistrate, but which has nothing reciprocal in it, but that the majesty of the people has a right to dissolve it without any reason but its will. Their attachment to their country itself, is only so far as it agrees with some of their fleeting projects; it begins and ends with that scheme of polity which falls in with their momentary opinion.”
Here, Burke identifies 3 principles which conservatives oppose. Because of the fact that conservatives recognize the eternality of morality and the antiquity of good government, they necessarily oppose the hasty adoption of unproven ideas, the lack of respect for established governments and the denial of the duty and patriotism that we owe to our country.
So what does a modern conservative look like? Let’s take these five principles and apply them to our current situation:
1. If a conservative is someone who recognizes the eternality of morality, then a modern conservative must be one who strives for moral purity. He must oppose things like abortion, divorce, adultery, homosexuality, lewdness and obscenity. A man who is known for having a foul mouth, owning a strip club, accepting homosexuality as natural behavior, engaging in adultery and subsequent divorce, who thinks that abortion is only wrong in certain situations and who claims that he has never done anything for which he needs the forgiveness of God – this man cannot possibly be a conservative. The eternality of morality is the foundation of conservatism, and no one can be a conservative who rejects the eternal moral principles of the Bible.
2. If a conservative is someone who accepts the antiquity of good government, then a modern conservative must be one who seeks to apply the principles of ancient governments to our present society. In other words, a conservative leader must be a student of history. It is not enough for a leader to claim to have a good record, to have grown the economy, to have built a great company, to have stood up against his political opponents or to have accomplished any other noble goal. These are fine examples of a leader’s experience, but they do not make him a conservative. In order to be a conservative, a leader must be a student of history.
3. If a conservative is someone who opposes the hasty adoption of new ideas, then a modern conservative must be one who advises caution when new schemes are proposed. When faced with the constant changes of domestic and foreign policy, a conservative will oppose the adoption of new strategies and instead rely on the tried and tested responses of the past.
4. If a conservative is someone who has a respect for established governments, then a modern conservative will seek to avoid the overthrow of either the government of our own nation or the governments of other nations. A man whose foreign policy consists of opposing foreign dictators and seeking to replace them with more moderate rulers cannot be a conservative. A conservative will seek to avoid the violence of revolution and will work to persuade bad governments to change of their own accord leaving destruction and revolution as a final but occasionally necessary resort.
5. Finally, if a conservative is someone who recognizes the duty and patriotism which we owe to our country, he will not be in the habit of suggesting that those who disagree with him should just leave the country. A conservative recognizes that every citizen owes a duty to his country – even those who claim that they do not. When faced with people whose policies would harm the country, a conservative’s first priority is to teach them why their ideas are harmful and to inspire them choose a path that is more beneficial to their country.
These five principles should serve as guide to both the leaders and the citizens of our nation. History has proven over and over again that adherence to these principles leads men to freedom and that those who abandon these principles do so at their own peril. If we wish to preserve our nation and return it to its former position of greatness, we must insist that our government accept the unchanging nature of morality, that they seek out and follow the same wise principles which led nations to greatness in the past, that they stand firm and resolute against the hasty reactionary policies that are so common today, that they demonstrate a respect for established governments, and that they both recognize the duty which every citizen owes to his country and inspire him to fulfill it. This is the path that will make our nation great again. Anything less will only lead to ruin.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)