Who's Conservatism?

The Problem of Conservatism

The left seems instinctively to know what position to take on any given issue, and able to mobilize instantly to promote their position as soon as the issue arises. This phenomenon, apparently simple and almost automatic, is probably really highly complex - as complex as culture itself - yet a few simple and illuminating observations can be made about it. Despite the impression of mindlessness left by barbarous displays such as MTV programming, there is a deep and pervasive culture that surrounds us and acts to mold attitudes and behavior. Parents notice that this culture invariably takes hold of their children in their teenage years despite their best efforts to train them otherwise by precept, example, and instruction at home or in private academies. This pervasive influence, which we shall call " the spirit of the times" very effective signals what attitudes, opinions and policies are 'in', approved, and most importantly not held in contempt by the people who appear to count. Whether one holds that this spirit is directed and manipulated by some elite, or that it is following the inner necessity of its own evolution, this spirit is highly effective in drawing people into the agenda of what is known as 'liberalism'. This also means that year by year the nature of liberalism shifts and transmutes into something new. But this does not seem to bother the liberals.

Conservatives find themselves in a different situation. Many persons - Christians, adherents of "traditional values", realists, and the like - seem to think of themselves as conservatives in some sense, in that there is some connection between conservatism and the moral values they support. When it is a matter of translating that feeling into support for specific candidates, parties and programs, however, they have great difficulty making direct applications. The ideas they have, both of their own moral commitments and of the meaning of conservatism, are vague and confused. As a result they are easily deceived and readily manipulated. This is especially true among groups such as Evangelical Christians whose primary identification is with a religious system, and only secondarily to a political philosophy or program held to be in harmony with it. Huge numbers of Americans, in view of their religious affiliation, are supposed to be aligned with conservative causes, but these numbers never can be brought to bear proportionally in real political contests. Sometimes with great effort conservative activists may temporarily assemble forces to win one battle on one issue, but they cannot simultaneously keep the troops committed all along the battle line of all the issues in play nor engage them all the time, something the left manages with ease. The left knows what it wants; Christians and other "grass roots" conservatives do not.

We are often told that Americans are unwilling to sacrifice their own comfort and leisure in order to undertake arduous political struggles; it is because they are indifferent and selfish that we suffer such bad government. This may be true. Nevertheless, these same people know that when they do enlist in a cause, in the end nothing changes, for their leaders sell them out. The crowning achievement of Folwell and the Moral Majority was George Bush and the National Endowment for Pornography under John Frohnmayer. People have learned from experience that they will only be used. They don't know how to distinguish the phony from the genuine, the temporary from the permanent, and the solidly grounded from the superficial. The problem of Christian, traditional, and even grass-roots politics, then, is one of knowledge. Underneath this problem of knowledge is the fact that many diverse things have been or are considered conservative, and it is impossible to have allegiance to them all.

Types of Conservatism

Conservatism seems to elude definition. Many and various movements and ideologies style themselves or are considered by others to be conservative. A charge sometimes made is that conservatives do not stand for any coherent body of belief, but are merely people who fear change and manifest various inconsistent reactionary tendencies. It will be useful to distinguish a variety of conservatisms. This list does not exhaust the major varieties, nor does it get at all the main historical sources. These are simply distinctions I have found helpful in thinking about politics.

Conservatism Emerges

At the origin is something that is not strictly a type of conservatism, but which serves as a backdrop to the development of the conservatism we know in America - the political theology of the Calvinist Reformation. It proposed a transformation of the social order of Europe and threatened political and social establishments. In reaction to the ideological threat came theories which were the seeds of some contemporary forms of conservatism.

The Calvinist idea was that of a disciplined society. The historian Peter Lake explains it this way:

Presbyterianism was a form of church government which vested ecclesiastical power first in the individual congregation and then in a hierarchy of synods. Each congregation was ruled by a pastor, who was to preach the word, a doctor, who was to teach right doctrine, and a panel of lay elders. A group of deacons was to collect and distribute relief for the poor. All these officers were to be elected by the congregation. Spiritual discipline, up to and including excommunication, was to be exercised over the congregation by the minister and elders. The basic unit of ecclesiastical government was thus the individual congregation. ... In so far as the church was held together by any overarching or co-ordaining power, that power was vested in a hierarchy of synods to which individual churches sent representatives and which linked local and provincial networks of ministers to the central authority of the national synod. Predicated on a sharp distinction between civil and ecclesiastical power, the discipline effectively excluded the prince from the day-to-day running of the church.

Presbyterianism thus addressed itself to, and indeed notionally solved, a number of long-term problems confronting the protestant church of England. From the first English protestantism had been beset by tension between a view of the true church as an embattled minority of true believers, and the idea of a genuinely national church. ... Again, since the 1530s, protestant attitudes to the royal supremacy had been ambiguous. Was it an attribute of the 'imperial' crown of England or could it only be wielded by the king in parliament?...

Presbyterianism seemed to offer solutions to all these problems. It resolved the tension between the godly minority and the ungodly majority, between the gathered and national churches, by simply handing control over the ungodly to the self-selecting oligarchies who would run each congregation. While the discipline might give the minister great power and status, it ensured that he achieved them through the votes of the 'people' and wielded them in conjunction with a panel of elected lay elders. A balance was thus struck between lay and clerical interests, as it was in the presbyterian attitude to the Christian prince. He was given a residual right to reform a church too far gone in popery or corruption to reform itself but denied any quotidian role in the government of the church.

This whole scheme was referred to as the 'discipline'. The Reformed faith was not a mere theology of individual salvation but a social theory. Consequently the 'discipline' was strenuously opposed, and what became Anglican theology evolved from this opposition. The theology of the establishment was anti-Reformed before it as Anglican, Anglican before it was Arminian, and Arminian before it was Anglo-Catholic. For the Anglican theorists religion was too important, too obviously a vital interest of the state, for the state to tolerate the removal of religion from its control. The official cult must unite the people and make them servants of the civil sovereign; all other considerations were secondary. Anglicanism was founded on these principles.

The great founders of anti-Reformed polity were Richard Hooker, who developed (by 1600) the typically modern idea of the role of man's rational insight into the nature of the universe as the final court of appeal in human society, and Hugo Grotius who pioneered ideas of pluralism and of an independent civil order. It is these developments which lie behind the later Toryism and similar 'conservative' ideals. Having been concocted to keep religion in subservience (Hooker) or at arm's length (Grotius), to suit the needs of the social and economic establishment, these ideas did not bequeath to conservative inheritors a strong basis for resisting the attacks of the secular left.

The Ancien Regime

Romanism soon made its peace with royal absolutism. Both parties had much to gain. The church received an exclusive franchise in each nation whose king supported it - it received a steady stream of money and rivals were exterminated. The king also benefited in many ways. A degree of moral discipline was maintained among the common people which was vital to the order and productivity of the nation. The people were taught to obey the king as a divinely ordained authority, thus maintaining the legitimacy of the state. But Rome refrained from the Calvinist moral severity, or its insolence to existing powers in applying the same standards all across the social scale. The king and nobles were allowed to pursue their own opulent and dissolute life-styles without church censure.

This system lasted until both church and state were rotted by Enlightenment paganism. The opposition these Romish regimes then engendered was not that of principled presbyterianism but a savage paganism such as broke loose during the French Revolution.

Tory Conservatism

This is the conservatism of gentry hypocrisy: the estate worked by the labor of others, the gentlemen's country sports of fox and hounds and horse racing, Church attendance for the sake of appearance, and a mistress on the side. Tory Conservatism, or social Anglicanism, is the descendant of the anti-Reformed ideology of Richard Hooker and the high-church Arminians who followed him. This form of life was then transplanted from England by Anglican immigrants to the American south, where it became the foundation of Southern culture. At first the estate system was attempted with English laborers, but in America there was too much opportunity. That is, the workers ran away to other areas where they could obtain land of their own. Only when black slavery was substituted could the plantation system be made to work. The price of establishing the Anglican social-order in America was the race slavery system which proved to be one of the major factors that doomed the American republic.

Tory conservatives often go out of their way to attack Puritans, whom they hate as people of principle. Clyde Wilson exhibits the Tory attitude in a recent column in Chronicles where he contrasts Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. "Jefferson always conducted his family life within the Anglican communion, in contrast to John Adams, who is invariably described as an upholder of orthodoxy though he became a Unitarian (!) not out of youthful folly but of a mature decision." Here Jefferson's hypocritical outward conformity is commended, and the more forthright consistency of the less radical Adams is despised. What Jefferson "opposed", Clyde declaims, "was what he called 'priestcraft', by which he meant the clergy of New England hellbent on dominating the minds and actions of other men by force rather than free assent. The 'priestcraft' has degenerated from Calvinist to transcendentalist and now to progressive-liberal, but the principle remains the same." Tory conservatives are drawn to upper class mores and status: a stratified society based on inherited privilege, manners over morals, form over substance, Thomism, sacramental hocus-pocus, freewill, and "the permanent things" vaguely defined. This vagueness can be deceptive, for conservatives of a different stripe can read writings of Tory conservatives with a greater sense of commonality than is warranted.

It is sometimes assumed that the gentleman, economically secure in his estate, socially secure in his inherited place in society, and accustomed to the deference of his tenants and the small tradesman of the village, is the man best able to put selfish interest aside and give himself to public service. How true this is may be tested by the case of the corn laws in England. Further, this assumes a static society in which landed estates are always the prime source of income, status and power. If the gentry truly put the public interest first, however, they will create the conditions under which commerce will prosper, creating new sources and centers of wealth, including employment and domicile. Society will grow away from its rural roots, and the relative importance of the gentry will decline. Few would regard a Tory society as the best social order for our time, but our political order, including the Constitution, took shape when many considered it natural and best, and it still holds nostalgic appeal for conservatives.

Big Business Conservatism

In the nineteenth century the national government in the United States became involved in tariff schemes to protect manufacturers and in canal building favoring merchants and western interests who needed transportation to participate in the market. Following the Lincoln's legal revolution the Supreme Court was prone to reduce individual property rights to favor corporate immunities and eminent domain. The use of public lands to promote railroads, and later the oil business, continued the tradition of government and business cooperation.

The businesses that especially benefited were the businesses that could advance their interests in Washington through lobbying and sometimes bribery. All these arrangements gave big business something to protect, to conserve. It is in the nature of big business to be conservative. A big business is one that has triumphed over its rivals. This is a situation that it does not want changed, thus it seeks to mold government policy so that its position will be protected. A quasi-socialist welfare state crushes the small entrepreneur who could conceivably rise to challenge the existing market leaders or create new industries that make old businesses obsolete. (To see how this has played out recently, read Payback: The Conspiracy to Destroy Michael Milken and his Financial Revolution, by Daniel Fischel.) A large business may be able to derive profits from war production, even though the cost to the whole economy is ruinous, especially to the small business that is not deemed strategic and which sees its employees drafted or its raw materials redirected to the big businesses' war production.

The public often is suspicious of big business, which nevertheless has become identified in the popular mind with the Republicans and with conservatism.


Populism at times appears radical, at times conservative. Populists tend to be isolationist and anti-war - most of the time conservative positions. Because of the central economic role played by the railroads in the farm economy of the mid-west, farmers tended to blame their troubles on the conspiracies of railroad monopolists (as a lager generation of mid-westerners blamed the conspiracies of the big oil companies). Seeing business conspiracies as the locus of their problems, populists turn to big government for solutions, such as the currency debasement advocated by William Jennings Bryan. This makes them radical.

The populist's preference for minding his own business free from the machination of monopolistic organizations and elites makes him a good ally for the limited government conservative. The populist's ignorance of economics and public affairs makes him easy to manipulate, and thus a good ally for the left. Populism is one of the unsolved problems of American politics.


This is sometimes called the ideology of the New Class or managerial class. It is the welfare state controlled and harnessed for the interests of the cosmopolitan bureaucrats of business, and civil government. Unlike socialist ideologues, whom they partly resemble, they do not wish to slay the goose that lays the golden eggs. They realize that family stability, economic incentives, and a stabilizing role for religion are useful to the ruling establishment.

To a neo-conservative nations are political administrative units, people are production units, and culture is what you view in an art museum. Neo-cons have displayed a genius for attracting and controlling money and organizations. The best introduction to the rise and significance of neo-conservatism is Paul Gottfried's The Conservative Movement. In my experience, neo-conservatives are on the one hand ex-liberals who refuse to come all the way in from the cold because of a fundamental commitment to the humanistic myth of pluralism, or, on the other hand, people with a conservative, or more likely populist, family background whose intellectual development only came later and from neo-conservative sources which they read in the belief they were conservative.


Holding to a minimal role for government - the enforcement of contracts - libertarians deny the legitimacy of an established moral order. They have a great faith in the ability of men to solve everything if left to their own proclivities. Often allied with conservatives, they differ fundamentally. The World Wide Web is a libertarian playground, with many pages in which they explain themselves.

If Not Conservatism - Then What?

The problem of conservatism is that too often it is slanted to protect some group of established interests, as the name implies. That fact that it offers an alternative to inhuman or lunatic leftist practices (which are not the topic of this essay) does not sufficiently justify one sort of conservatism over another. Given its roots in the rejection of transcendent norms, conservatism can hardly grasp more than temporary and relative justifications - or as in the case of some conservative writers, very vague invocations of virtues, permanent things and the like.

More recently a desires to reclaim a transcendently grounded, or Christian society, have begun to be heard. They are extremely varied. Some, such as the Christian Coalition, which lacks the courage of its convictions if it has convictions, can be dismissed out of hand. There seems to be some stirrings in favor of a traditional Catholic society, whatever that is. Several varieties of Christian Reconstruction, based on the writings of R.J. Rushdoony (and diluted forms of it) are being more widely touted.

Athanasian Pluralism

A few years ago the episcopalian pop-historian Gary North proposed a social order he called Athanasian pluralism. His innovation was to substitute Trinitarian confessionalism for the Reformed discipline. Put another way, North is willing to accept a shattered church. While he would require membership in some church or other of Trinitarian confession to qualify for state office, it need not be a credible profession. For beside the Reformed church with serious standards for its members, there is the Roman Church where all manner of abominations in the lives of the members are winked at, so long as the members attend certain rituals on occasion. (Or to take another example, I once heard a man who had served in the state police in eastern Tennessee complain that there was no church he could attend on Sunday, for the deacons in all of them were the same people he was arresting for various crimes the rest of the week.) In short, Athanasian pluralism is not the Reformed social order at all, but a quite different one based on lip service. There are other problems; for example it seems to be an arbitrary concoction. North has not been able to justify the particular features of Athanasian pluralism. Why is confession of the Trinity and not some other doctrine the standard? Why not require the acknowledgment of the authority of the Bible, or justification by faith, or the substitutionary atonement?

Athanasian pluralism completely ignores cultural features (beyond a sort of bare Christianity) or the identity of a people. (An excessive libertarian influence is evident here.) When a pagan nation is converted to Christianity it takes many generations before Christian ways of thinking permeate the culture to the point where they can be a prosperous and free, self-governing people. Roman Catholic countries, especially third-world ones, remain culturally semi-pagan, as can be seen from the appalling conditions that prevail in them. Yet North's social theory calls for letting such people flood into this country and take over.

Since first announcing Athanasian pluralism in his book Political Polytheism North has done nothing to plug the holes or justify the arbitrary features. North likes to invoke "biblical blueprints" for social theory, but in the case of his own political theory he has singularly failed to provide them. In light of North's own de facto abandonment of his theory his neo-Reformed approach to politics can be written off as a dead end.

Back to the Beginning

If the rootlessness of modern man arose from the rejection of transcendent standards, the way back is a return to such standards. All such standards are exclusive, however. Not only does A, holding to one standard (say, the Bible) reject the authority of B's standard (perhaps tradition), the respective standards dictate different public and social behavior and limits of toleration. This creates a real problem about how we may live together in peace.

To some extent the problem has been exaggerated, as witness the hysterical claims made about the Bible by the opponents of Christian Reconstruction. Conflicts can also be reduced by allowing regional diversity, instead of forcing the norms of one group on half a continent, as the east coast elite in the United States does today, principally through the court system.

Beyond this, until they can persuade far more than a simple majority to their particular views conservatives will find themselves in a condition of limited cooperation and forced to form coalitions which are only partly satisfactory to those who join them. First, however, until each group comes to understand what it believes and why, conservatives will continue to flounder in confusion and continue to be manipulated and exploited by the media and unscrupulous politicians.