What Is A Conservative? Print
Magistralis: On the Civil Magistrate
Written by Douglas Wilson   

20-1_magistralis01The easy use of the word conservative by biblical Christians is understandable, on the one hand, and mighty hard to explain on the other. In a world where everything seems up for grabs, the Christian who is grounded in the sure word of Scripture has a natural antipathy for relativism. We want to ground our political observations in something solid, and not just go with the prevailing winds of doctrine. A man on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific wants to find ground also, but we would hardly describe his efforts to get there as the work of conservation.

The word conservative presupposes that there is some­thing valuable here that needs to be retained, and that we should all therefore labor to conserve it. But what do con­servatives conserve exactly? In the former Soviet Union, it would be the ways of the old Politburo, in Saudi Arabia, it would be the weirdness of the Wahabi sect of Islam, and in Western economics, it is the insights of eighteenth- century liberalism. All these uses refer to a disposition to go slowly—whatever it is you might be doing. As Lord Falklands once said, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. This dispositional conservatism is good if you are dragging your feet when people are trying to drag you away from the good, and it is evil when you are dragging your feet when they are trying to drag you into the good. Soviet conservatism was evil, Wahabi conservatism is blind, and economic conservatism is simply wisdom.

A Christian conservative (we are talking about cul­ture and politics here, not theology, and so I say Christian conservative as opposed to a conservative Christian) is someone whose basic desire is to conserve and apply the constant truths of God’s Word to the changing and tumultuous world around us. The progressive wants to move forward, not knowing where he is going. He is happy just so long as he is making good time. The hide bound traditional­ist wants to stay put. He is happy so long as he is making no time. The progressive and the traditionalist both serve what they do not understand—one wants to go who-knows-where, while the other one wants to stay who-knows-where.

God in His sovereignty is taking human history some­where important, and He is doing this through successive convulsions. He is constantly working us over, as His Spirit is working us toward maturity. The true Christian con­servative is one who is loyal to that process. God’s law is unchanging, and human society is gradually maturing in the purposes of God. To assume that the unchanging nature of divine law means stasis in human affairs is like assum­ing that the fixed rules governing an English sonnet mean somehow that no more than one poem can ever be written. And to assume that all change is automatically good is to throw away the idea of rule-guided change, and lands us in the culture of postmodern vers libre.

The Christian conservative wants to retain all that we have learned which is valuable, and he wants to press on, leaving behind all the foolishness we have picked up along the way. The thing he always seeks to conserve is loyalty to the divine government of the world in accordance to a fixed standard. He rejects the latest imbecilities offered by some, offered in the name of automatic progress. But he also laughs at the decrepit offerings from the ancient past, presented to us as though wisdom were inert.

God used the eighteenth-century liberals like Adam Smith to show us how free markets work—and they work in their special way just as the blood circulates in its special way, whether we want them to or not. So when a modern Christian conservative argues for free-market economics, he is not arguing for a narrow partisan point of view that is called conservatism now, but used to be called liberalism, ho ho ho. He is not showing loyalty to an older partisan prin­ciple, but rather loyalty to what God over all history taught us in that century.

In short, this means that the Christian conservative is a theocrat. He believes that God governs history, and he believes also that we can read something of what He is do­ing in that history. He does not try to read the tea leaves of day-to-day events (“By having the Dow drop two hundred points in as many days, God is telling us . . .”). But he does believe that God wanted us to learn (and determined that we would learn) that the heart pumps the blood through the body, that magistrates cannot dictate the price of bread by fiat, and that the magistrates can and should effectively discourage crime and foreign invasions with a firm hand. The Christian conservative does not want to conserve the ignorance that hasn’t learned these things yet, and he does want to conserve knowledge of them once we have learned them.

Because he is a theocrat, he holds that everything about history is personal. Because God is immutable, there is predictability to the standard, to the fixed law. Because God is infinite, wise and good, He is taking us into a glori­ous future that eye has not seen, and ear has not heard. But God is preparing it anyway. Christian conservatism wants to go with Him.



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