This article was originally featured in Cogitare’s 2023 Fall edition.
Time and time again this semester, a question has occurred to me: what does it mean to be conservative? Here I am – a senior at Grove City College – one of the conservative Christian colleges, running a conservative Christian magazine, and before this semester, I don’t think I could have given a satisfying answer to this question.
Thankfully, while the question kept popping up, opportunities to think about the answer also came along. I spent some time wrestling with conservatism and asking professors about it. Then, in September, Daniel McCarthy, vice president of Collegiate Network at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), came to speak in the “Conservative Mind” lecture series. Through McCarthy, I was introduced to the history of American conservatism, including Russell Kirk’s seminal book The Conservative Mind. Just a month later, I found myself at the Collegiate Network’s annual editors’ conference, surrounded by self-proclaimed conservative young journalists from all over the country. From the different ways we approached our work, it was clear that we didn’t all come from the same strand of conservative circles. So what did we all have in common?
Perhaps it is easiest to define conservatism first by what it is not: it is not just an ideology, and it is not simply a tendency to cling to the past. Of course, there is a danger to reduce conservatism to these things, but at the heart of the word is something much deeper than that. Being intellectually conservative means being committed to a fundamentally pious and sacramental way of life.
First, authentic conservatism is not just an ideology but is instead a set of “lived practices” that are rooted in piety. Drawing from Kirk, Daniel McCarthy made this point central in his September lecture. Ideologies are inherently reductionistic and abstract, and, as Wendell Berry says, “abstraction is the enemy.” Communism, socialism, secular liberalism, and even some versions of “conservatism” are ideologies. Simple party politics – including “conservative” party politics – can be just as reductionistic. They reduce America to an idea – not a real place with real people and a real history.
What we saw in the Cold War, as McCarthy emphasized, was not a communist ideology versus a conservative ideology; it was not a battle of two abstract ideas where the “best man won.” It was a matter of one abstract ideology versus the lived practices of faith and patriotism. It is this commitment to lived practices that distinguishes true conservatism from mere abstraction. We are never beyond the danger of reducing our ideals to an ideology, however. That is why we must be committed to defending something more concrete, more real than just an abstract set of ideas. We must defend the lived practices that we hold so dear.
What are these lived practices? As McCarthy explained it, faith and patriotism are central. One way of understanding what faith and patriotism have in common is the old-world idea of piety. Traditionally understood, piety is the sense of duty, love, and honor owed to God and our earthly fathers. Faith is the expression of our piety first toward God, His Scripture, our faith traditions, and our current faith communities. Patriotism is the expression of our piety towards our place, our history, and our forefathers. To put it another way, faith and patriotism are about love of God and love of neighbor – the two greatest commandments.
Since conservatism is built on the bedrock of piety, the things we hold dear are often and rightly termed “traditional values.” Indeed, as conservatives, “we respect the wisdom of [our] ancestors,” as Kirk writes. We believe in things like faith, family, and freedom. We uphold the realities of male and female and of marriage between one man and one woman. We believe in the power of community and hard work and local places. We think that things like virtue and fidelity and fruitfulness are the building blocks of a free and flourishing society.
Just as true conservatism must not be reduced to an ideology, it also must not be reduced to simply a preservation of the past. We do not cling to tradition for tradition’s sake. Instead, conservatism is fundamentally committed to preserving the permanent things of reality.
A common way that outsiders characterize conservatives is that we are old-fashioned and want to go back to the “good old days,” a characterization that we ourselves often gladly accept and claim. We must be careful here, however. Richard Weaver is right in saying that “modern man…has taken up arms against, and he has effectually slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration” – and it is deeply problematic. The temptation, then, is to be reactionary towards this impiety by clinging to some idyllic notion of a perfect past. But chronological snobbery goes both ways, and every age has its blind spots. While we believe that there is wisdom to be gleaned from the past, we must not reduce conservatism to a wholesale tendency to cling to the past for its own sake. Conservatism includes tradition, but it must not be reduced to it.
Instead, we must commit ourselves to the spiritual and sacramental realities that transcend time and space. We uphold what is good, true, and beautiful across history. Unlike Marxist ideologies, we believe that reality is more than just a material existence. Kirk captures this so well when describing his book:
The Conservative Mind describes a cast of intellect or a type of character, an inclination to cherish the permanent things in human existence. On many prudential questions, and on some general principles, conservatives may disagree from time to time among themselves… Yet the folk called “conservative” join in resistance to the destruction of old patterns of life, damage to the footings of the civil social order, and reduction of human striving to material production and consumption. (emphasis added)
While not always explicitly Christian, conservative thinking is on some level always spiritual and sacramental because it holds to a view of reality that is more than materialism. To use Josef Pieper’s terminology, this worldview looks beyond the “world of utility” to the “world beyond.”
Conservative thinking is not an end in itself. It is not ultimate. But it is our best defense of those ultimate things. In fact, according to McCarthy’s well-developed metaphor, conservatism is our nation’s and our civilization’s immune system, designed to fight whatever pathogens come its way – from the threat of atheistic communism to the materialism of a technology-obsessed society.
If you would have asked me a year ago what it means to think conservatively, my answer very likely would have been my best attempt at explaining a political ideology or something about getting back to the good old days. What I have come to understand and truly appreciate is that being conservative is far more than either of these things – it is about preserving and pursuing the truly good life.