Conservatism Defends the Natural Order
American conservatism is more than standing athwart history yelling stop.
American conservatism has, to its detriment, defined itself by what it’s against ever since William F. Buckley, Jr. described it as standing athwart history yelling stop. It was a neat turn of phrase in a polemical essay he wrote for the inaugural issue of National Review. Unfortunately, it encouraged many who followed him to believe that conservatism’s central project is to stop things. That’s wrong and it reveals a movement that has not been serious about governing. After that came the Goldwater campaign and the birth of what became known as the “conservative movement.” But it was never really a coherent political movement at all. It was primarily an electoral coalition of disparate anti-communist factions that reached its apex in the election of Ronald Reagan.
After Reagan and the collapse of international communism, the coalition was adrift, held together primarily by opposition to Bill Clinton. A lot of good that did; he won twice. When Republicans were able to eke out a victory with George W. Bush in 2000, he won 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore. They were going to have to make the hard decisions that come with power, but 9/11 intervened and every other issue was crowded out for the next decade by war in the Middle East and Central Asia. The day of reckoning for conservatives, when they would have to decide what it meant to be an American conservative in the 21st century, was again delayed by the unity and impotence of being out of power during the Obama years. But Donald Trump’s election has finally forced this issue.
So, what is American conservatism? It is simply this: the belief that human nature is immutable, is knowable in its most important distinctiveness, that legitimate government exists to secure the life and property of its citizens, to protect the family, the church, and to enable them to exercise authority within their rightful domains. It requires a recognition of the independence but also interdependence of the three main institutions—government, family, church—that are together the pillars of civilization.
Political conservatism is about recognizing and protecting those two natural, pre-political institutions that define human life. It is also about ensuring that the political does not swallow up all of human life, recognizing that mankind finds peace, joy, beauty, and purpose, not in politics, but in the transcendence of religion and the embrace of family. Politics, consequently, is in the service of these higher goods. Conservatives are keenly aware of the limitations and capacities placed upon any institution political or otherwise and therefore seeks a sharing of power with these complementary institutions. There are particular areas in which the political must take precedence, but in all other areas the other institutions which order human life must take precedence.
This has been the case since the earliest American settlers signed the Mayflower Compact in 1620, which began, “In the name of God, Amen,” and then established a system of local rule under the headship of the English monarch. Similar systems were established in all of the colonies. Some had established churches, some didn’t. But all of them shared certain characteristics: religion was both the predicate and bulwark of civil society, local rule in the form of town meetings and colonial assemblies, the crown and his governors serving as the head of state and assuming primary responsibility for things like defense against foreign aggressors. Family life was considered so important to the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that many towns required everyone, even newly arrived singles, to live with a family.
It’s easy to think that this was just one of the quirks of New England’s non-conformist Puritans. But Dale’s Code (1611) in Virginia begins by declaring that “we owe our highest and supreme duty” to “the king of kings” and in its second article requires that “no man speak impiously or maliciously against the holy and blessed Trinity” (sorry Unitarians).
The point isn’t that early America was a theocracy. It wasn’t. Nor does it mean that to be an American or an American conservative means being a Protestant. American civil society allows for religious pluralism while, historically at least, encouraging religious practice in general. What this does show, however, is that early America was characterized by public piety, vibrant religious life, strong families, private commerce, local rule on most things, and a relatively remote executive responsible for security. For the next century and a half this formed the basis of America, shaped the national character, and set our expectations down to the present.
The foundation for American civil society was set by the natural rhythms of life, by religion, and by tradition. It wasn’t until much later that Enlightenment philosophy was overlaid on top of the American tradition in one of history’s great retcons. The trajectory for American life and especially American conservatism was set before John Locke was even born (1632) and well before his Two Treatises on Government were published (1689). Enlightenment philosophy was certainly a guiding light for Thomas Jefferson, but it’s too much to say that it guided the country. His was an elite preoccupation.
By the time of the Revolution, John Witherspoon, who signed the Declaration of Independence, would have been a better representative of the broad American view of the emerging nation and of civil society. Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton University. He was also James Madison’s teacher, and his sense of Presbyterian polity can be seen in the institutional design of Madison’s constitution perhaps nowhere so much as its federalism.
The ideal of American conservatism has been a vision of the nation as a middle-class republic with the family as its building block. We are not a nation of autonomous individuals defined simply by our rights, nor are we an unaffiliated mass of efficiency-maximizing consumers. We are what any nation is: an extended complex of interconnected families and friends who have rights by virtue of being made in the image of our Creator, but have duties to each other for exactly the same reason. This is what defines us, not theory or political proceduralism. American conservatism is the political expression of the respect for the natural order of human life formed by family and religion that exists in most societies, but formed and molded to suit our place—our geography—our particular people, the folkways that govern our daily lives. For American conservatism to command strong majority support from Americans it must focus on these truths. It must subordinate ideological fundamentalism and concentrate our efforts on increasing family formation and creating an environment in which those families can thrive. If we figure that out, we’ll win. And we’ll deserve to.
Chris Buskirk is the publisher and editor of American Greatness.
See all the articles published in the symposium, here.