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Conservatism seeks the Truth that has emerged over time, drawing from the deep wellsprings of human experience, and builds anew on foundations that have withstood the tests of time. It fosters order and the flourishing of human beings as they live in relationship with one another. We are united in the eternal contract between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.

Conservatism is rooted in the acknowledgement that God is our Creator and that the human soul sojourns through this realm toward its eternal transcendent fulfillment. We are all flawed human beings in need of redemption, capable of great evil as well as great good.

Because man is fallible by nature, the conservative seeks to limit the damage that can be done through the abuse of power by limiting its concentration.

The conservative fosters the fullness of human potential by protecting the freedom and dignity of each person, acknowledging that responsibility comes with freedom. Rights and duties are always linked.

For the conservative, each man and woman is equal in dignity and equal before the law, but gloriously individual and unequal in talents, aptitudes, and outcomes. The conservative celebrates the uniqueness of individuals and does not level to eliminate differences.

The conservative honors the family as the essential building block of civilization, the house of worship as the locus for forming culture, and the community as the matrix for human interaction. Culture and community grow from relationships and affinities over time, rooted in place. Conservatives value the rich diversity of relationships, organizations, and private associations that make up civil society and intermediary institutions.

The conservative values subsidiarity because we know many of the best solutions to human problems are found at the level closest to the individual person. We foster personal, local care for persons in need, preferably face-to-face with someone whose name we know. We believe that human transformation occurs best in the context of a personal, loving relationship, with accountability, over time.

The conservative is more concerned with the culture than politics, because the political realm is a derivative one, not primary, in human existence. Political problems are at their root moral and spiritual problems, which blend into the economic realm. Political change is rooted in cultural change.

Conservatives believe that caring for our neighbor is so important that it should not be left to the government. The one thing government cannot do is love. That is what we are called to do in the private sector, with our own time, talent, and treasure.

The conservative believes that that the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are interrelated, and that all things are measured against these three transcendentals.

We believe that there is Truth, that it is knowable, and that it is our duty to seek Truth and live it throughout our lives. The conservative believes that the virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance should be practiced in both private and public life.  We believe that virtues, not values, define the human soul.

We believe that Love is the highest motivation of the human person and that the purpose of life itself is to know God, to love Him and serve Him, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our ultimate fulfillment is in the transcendence of love.

Books on this topic this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis was presented April 15, 2013 in a debate between conservatives and progressives, co-sponsored by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies of Grand Valley State University and the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

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16 replies to this post
  1. Thorough and nuanced, yet concise and still eloquent! I doubt that even Burke could have surpassed it. Bravissimo!

  2. Professor Elliott: Who’d have believed that an entire ideological credo could be summed up so succinctly? But I do have a few questions. (1) If “Conservatism is rooted in the acknowledgement that God is our Creator,” then am I, as an atheist, automatically disqualified from being a conservative? (2) If “man is fallible by nature” (and who could doubt it?), then even if there is such a thing as Truth, how likely is it that we fallible humans will ever grasp it or properly identify it? Aren’t we more like the blind men trying to describe an elephant, and then quarreling with each other because our descriptions differ? (3) While “The conservative celebrates the uniqueness of individuals and does not level to eliminate differences,” does she or he do anything at all to alleviate the inevitable inequalities and injustices that result from fallible humans doing fallible things and constructing fallible systems that inevitably produce unfair results? And if so, is government a legitimate instrument to use?

    Allow me to say that it’s because of such statements as “The conservative values subsidiarity,” “The conservative is more concerned with the culture than politics,” and “The conservative believes that the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are interrelated” that I continue (despite my misguided “progressive” politics) to be drawn to conservative thought. Thank you for your “credo”.

  3. Oh my how I do love discussions like this. The interesting issue of the Conservative Atheist has been thoughtfully discussed in many venues in the past, and I think for me, the strongest line of reasoning is something like this: as a minimal qualification to be a conservative, while one may not personally believe in God, but you have to certainly not be opposed to such belief, and you certainly have to see the truth that the Judeo-Christian tradition has been an overwhelmingly positive good for humanity and civilization. It seems if one disagrees with THAT, then one can’t really be a conservative (libertarian maybe…).

    Also…I would say that a conservative mindset, in my experience, doesn’t necessarily seek to oust but to include. Anyone can destroy, but who can build? Isn’t that the conservative project? Renew, build, sustain, create anew. And to do that, we need all hands on deck, and all hands need to agree “for the most part” on all that is set forth in this essay. But there is, and always will be, some diversity among us.

    On your point #3, no one (especially we conservatives) will deny that life is painful and fraught with calamities, some foreseeable and some not. The response to how do we contend with those, is, in community. At the absolute lowest levels of community, some government is good…but it is at these lowest levels that the government looks most like the community itself, rather than something other than the community. Ever level higher that government ascends, the further it gets from that which it is trying to address, the more awful and destructive it becomes. Government, for the most part, destroys community. To the extent that government can be intelligently and judiciously introduced into communities, then sure, it can be done.

    That is, I think, the conservative idea….just my $.02, though.

    • Mark: Thank you for your reply–I’m heartened to know that I’m not disqualified! I fully respect the Judeo-Christian tradition (heck, I was raised in it) and also the “religious impulse” in general (as Dwight Eisenhower might put it); in fact, I’m something of a God-seeking atheist, if such a thing is possible–if only because, if I find God, I have a bone or two to pick.

      “Renew, build, sustain, create anew”: count me in. One of the (many) things I dislike about capitalism is its relentless, promiscuous “creative destruction”–such destruction happens thoughtlessly, without concern for consequences or for human beings and communities caught up in it. We have abdicated our responsibility to make choices about what things to “renew, build, sustain, [and] create anew” and delegated those choices instead to the Invisible Hand of the market and to what I call the “technological imperative”: if a new technology can be developed, it will be developed, and it will be put to use, whether anyone wanted it in the first place and whether it’s good for us or not.

      I don’t disagree with your contention that government becomes less effective as it becomes larger and more remote–it’s the “human scale” problem that many on both sides of the political spectrum have come to see as critical. Yet advocates of decentralized power must also recognize that when states and localities fail to provide for citizens’ legitimate needs, they’re providing instead an opening for the very Leviathan they denounce. The best way to resist Big Government is to do a better job with small government.

      In any case: community, subsidiarity, respect for tradition (combined with a healthy skepticism for authority),human scale, and the basic principles of distributism are all things/ideals I believe in, which is why I frequent this particular site. (Plus, like you I also love these conversations…)

      • “…if I find God, I have a bone or two to pick. ” As a theist, i sympathize with that sentiment. There are one or three thinkg I also should like to enter a complaint about. Unlike the Professional Ecclesiastics, I am not convinced that Man’s position before God is supline submission. However, I do find that the 3 or 4 thousand years of the Judeo-Christian haritage offers much in the way of foundation for conservative phiolosophy. By way of example, the RCC Social Teaching includes a) subsidiaritry, b) solidarity), c) stewardship, and d) sustainability. All of these are sound conservative (Burkean) principles. Or so I think.
        (But I also recall Oliver Cromwell “I beseech ye, by the Bowels of Christ, Think — Ye may be Wrong.”)

      • great, thoughtful reply.

        To narrow the points of discussion:

        “The best way to resist Big Government is to do a better job with small government.”

        I would amend this slightly, to “the best way to resist Big Government is to build true community…and true community can include a small amount of local, controlled and limited government to support it.”

        Great stuff, these conversations.

        • Good point: legitimate government emerges from authentic community, which is why so many of us believe that we need to concentrate our efforts on the latter. But I’ll note that it’s easier to blame and to attack government than it is to build community…

  4. Tocqueville wrote:

    “…one must recognize that if [religion] does not save men in the other world, it is at least very useful to their happiness and their greatness in this one.”
    (Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 1, Ch. 5; Mansfield translation)

    • Shaun: So recognized…religion can also do (and inspire) great harm, but in my estimate, it’s more a force for good. Though there are days and events that make you wonder…

  5. Mr. Schifflett, as we often spend so much time on these boards disagreeing, allow me to find much happiness in agreeing with this thought of yours:

    “The best way to resist Big Government is to do a better job with small government.”

    Indeed, we shall have limited government to the extent our patriotism and engagement in family and community life, whether via the marketplace or church or school is strong. Tocqueville saw this long ago when he predicted that an individualism that isolates people from one another and breaks the ancient bonds between the generations will lead not to freedom, but to despotic government.

    As for the “atheism” thing – I want to share my opinion born of decades of exerience:

    In all the years I have been conscious, I have never experienced anything but patience, charity, a passion for knowledge and humility from Christians. Whether I was an atheist, a doubter, whether I had some resentment towards God – the Christians I knew (of all denominations) never judged me.

    Sadly, I cannot say the same for the atheists and progressives I knew and know. While many are my friends or associates, many also seemed to only allow for two possible comportments: either you hated the Church with them or you were an ignorant superstitious rube. They would get phenomenaly irritated when confronted by thoughtful religious seeking and I lost a lot of people I thought were my friends when I finally joined the Catholic Church fully as an adult.

    That, to me, tells us something about Christians and nonbelievers.

  6. Mr. Rieth: I knew we were bound to agree on something eventually; thanks for the acknowledgement. And I also agree with your citing of Tocqueville about the dangers of “an individualism that isolates people from one another”. I’m tempted to go further and to say that the problem with “individualism” is that there are no such things as “individuals”. Human beings are born into (Christians would say “created for”) relationships; we are relational creatures, and to pretend otherwise is futile and destructive.

    I’d like to be able to say that your experience with atheists is not typical but, sadly, I suspect it is. Most of the self-described atheists I’ve known have been truculent and angry; whereas my experiences with Christians, like yours, have been overwhelmingly positive, even as I drifted from their orbit of belief. My God-seeking and religion-respecting atheism is no doubt the exception and not the rule; I wish it were otherwise. The French author and atheist Alain de Botton has written respectfully about religion and about its uses for atheists; he’s a far better role model for me than the likes of Richard Dawkins.

  7. First, let me reply to Mr. Shifflett’s first offering above. #1: yes; #2: see #1; #3: of course, and it has little to do either #1 or #2. Now, this is flippant, but I don’t mean it to be either dogmatic or arrogant. The only important thing Barbara left out of her credo is that conservatives are never ideologues, and if they aspire to ideology, they are simply not conservatives deep down. Most conservatives I have known do not believe there is such a thing as atheism (it is simply replacing God with other gods, in some cases the self), but if there is no source for the True, Good, and Beautiful except pragmatic or historical circumstances, then there is really nothing to conserve except some arbitrary era, usually sentimentally contrived. This doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t like or work with the many good people who for whatever reason wish to resist what is manifest. It’s like the “Catholic” who says that he is indeed Catholic but cannot believe that there is a Real Presence in the Mass. Sorry, man, you may be a perfectly nice human being, but you are not a Catholic.

    Second, Barbara, you will not be surprised when I say that this is one of the most beautiful statements of belief I have ever read, and I commend you, love you, defer to you.

    • Mr. Willson: Thanks for your honest, albeit soul-crushing, response. I will continue my search for the True, the Good and the Beautiful regardless, but I’ll be careful not to consider or represent myself as a “conservative” while I do so. Allow me to say that dismissing atheism as a facade for the worship of “other gods, in some cases the self” seems no more justified than dismissing theism as a mere projection of the self and the self’s desires onto the universe. I take theism seriously, and I would hope believers would take atheism seriously as well.

  8. I often encounter conservatives talking about their quest of/desire for the true, the good, the beatiful, but where does this triad come from? Being is probably a more important transcendental, and prior to Kant at least, lists of the transcedentals also usually included “thing” and “something” as well. Would including being on the list be too overtly philosophical?

  9. EXCELLENT STATEMENT ON THE “CONSERVATIVE” WORLD VIEW… Some ideas– based on discovered principles derived from the fixed proclivities of human nature in society–are so essential to the “good” (the “summum bonum”), they are worth conserving within the human experience through all time. Contrary to Conservative efforts to conserve them, modern Liberalism consistently tries to undermine most of these ideas, simply because their utility falls short of creating a ‘perfect’ society. They foolishly assume that the perfect (a utopia) is even possible…a matter of a Procrustean forced ‘equality’ between inherently unequal individuals…according to an arbitrarily fixed standard (a Rawlsian lowest common denominator). Thus, Liberals arrogantly impose (typically via government fiat for lack of broad public common sense appeal) their opposites as the better alternatives. The social and economic hazards that inevitably ensue, are often met by Liberals with a prideful-stubborn doubling down on their attacks on the tried and true…blaming their failures on conservative obstructions to their grand designs.

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