My politics and even my religious perspectives tend to be left of center. By now, if you started reading from the beginning, that confession shouldn’t come as any surprise. In a previous essay I tried to reclaim, even redeem, the “liberal” label. Having made that point, I want to say that I also value the true conservative voice. I use the words “true conservative” because what passes for conservatism today is actually quite activist, which runs against the grain of the conservative ideal.
Now, I welcome the conservative voice as a necessary caution to the liberal’s advocacy of progressive ideas and actions. This is, of course, the American way, for this nation has never been a one party state. Multiple voices can make for disharmony and confusion, but the alternative is quite unappetizing. If only one voice is heard then freedom of expression has been effectively eliminated.
Our government’s system of checks and balances helps prevent one branch of government from dominating the other two, and it keeps us tied to the rule of law. Now, from time to time one party or another will gain ascendancy, but the people have the power to adjust the balance, and often they do just that.
If a liberal is, by definition, open minded, tolerant, and change oriented, the conservative, so the dictionary says, is one who is “averse to change.” Conservatism ties itself to the values and institutions of the past, which means the idea of a radical conservative is kind of an oxymoron. I don’t know about you, but I find a bit of irony in the label “conservative revolution.” That’s because a true conservative is cautious and committed to tradition, so to pursue a revolutionary agenda and then try to remake the American way of life, which some modern expressions of conservatism appear to be doing, is anything but conservative.
True conservatism is, however, a check on an overly optimistic and radical liberalism. The conservative voice should caution us against grandiose schemes and ground us in reality. It should call us to be fiscally sound so that the institutions of today may prosper (the Medicare/Social Security debate?). True conservatism remembers and treasures the traditions of nation and religion.
As one church historian said “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” There is much value to be found in our shared traditions, just as long as they don’t become rigid and unreformable. The value of tradition is that it serves as an anchor, without which we tend to lose sight of our purpose and values – such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
The phrase “throwing the baby out with the bath water” is apropos here. While some things need changing (even radical change), not everything needs changing. Some things are best left alone, like a pristine forest or the habitat of an endangered species. Old buildings may be less efficient, but they give character to a community. Remember that the word conservation derives from the same root as conservative!
What is true of the environment and local architecture is also true in religion and politics. In many ways the American political system has worked quite well for a very long time – two hundred and thirty years and counting. It has needed tweaking and even significant reform, but the basic structures have held up quite well.
Regarding religion, I must confess that my faith is rooted in a book that in its most recent parts is more than nineteen centuries old. I recognize that not everything contained within its pages applies today or even makes sense today, but when responsibly interpreted, it remains the anchor of my faith and millions of others as well. Although I enjoy contemporary forms of worship and new musical expressions, I also love the old hymns and symbols of my faith. In my tradition we practice weekly communion as a way of remembering an event that occurred centuries ago. It’s not very modern, but it’s still an anchor to my faith.
In many ways I am a liberal, but I appreciate the cautioning voice of the true conservative. This voice allows us to reform our structures and traditions, while keeping us anchored. Change is good – like the growing numbers of women clergy or the prospect that most Americans seem ready to elect a woman or an African American President – but change is most beneficial when it’s tempered by a wisdom that’s informed by tradition.
Essay excerpted from book under construction -- Faith in the Public Square.