Editor’s note: This is the second of four in a blog series by Jonathan Saur. Each day this week, he will offer a new post.
II. Why I am not a conservative
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II. Why I am not a conservative
In “The Conservative Mind,” writer Russell Kirk set out to provide definition to the conservative political philosophy. Rooting the modern-day conservative movement in the work of the British politician and political philosopher Edmund Burke, Kirk explained that conservatives work to slow change. Conservatives know that change will come. It is inevitable. In contrast to progressives, conservatives feel no need to usher change in, nor speed it along. Fast-moving change makes for fast-moving mistakes with dire consequences.
Furthermore, when it comes to who holds power, conservatives are interested in striking a balance. In a perfect world, many conservatives would choose a benevolent dictator- the kind of leader who wields power exclusively, but wields it well and wisely. However, conservatives are, first and foremost, realists who recognize that consolidating power in the hands of an individual, no matter how benevolent the individual, sets up the possibility for that same consolidated power being placed in the hands of a malevolent dictator. No, in the real world, conservatives do not want power in the hands of one individual, because that would make for too rapid of change, enacted on whims. An individual like former Louisiana Senator and Governor Huey Long (Yes, senator and governor at the same time – the only person to hold both positions concurrently) is terrifying to a conservative. Someone with that much power, who can enact changes on a whim, serves to speed along change much too rapidly.
Conservatives also fear the rabble. They fear the mob, which is fickle in its determinations. Burke’s philosophy was developed largely in response to the revolution occurring in France during his career. Watching from across the channel, the British government was aghast at the near-anarchy being displayed in France as the monarchy was overthrown by a truly unruly mob.
Placing power in the hands of an educated, benevolent aristocracy is the preferable option for a conservative, amongst the realistic options. Distributing power amongst an educated aristocracy, free from the whims of the mob but also held accountable to one another, is where the best balance is struck.
I have tried, in the above, to do justice to Kirk’s thought, and to conservatism in general. I have summarized thousands of pages of reading into a few paragraphs, so the reader will hopefully forgive some over-simplification. I would, at the end of the day, encourage the reader to read Kirk’s work, as well as the writings of Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, and David Frum – all conservatives whose work I have read, enjoyed, respected, and, hopefully, understood.
I hope that I have done justice to Kirk’s work because I reject it, and it would be unfortunate for me to reject an argument before I’ve understood it (as so often happens in American political discourse). So, I hope that the reader understands that a genuine effort has been made on my part to understand the conservative philosophy on its own terms.
That being said, I cannot adopt Kirk’s philosophy. I cannot adopt Kirk’s philosophy because I believe, fundamentally, that the concerns of conservatism are not the concerns of the writers of the New Testament.
Let me explain clearly – I do not believe that the aims of conservatism are, in and of themselves, nefarious. While many have leveled the charge that Conservatives are fascists, or simply rich aristocrats uninterested in the poor, I know this to be false. The majority of conservatives I know are people who genuinely care about society, genuinely care about the poor, and have noble goals. Furthermore, it is my firm belief that a system of thought can never be rejected simply because its adherents are corrupt. In any human endeavor, there will be a level of corruption. This says nothing about the endeavor itself, or the aims of the endeavor.
It is not the hypocrisy or selfishness of individuals who have claimed to be conservatives that have caused me to reject the ideology. It is because, as stated above, the concerns and aims of conservatives are not, in my judgment, the concerns and aims of the writers of the Gospels, especially the Apostle Paul.
The writers of the New Testament, in fact, were working within a completely different paradigm than the developers of conservative thought. The developers of conservative thought were focusing on power acquisition and distribution. In the New Testament, power acquisition isn’t even a thought – there was no way that a group of slaves, peasants, women, and religious outcasts were going to acquire power.
In conservative philosophy, religion is a tool to ensure the preservation of social order. In conservative philosophy, however, there is nothing intrinsic to Christianity that forces Christianity to be the dominant religion in a society. In reality, any religion could serve this purpose, so long as it is the dominant religion that is passed down from generation to generation and serves as the glue of culture. Religion, in effect, is an extension of the culture, a culture that should be preserved, except in the most dramatic of circumstances.
In the New Testament, however, the preservation of society is not a concern at all. In fact, it’s not even on the radar. And, in fact, one can make a much stronger argument that the early Christians were in desperate need of drastic changes in the dominant culture – changes that would result in Christians not being fed to lions, or thrown in the arenas to be slaughtered, or tortured for their profession of Christ as Lord. It is difficult to see how, in this setting, a preservation of social order would be a concern of the Early Church.
I do not believe that the preservation of American society, in and of itself, is necessarily bad. While I am not a conservative, I am also not a progressive, or a radical. My hope is that, like the New Testament, I wouldn’t even think along these lines. No, the preservation of American society isn’t necessarily bad. Nor is it necessarily good. And, either way, it’s not my concern.
No social order will save humanity. Many conservative readers will read this statement, cheer, and assume we are in agreement. However, they will then make the jump that, because no social order will save humanity, we should limit our government. That is not a jump I can join them in.
Those who would argue for a large government assert that this will somehow help society. That government can make society better. Conservatives argue against this, arguing that government will not make life better, but will instead tyrannize society, inhibiting liberty and freedom. The solution? Smaller government.
The underlying assumption, however, is that accepting the vices of smaller government will somehow make society better than accepting the vices of larger government. This is an assumption that I reject. And, I repeat my original statement: no social order will ever save humanity. Smaller government, larger government, no government – no formation of government will save society. This assertion can, I believe, be derived from the message of the New Testament.
A key assertion of the New Testament is that nothing but the God who raised Jesus from the dead will save anything or anyone. And, through the resurrection of Jesus, this work has already been accomplished. We are now watching the effects of this work, waiting in anticipation for the completion, when Christ will return.
So, instead of saying: “We need a smaller, limited Roman Government so that the Roman Government won’t be able to slaughter us and inhibit our liberties,” the early Christians proclaimed: “Jesus is raised. The Kingdom of God is at hand. There is no need to fear the Roman government.” The administration of power wasn’t a concern. Proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, and the hope that lies therein, was the concern.
Conservative Christians have lost sight of this. They have become obsessed with power acquisition and administration. This makes sense, because the conservative political philosophy is, like any other political philosophy, about power acquisition and administration. It is about social order. And, the underlying assumption of any political philosophy is that rearranging society, so that government is larger, smaller, more efficient, more effective, more or less anything, will result in a better social arrangement.
Any such improvements, however, will always be temporary. The claim of the New Testament writers was that a permanent improvement was at hand; the Kingdom of God was breaking into this world. Jesus was raised, and this was a sign of what is to come.
This was the concern of the New Testament writers. This is not the concern of conservative political philosophers. While conservatism and the New Testament are not always mutually exclusive – there will inevitably be overlap – they are mutually exclusive in their underlying approaches to the world. One is derived from a place of power, with administration of power and social arrangement as its chief concern. The other is derived from a place of suffering, with proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus as its chief concern.
In our current context, power acquisition and social rearrangement have taken over the identity of the evangelical movement. Evangelicals are, widely, not known as people of the resurrection. Instead, they are known as people opposed to various practices in modern culture. Evangelicals have slowly, since being attached to the conservative political movement, abandoned the resurrection as their chief concern, replacing it with the concern of the ponservative political movement: Power acquisition and distribution.
Jonathan Saur is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, CA.