Conservatism and the Enduring Moral Order

Every so often, I’ll hear someone (sometimes a liberal, but oftentimes a self-described “conservative”) express a nostalgic longing for some vague time in the mythic, mist-shrouded past (the ‘50s? the ‘80s?), back before conservatism had supposedly been “hijacked” by religious crazies (like us pro-lifers) with our childish and irrational moral concerns, and conservatives instead were concerned only with real issues such as the GDP . . . or something.  (As many “conservatives” today are increasingly unwilling to stand for principles of limited constitutional government, decrying those who do as “extremists” and such, so it’s becoming really unclear what such “conservatives” do stand for, or what exactly it is they wish to conserve.)

The trouble is, to start with, that this mythic golden age of amoral conservatism never actually existed.  While there have always been differing strains of conservative thought (traditionalists vs. libertarians, etc.), concern with moral issues was never alien to conservative thought.

The late great Russell Kirk was a philosophical founding father of the modern American conservative movement, helping launch conservatism as a national intellectual and political force in the 1950s, along with other pioneers such as William F. Buckley, Jr.

While, as Dr. Kirk admits, there is no single conservative creed or manifesto, he laid out a series of “Ten Conservative Principles,” which, in my humble opinion, is probably the best summation of conservative principle and philosophy anyone has ever made.  The first draft was published in the ‘50s, and he continued to hone it throughout his life. (I strongly recommend that everyone interested read the entire list.)

The first of these conservative principles is belief in an “enduring moral order.”

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

It’s worth noting that not only did Dr. Kirk include belief in an enduring moral order on his list of ten conservative principles, but it was number one on the list.

He concludes that section by saying:

It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

The idea of the importance of morality and belief in a moral order to a just and functioning civil society was not a unique invention of Russell Kirk or the modern conservative movement, but was in fact a belief shared by the American founding fathers.

As John Adams famously said:

Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

All the founders, despite their varying religious views, agreed that morality (including “religious” morality) was essential to the health of the American republic.

(You can find a collection of quotes from various founding fathers here.)

One of the most pernicious lies popular today is the idea that “separation of Church and State” somehow forbids any and all moral considerations from entering into American law or issues of government, and that Christian citizens are somehow obligated to toss out any moral beliefs they might hold when walking into the voting booth.  If we allow any “religious” morality to creep into legal or political discourse, we are warned, we are in imminent danger of the establishment of a horrific and repressive “theocracy.”

I’ve seen this line not just from the atheists and militant secularists, but sadly from many supposedly religious Catholics, who insist we must “keep our morality out of politics.”

(Interestingly, we never seem to hear that line from when religious liberals give religious reasons for supporting more left-leaning policies, such as environmentalist measures.)

This idea, though, is absolute nonsense.  The “wall of separation” phrase is not in the Constitution, but a private letter of Thomas Jefferson to a member of the Danbury Baptists, assuring them that their sect would not face persecution .  The first amendment of the Constitution does not forbid morality,  but says that Congress shall not “make laws concerning an establishment of religion.”  An establishment of religion in the 18th century meant specifically a national church supported with tax dollars – such as the Church of England.

None of the current social conservative positions involve actually forcing religious doctrine or practice on people (as would laws requiring people to believe in the divinity of Christ or attend Sunday Mass).  They involve what is traditionally known as natural law – moral principles that can be known by man’s natural reason – and which were once almost universally accepted in our civilization, regardless of creed.

All laws “impose morality” – that is, an idea of what is right and wrong, what one ought or ought not do.

And when voting on legislation or choosing between candidates, everyone will bring their own moral judgments, whether influenced by religion or anything else.  It’s impossible to neatly separate “religious” ideas from “non-religious” when making such decisions.  For the believer, religious faith is an integral part of one’s entire philosophy of life, and will affect how I view things such as right and wrong, the meaning of marriage, and human life itself.

For example, as a Christian, I consider human life to have intrinsic worth and value, and thus it is always gravely wrong to deliberately take an innocent human life, as by abortion.  Others may believe human life has no intrinsic worth, and that others have a right to take it as they see fit.  However that’s also a different “moral” judgment, based on un-Christian principles.  Likewise, the idea that homosexual couples have an inherit right to be legally recognized as “married” is not based on objective science, but on an idea of morality – albeit one alien to orthodox Christianity.

The social left doesn’t want to merely keep church and state separate, but to ensure the law is based on a certain nihilistic and atheistic philosophical ideology, rather than traditional Judeo-Christian natural law morality.

But as all Christians should know – and history bears out – removing all morality from law and government doesn’t result in religious freedom, but godless government – and inevitably tyranny.

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