Against Conservatism

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Before I begin today’s lay sermon, and to allay panic, let me confess that I am what I’m against. That is to say, some kind of conservative. It wouldn’t matter if I tried to deny it, for one has no control over the use of words in public speech, and only microscopic influence. Those who know and read me would still take me for some kind of “conservative,” in something like the current sense.

Please don’t ask me to define it, for it cannot be coherently defined. This should be obvious. The conservative must want to “conserve” something, yet there is precious little the typical conservative doesn’t want to change.

That which he would conserve tends to be some surviving artifact of the Enlightenment; the United States Constitution for instance. When it comes to conserving something anciently time-out-of-mind – the institution of marriage, for instance – people who have been plausibly presenting themselves as “conservatives” start abandoning ship.

This is among the reasons I have myself fallen back on the term, “reactionary” – to keep my distance from fair-weather friends, and proclaim my allegiance to something not status quo, but now, status quo ante. This may alarm, or amuse some people. Let it.

A hundred years ago, or rather, up to the end of the last century, I used the word “Tory” to distinguish from “conservative.” But it has become incomprehensible to others, even in my (formerly) British North American milieux. In the fuller North American context, my term was “Loyalist,” as opposed to “Patriot” – but again, what one was Loyal to has, except for a monarchical symbol, ceased to be.

“Jacobite” is perhaps worth mentioning in the British historical context. For sure, I’d be one of those. It is another dated term, however – to my mind, too recent if anything – and really the position is royalist Catholic, and with Thomas More against Henry VIII. (This was my position even as an Anglican. The only thing changed is, I’m now with the Armada.)

Do you think force was rightly used, to suppress the Donatists in the fourth century? Against the Cathars in the thirteenth? Should the Thirty Years’ War have been won? (Well, perhaps it was, in the longer view of history, which is not yet available to us.)

It is in considering such hypotheticals and counterfactuals that, I think, the deeper politics are formed. For what use are political principles that apply in only one generation? As one ages, and if one becomes better acquainted with the sweep of events, those principles are at least better tested. A deeper politics requires a deeper history.

And it is that, much more than headline disagreement on any specific issue, which makes me less and less comfortable with the term “conservative” for my current faction.

        A Lost Cause: Flight of King James II after the Battle of the Boyne
A.C. Gow, 1880

Conversely, I find “conservative” used more and more as the catch-all label. This is brought home to me even while I write this, for on quickly checking email I find that a Scottish correspondent is unselfconsciously using the term in a perfectly small-c American way to describe his own political outlook – and even to distinguish it from what he discerns as the outlook prevailing in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom in which he resides.

Or put this another way: U.S. conservatism has joined Coca-Cola among your country’s most successful exports, and now enjoys brand identification not only among the (formerly) remote Caledonian hill tribes, but as I have noticed from other reading – in Kazakhstan, on the southern African veldt, up the Amazon, and behind the bamboo curtain in China.

Yet what makes it different from another fizzy drink? And why should a Christian want it supersized? And what difference would it make if the whole world were drinking, say, Republican Coke instead of Democrat Pepsi?

My apologies here to Republican Pepsi drinkers, and Democrats on Coke; it was just my urgent need for a simile. What I’m trying to convey is the vagueness of any position that can be branded “conservative,” or if you will, the presence in it of anything much besides sugar and water. For the term means nothing out of a context and, depending on that, can be applied with equal facility to everyone from Pat Robertson to Leonid I. Brezhnev, late secretary-general of the Central Committee of the CPSU.

This very inclusivity makes it, or ought to make it, worrying to the Christian. With whom or with what are we identifying?

I do not ask this abstractly. From long experience, I have discovered the consequences of being left in a bottle with libertarian, agnostic, or atheist “conservatives” – and even, perhaps especially, “social conservatives” who come to their opinions by a route proceeding more from Darwin than Jesus.

To generalize: we are of more use to them than they are to us, as we discover the moment the topic swivels, and one of us goes under the bus. That is when we suddenly discover that inclusivity is not the virtue we took it for, when we pledged allegiance to our common cause; and that all allies are allies of convenience. Friends require deeper things in common, including that deeper history.

Currently, the “same sex marriage” topic brings this point home most poignantly. Without naming names, because there are too many, I read one “conservative” pundit after another making his peace with “contemporary lifestyles” (there were older and ruder expressions for this), and ask myself what I was doing hanging out with these people.

“We need to accept gay marriage for the sake of the larger cause.” That, so far as I am able to plumb, is the argument from one after another making a sacrifice of his loosely held “principles” to the fast-held expediency of winning the next election. And what I least enjoy is the moralizing tone, when the fast-held principled types get barked for standing inconveniently in their way.

So that I’m inclined to reply, “What larger cause would that be, Pontius?”


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: