What Conservatives Believe: The Heart of the Matter
Updated: Jun 21, 2020
“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.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
If there is one principle of primary importance to the conservative—a principle which distinguishes conservatism from most competing ideologies—it is this: the conservative believes in Natural Law, the existence of unchanging moral principles as a basis for all human conduct, so that the aim of conservatism is to express our understanding of Natural Law through inferior manmade laws.
Natural Law: The Heart of the Matter
Just what is Natural Law? It is the idea that certain rights or values are inherent in human nature and can be universally understood through human reason. The doctrine of Natural Law is imbedded in the very fabric of our nation, as is evident in the words of America’s birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God” and declares that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” We did not invent Natural Law; it has been endowed to us by our Creator. And because it was made for us by our Creator it shares His attributes of being perfect and unchanging.
I am limiting this post to the doctrine of Natural Law and avoiding a much more complicated discussion about any religious overtones or doctrines. That is, I am not saying this Natural Law is specifically the Ten Commandments or some Biblical precept. That’s a discussion better left to the theologians. Here I am only concerned with ideas that find a home in Christianity but aren’t unique to Christianity: namely, that there is a Lawgiver (i.e., a God) and He has made evident to mankind the existence of an enduring moral order. Some traditional American conservative beliefs are held in common with Judeo-Christian teachings, but one does not have to be a Christian to be a conservative or a conservative to be a Christian. Nor does one have to be a Christian to believe in Natural Law. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the words from the Declaration of Independence quoted above, also rejected the doctrine of the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the miracles described in the New Testament, original sin, and the virgin birth.
Now, if all this talk of a Creator and Natural Law and permanence and perfection and self-evident, inherent morality seems puritanical or religiously maniacal on my part, let me assure you this is not some personal philosophy I concocted one sleepless night after consuming a questionably large bag of Doritos®. Western civilization has widely accepted the existence of Natural Law as articulated by a great many admirable thinkers of the past and it has only fallen out of favor in recent generations. I don’t mean that the idea was universally accepted. I only mean that it was hardly a new or unusual or controversial notion until we, in this post-modern era, thought it would be fun to question everything from religion to reason itself. G. K. Chesterton’s dire warnings ring truer today than when he wrote more than a century ago: “In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum.”
My chief aim in this post is not to persuade the reader of the existence or superiority of Natural Law, but to describe this peculiar idea that conservatives believe is of the utmost importance. From Plato to our Founding Fathers to modern Western thinkers, we have had no end of people advocating and articulating this idea as central to their understanding of human governance. Its entry on Wikipedia alone will provide you with an encyclopedic list of philosophers ascribing to this doctrine.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of this idea to the conservative ideology. Let me attempt to belabor the point by showing only three of the many ways in which Natural Law is the lynchpin in conservative thought and a necessary prerequisite for conservative fundamentals:
1) A Prerequisite for Progress
I have said above that Natural Law is both perfect and unchanging because it has been given to us by a perfect and unchanging Creator. That word unchanging is important, for without it there could be no real basis for progress. Progress implies we are moving towards something. And, unless that something is fixed, what would be considered progress by one generation or society might just as well be called folly by another. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we progress towards something rooted in more than the ever-changing fickle mood of popular sentiment.
To quote G. K. Chesterton once more, “As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind. This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed.” I have written a great deal more about progress here.
2) A Prerequisite for Governance
Just what gives our government the “right” to govern? If it’s nothing more than the consent of the majority, what’s to constrain the majority from acting against the minority? For that matter, what’s wrong with the idea of each individual doing as they like? Just who do the majority think they are, telling the rest of us how to behave? And what gives the citizens of our government the “right” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?” Is it just because our Founding Fathers were charitably nice men who wanted us to have nice things so they wrote it down that way? Couldn’t they just as well have said we have no rights at all? Do our rights come from a 200-year-old document on display for tourists at the National Archives or is that document communicating something that was true long before Jefferson set pen to parchment?
The conservative has the same answer for all of these questions: Natural Law. Natural Law legitimizes government’s authority, protects the interests of the minorities, and proclaims that humans have “rights” not because a benevolent government invents them, but because our Creator has endowed them. If not for an enduring moral order revealed by our Creator, on what basis can we claim any rights whatsoever? At best we could hope for a benevolent democracy divvying out entitlements as the majority sees fit. At worst we could expect tyranny or anarchy.
3) A Prerequisite for Liberty
The conservative believes there is a very real and direct relationship between the spiritual integrity of a nation and the ability to sustain a nation’s fragile liberties. Let me offer an illustration: A man who is bound in substance abuse and addictions of every kind, plagued by the lusts of his heart to never be satisfied, financially destitute due to irresponsible habits, and haunted by the past of a broken family, is hardly free. And an entire nation of such men would be a nation in bondage, regardless of how “liberal” the government had become. It's easy to miss the forest for the trees, but is it not self-evident that freedom within a nation can only exist when that nation is composed of people with freedom in their individual lives?
Many conservative thinkers spoke of the relationship between individual morality and national liberties, such as Edmund Burke: “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Or Russell Kirk: “If you want to have order in the commonwealth, you first have to have order in the individual soul.” Or Thomas Sowell: “Without a moral framework, there is nothing left but immediate self-indulgence by some and the path of least resistance by others. Neither can sustain a free society.” Or John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The aim of the conservative in enacting laws that strengthen civil institutions, traditions, the church, marriage, families, and the individual’s moral standing is to strengthen the very thing that makes liberty possible. That is, the conservative is attempting to plant liberty in the only soil in which it can grow: a society that adheres to an enduring moral order. Not as an act of legal tyranny, but a necessary prerequisite for liberty to endure.
But, You Can’t Legislate Morality!
I’ve no doubt that some will object to the entire doctrine of Natural Law or some specific I’ve shared. There isn’t space for me to address all concerns here, but there is one familiar objection I’d like to turn to before we’re through. Some speak of religious ideas or discussions about morality as somehow being opposed to liberty. A common objection is often expressed in the familiar phrase “you can’t legislate morality.” And this is quite true. Enacting laws to declare certain behaviors illegal doesn’t produce a moral society. Laws against pornography don’t make people chaste any more than laws against burglary make people content with their belongings. Laws may reduce unwanted behaviors but they can’t change the character of the individual. In this sense, it is foolishness to talk of legislating morality.
But this phrase if often used in quite another sense. It is used to object to some law in particular that one believes is given to forcibly impose some dubious, religious busybody’s idea of what is good and proper. Here the phrase “you can’t legislate morality” is given to end any further debate. But this is often a misguided attempt to oversimplify what is usually a complex issue into a single, insufficient principle. Is a law’s inability to create morality justification for a repeal of that law? Think for a moment of a law—almost any law—and tell me if it doesn’t, in some way, attempt to speak to some idea of morality? Are laws against murder an attempt to impose some individuals’ overbearing, personal religious opinion on the rest of us or the necessary restraints for a civil society? Laws express our understanding of morality; their inability to create morality is irrelevant. A society that prohibits laws that suggest some idea of morality is a society that doesn’t have any laws.
I’m not at all suggesting someone or some group imposing their personal religious beliefs on the rest of us is fine by me. I’m saying it just won’t do to lump all laws in with this same motivation. Once you start down that path you’ll soon find justification for repealing any law that really matters. Where one draws the line between imposing personal beliefs and providing the necessary restraints for liberty to exist is a topic for another day.
Tying it all Together
In summary, the conservative believes in Natural Law given to us by our Creator as the basis for all manmade laws. Natural Law allows for progress to be made because we have some reliably unchanging standard by which to measure progress. It ordains the institution of government and our rights as citizens within the government. And, finally, each of us has a duty to vigorously adhere to this Natural Law in our own individual lives if liberty is to endure.
*The “What Conservatives Believe” series was inspired by Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”. As a diligent student of conservatism my aim in this series is not to improve upon his manifesto—a task for which I’m hardly qualified—but to restate his ideas in a more digestible manner for the political layman who’d like to know what it means to be a conservative without having to read an academic paper.