Mike Lee and traditional conservatism

Jeremy Kee Seminarian, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
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“The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation of ‘plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.” Thus spoke Utah Senator Mike Lee before the Heritage Foundation this past spring. In a series of speeches, Senator Lee laid out a foreign view of conservatism which, though it seems at odds with the modern conservative movement, actually represents a much more traditional, and palatable worldview than the “charts and graphs” mentality so pervasive today.

A conservative must know what requires conserving, and in the 2012 post-election fog, conservatives were given the rare opportunity to step back and take stock. Unfortunately, the opportunity was not duly seized upon. The result of this brief period of reflection was, predictably to stay the course. Failure may be the great teacher, but the true failure of conservatives is their failure to learn from electoral defeat and move forward with a cogent strategy. Instead, conservatives resort to infighting and aimless political wandering. Not all who wander are lost, perhaps, but some are.

Conservatism today is less its originally intended form – a view of the order and function of society – and more what it was never intended to be: an ideology. Whereas traditional conservatism is concerned with cultivating and imparting the value of morality and virtue in society, modern conservatism, being heavily influenced by libertarianism, focuses almost exclusively on the individual good.

This is the genesis for the infighting amongst those who call themselves conservative. For the myriad intellectual and moral shortcomings of the Left, there is something to be said for their clarity of purpose. They want power to be centralized and society homogenized, plain and simple. Traditional modern conservatives, conversely, cannot strike a happy medium in their beliefs precisely because conservative thought is so rich and varied. Modern conservatism is the mechanistic progeny of traditional conservative thought, its policy issues being only the most approximate political ends of traditional conservative philosophies.

Many hold that “Conservatism is about human freedom.” To refute this would require its own essay, which the Witherspoon Institute has already done in fine form, illustrating the intellectual failures and societal dangers of unbound freedom. So central to the American founding is freedom — a term I would say is grossly misunderstood — that the majority hear it and accept it without considering its actual meaning. Freedom, for all of its inherent goodness and virtue, is not immune from abuse. Freedom is not each for his own good, as so many hold to be true, but rather is the result of service towards the good and the true.

There are those who say that conservative politics are destined to fail, and perhaps they are. It was Lord Salisbury who famously quipped that, “delay is life” — something for the defund Obamacare crowd to consider — and perhaps this is the role conservatism is destined to play. The decay of conservative values as society continues marching toward egalitarian relativism renders preserving these values a mere delay of what many call inevitable. In this way, conservatism is the proverbial Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.

Conservatism, then, is a conservation of the things in this life which are eternally good, beautiful, and true – what Russell Kirk coined the “Permanent Things.” It is a way of viewing the world through the morals, traditions, and values of generations past. G.K. Chesterton called it a “Democracy of the Dead,” which may explain why so many today view it as antiquated and irrelevant to the modern world. Despite its detractors, conservatism is deeply rooted in a rich, tried and true intellectual and moral tradition. Russell Kirk, Alexis De Tocqueville, T.S. Eliot, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Cicero, Aristotle – these are but a few who espouse true conservatism, yet when asked most who call themselves conservative cannot identify a single original idea or quote from any of them.

Incidentally, perhaps the best summation of what conservatives believe can be found in scripture. Philippians 4.8 (ESV) reads: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Over these things conservatism is, or once was, most concerned.

Conservatism is not about lower taxes, immigration reform, pro-life, pro-family, and so on – these are perceived means to conservative ends, but they are not the heart and soul of conservatism itself. Conservatism is about living virtuously, meaningfully, and substantially, and by so doing pursuing life, liberty, and happiness. It is not about fighting for freedom; it is about living life by a more permanent standard so that the fight for freedom is no longer necessary.