What Is It That Conservatives Seek To Conserve?

Alan Keyes Former Assistant Secretary of State

I often raise the question “What is it that conservatives seek to conserve?” Though it probably makes many people who profess to be conservatives uncomfortable, my answer is: We seek to conserve the constitutional, republican government, of, by and for the people, established on the premises of God-endowed right for which America’s first patriots risked and fought the war that resulted from their Declaration of Independence. Those premises are stated in the document bearing that title, in which the Founders proclaimed and justified their actions before their Creator, God, and all the world.

This answer makes many self-professed conservatives uncomfortable because it largely differs from their own. Conservatism, they say, is about conserving “limited” government by constraining its power. But that raises the question, “limited by what?” Some answer “By the U.S. Constitution, of course.” But that answer invites us to look into the Constitution, where we find no mention made of “limited government.” Instead, in the first words of the Constitution, the people of the United States declare positive goals for the government it constitutes, the first of which are to perfect their union, establish justice and insure domestic tranquility.

These goals limit government in terms of its aim, but not necessarily its power. If justice is its goal, the power of government must be sufficient to achieve that goal. But that depends, in part, on the power of the injustices with which it has to contend. Similarly, the power their union requires depends on how diverse and disunited people are at any given moment, especially in their resolve to enforce the understanding of justice and peaceful order from which their society derives. In this regard “limited government,” like “change” or “freedom,” is an indeterminate abstraction, unless and until some generally understood necessity, aim or formal purpose substantiates its meaning.

Throughout most of our nation’s history, with one obvious exception, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were acknowledged by most Americans to be the terms of reference for the general understanding that substantiates our common identity as a people. But in the course of the 20th Century many individuals and institutions among our elite began to reject the key premises and concepts of those historic documents, including the authority of the Creator, God on which the understanding of right and justice expressed in both of them depends.

These individuals and institutions have set the authority of science against that of the Creator, God, on the strength of the “miracles” with which the application of its discoveries has transformed our everyday life. For this purpose, the elitists have propagated conclusions that purport to justify the rejection of God’s authority. These conclusions can have no basis in science since in denying God they deny the absolutely self-sufficient, intelligent (and therefore intelligible) way of being that is both the first essential attribute of God and the first prerequisite for knowledge in the scientific sense.

This self-contradiction is first of all evident in the fact that, to verify all the knowledge in its possession, empirical science relies on the reality of immaterial mathematical entities, and the rules that govern their behavior. People may carelessly pretend that science is all about “observation,” but the systematic analysis of the data that results from observation ultimately depends on mathematics. Indeed, without certain advances in mathematics, including some that correspond to nothing we can experience outside the mathematical realm, certain scientific “observations” would never have been conceived of, much less effectively applied.

But the self-contradictory nature of the rejection of God is also evident in the way scientists who espouse it end up talking about questions that have challenged human understanding ever since it came to know itself. The question of the origin and substance of the way of being in which human understanding represents itself, (which we know as our own,) confronts us with an infinite dilemma of being and not being, at one and the same time. That dilemma forces our understanding to reflect upon itself, in the search for a conclusion that substantiates its self-representation. This search goes on until finally there appears to be no recourse but to give expression to the unavoidable assumption of being, replete with all the attributes necessary to account for what is, in the end, an inevitable intuition, which must be taken for granted in order to give any definitive account of the way of being that represents itself as such, but is otherwise without substantiation.

In one respect, that being is our own, or at the very least like our own. But in another it is not at all like us, for it involves, in every way, an assumption that annihilates all being except its own, including, of course, what we know as our being. To be or not to be is, by comparison, the easier question. But in either case, the only answer involves the assumption of being. Does it matter that, in making that assumption, I say “God” while Stephen Hawking, the God-rejecting scientist, says “the Universe.” We are both of us assuming the same being, and knowing it at once as somehow our own (in the sense that we understand it) and yet not our own (in the sense that what we assume it to be remains always beyond our understanding.)

Though Stephen Hawking and I speak about it differently, we have no choice about but to assume its being in the same way. But that assumption, undeniable to our common sense of being, is also indispensable to our common sense of the possibility of scientific knowledge. But since that common sense is rooted in the same intuition, how can that intuition be accepted as a basis for acknowledging the authority of science, but rejected as a basis for acknowledging the authority of God? In both cases, it is just a way of saying “There is an intelligible way of being that accounts for all the others.” 

I trust that this is precisely the conclusion God’s way of being comes to, in respect of our humanity. For we stand apart from things in a way that reflects the way of being, God Himself, that transcends the beings of His creation (including our own). So, the Bible tells us, God’s creation is partially represented to us as a matter for choice, susceptible to our understanding—the way certain creatures were presented to Adam so that he could choose the names by which they would be called to represent themselves. But Adam himself was not to be seen among them, until God took it upon Himself to provide for that perception, by forming another Adam, substantially like Adam himself, but distinguished from him in the way required separately to recognize and then reproduce his likeness.

What has all this to do with the question with which we began, the question of what conservatives have to conserve? By confirming our common sense of the order of God, it allows us with confidence to restate the answer to that question, as America’s Founders did, in terms of the sovereignty of God, which they acknowledged. For if our union is the first objective of our establishment of self-government, what is the primordial basis for that union if not our common humanity as God represents it to us? Like Eve, though she, too, came after him, we are Adam, the one whom God creates to reflect upon himself, by being in and for ourselves, what He is, in and for the Universe of His creation; which is to say, the thread of understanding with which all things are distinctly informed, but which remains, though many in expression, yet and still one in being for the sake of all. What as one nation we Americans seek to conserve is therefore the humanity through which God intends to offer all of us the chance to know what He has and will become, again and again continually, for our sake but also for the sake of all of His Creation.