Is Conservative a Bad Word?

On Preserving Our Precious National Inheritance

There is an interesting ideological split among fans of the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. He is popular among those on the Left, but he also has a sizeable following among those on the Right.

There is a strain in Berry’s writing that can only be compared to the bleak worldview that dominates today’s Left, especially among the champions of various critical theories, as well as fanatical environmentalists, as evidenced already in one of his earliest pieces of non-fiction:

It occurs to me that it is no longer possible to imagine how the country looked in the beginning, before the white people drove their plows into it. It is not possible to know what was the shape the land here in this hollow when it was first cleared. Too much of it is gone, loosened by the plows and washed away by the rain am walking the route of the departure of the virgin soil of the hill. I am not looking at the same land the firstcomers saw. The origin surface of the hill is as extinct as the passenger pigeon. The pristine America that the first white man saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea. The thought of what was here once and gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence. (“A Native Hill,” in The World-Ending Fire, p. 17)

In this way of thinking, humanity—apart from the enlightened few like Berry—is little more than a virus on the earth (or I should say: western, white humanity).

Berry, however, often makes points that could come from figures on today’s New Right:

Sentimental capitalism holds in effect that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good, and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the ‘free market’ and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security and happiness to ‘the many’ – in, of course, the future. (“The Total Economy,” in The World-Ending Fire, p. 68)

Patrick Deneen, Yoram Hazony, Oren Cass, and many others, have made similar points for years. Local is better. Unfettered capitalism is not the be-all-end-all of human existence. Free global trade may serve to undermine America’s national interest (or at least regional and local interests). Etc.

Central to the strand of Berry’s thinking that resonates with many on the New Right is his conservationism. Soil needs conserving. Local farms need conserving. And so on. Conservationism probably seems to most conservatives to be a concern only for the Left, but Roger Scruton has written convincingly (to my mind) on why conservatives should embrace the term. In the chapter “Conserving Nature,” (p. 34) in his book A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, Scruton contends that

Conservatism and conservation are in fact two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs and institutions; they also include the material capital contained in the environment, and the economic capital contained in a free, but law-governed, economy.

The word conservatism itself has gotten a bad rap among some New Right thinkers and writers. The argument is that conservatives in American haven’t conserved anything of value, and so we should abandon the useless term. There is obviously some truth in this critique: those who call themselves conservatives in America have indeed conserved very little of value in recent times on the national level, not healthy family life and sexual morality, not law and order, not our universities, nor our churches, not impartial treatment before the law, not our military, not our borders, and not much more.

I would, however, push back against the rejection of the term conservative. The problem is not the term itself, but the fact that those who designate themselves as conservatives are not actually conservatives at all. Conservatism is not a set of policy prescriptions (unlimited capitalism, unfettered world trade, worldwide military adventurism, etc.). It is a way of life, and a way of approaching the political task itself. Consider Scruton again:

Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. (How to Be a Conservative, p. viii)

Conservatism, understood as a form of political and cultural action, is worth defending. In fact, it is indispensable. The many good things that have been passed down to us from our Western and Christian heritage are worth conserving. We are watching how true this is in America today as our cities rapidly devolve into drug-infested dens of lawlessness and iniquity, while law-abiding citizens are quickly realizing it is attempts to defend what is good, true, and beautiful that will lead to the hammer of the law coming down on one’s head.

And it is in answer to this cultural degeneration that I think the most enduring insight of the New Right is to be found. The various lesser dogmas of the New Right may very well be soon forgotten, but the core insight of lasting value—if the rest of the Right (and some in the middle) will wake up in time—is that conservatism is utterly worthless if doesn’t act, and act with strength and dispatch, to conserve our precious national political, legal, and cultural inheritance. There will be nothing of value left to conserve if this foundational New Right insight is not acted on, and acted on quickly. This simple change in mentality, a change from impotently standing athwart history yelling stop while history burns everything good to the ground, is profound and necessary. And it is at the heart of conservatism, rightly understood.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

7 thoughts on “Is Conservative a Bad Word?

  1. “those who designate themselves as conservatives are not actually conservatives at all” and “the heart of conservatism, rightly understood”…and yet, there’s the rub. Identify as conservative and you get lumped in with those who are not actually conservative, or end up arguing with them about what it means to be conservative than actually doing what needs done.

    Conservatives lacked the ability to steward what they received such that they weren’t even able to pass on what they received. That may be their problem; stuck in the past which is only their living memory. As time progresses, so does conservatism progress to the left. And now we have nothing to conserve; as you stated, they failed to conserve anything of value. The house is burning down and so far burned, that not much will remain except for memories of what was lost. Now, especially, is not the time for the conservative mindset. Instead, we need those memories to become dreams of what we will build anew in the ashes, and those dreams need to become plans that can be executed in the here and now, not the past. Perhaps a future generation can be those who conserve what is built, but we must become builders.

  2. The issue isn’t whether the word ‘conservative’ is a good or bad word, or can local supply all the needs of a nation with hundreds of millions of people or the world with billions of people, or whether the past is our only teacher. The issue is whether Conservative is our only word, local contributes to supplying our needs, or can those from the past also learn from those from today.

    It is human autonomy that says we can reduce something down to one issue and absolutize that issue to address all of our problems. It’s human autonomy that’s moves us to use such reductionism because when we do reduce issues down got one facet and absolutize that facet, then we reject everything that does fit into our rational model. But we know from the Scriptures that God’s world and truth are far more complex than we can describe with our minds and ideologies. If that was not the case, we would not need much of what was written in the Scriptures.

    And so the task before us is to learn where the word ‘conservative’ is good and where it is bad and to learn the same from the words ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist.’ Our task is to distinguish when we should use local to supply our needs and when we should use use regional, national, or even global to provide for those same needs. We also need to learn from both past and present voices.

    It is self-flattery to think that our own or favorite ideology is ominiscient or has a monopoly on the Truth. Embracing that self-flattery has led many to impose their sweet delusions of grandeur dancing in their heads on others to the detriment of all.

  3. We haven’t conserved healthy family life?

    Fathers are more involved with their children than ever before. The battered women’s movement in the 1970s brought public awareness to spousal abuse.

    Okay so maybe we haven’t conserved it, we’ve created it.

    Our cities descend into drug infested dens of lawlessness and iniquity? Again, things are so much better than they were in the 70s-90s. Things are worse than they were 10 years ago. But things have improved in the long term.

    And our churches? Decades ago, a bunch of them stood against the civil rights movement. Southern blacks couldn’t vote (practically).

    So if you’re asking what have conservatives conserved, well, that’s an odd question, when things have unambiguously gotten better. If you’re going to hold on to this nonsense, no wonder people don’t want to be conservatives today.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are things to conserve. You said this very well. But conservatism is anti-Biblical unless it also includes destroying unjust power structures to make room for justice, as has happened in American history time after time.

  4. Labels mean only what people take them to mean. Conservative is becoming a meaningless label. It covers everyone from Donald Trump to Mitt Romney. Even some democrats are described as “conservative” for opposing full-blown socialism. To me, the label is only useful so far as its PR potential among the less politically-aware. Use it to gain support from the fox news-watching elderly, but new labels have to be applied in turn.

    1. Dylan,
      Labels also mean what people who use them attach to them.

      Am not saying that labels are never useful or necessary. But sometimes labels are used to pigeonhole people as if the label provides an exhaustive explanation of a person.

      BTW, most democrats have no idea what socialism is.

      1. Labels mean far more to the hearer than to the speaker. The speaker is trying to convey a certain message. If the speaker uses a label that will be taken differently than intended, then the speaker has failed in their objective. “Conservative” has become a catch-all label for “not left”. Even libertarians get lumped in with conservatism.

        I didn’t state that democrats are socialists, I stated that some democrats get described as conservative for not supporting socialism.

        1. Dylan,
          Likewise Liberals and Leftists are grouped together to the dismay of us leftists.

          But we need to distinguish the difference between the categorical use of labels from the pejorative use.

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