Conservatism and Christianity

Conservatism and Christianity January 29, 2008

Yesterday, I argued that the American political system is underpinned by liberalism, rightly understood, and that tendency crosses the political divide. Liberalism is predicated on the notion that morality is determined by self-interest rather than the law of God. We ourselves can determine right from wrong without reference to the enternal moral law. Society is reduced to a social contract between individuals striving to attain their own desires. As is clear, this attitude underpins support for abortion and changing the definition of marriage as well as for belief in the virtue of the free market.

It becomes patently clear that this philosophy is at odds with Catholicism. The core revealed truth at the beginning of Genesis is that original sin resulted from this very notion of trying to assess right from wrong independently of the will of God. In some sense, authentic conservatives are those who believe morality must always remain in accord with God’s law. Morality, and moral derivatives such as public policy, should be in full accord with God’s law, the entirety of God’s law. Notice again how this is distorted in American political labels, where the “conservatives” pay lip-service to the transcendent but at the same time embrace individual freedom in a way that makes sense only in the framework of Enlightenment-era liberalism. A true conservative would respect the will of God in matters of abortion, in matters of marriage and family, in matters of sexuality– but also in matters of social justice, war, and environmental stewardship. God’s law is rational, it is not divided, it is not schizophrenic.

Another aspect of conservatism is its respect for tradition, its sense that change can only come from evolution, not revolution. Over the past few centuries, authentic conservatives have watched in horror as utopian attempts to re-fashion in the world in man’s (not God’s) image led to unmitigated disaster— from the French revolution to Soviet terror. And yet some American pseudo-conservatives today embrace a similar messianic mission– to carry Enlightenment-era ideals of free markets and liberal democracy (with similarly flawed philosophical underpinnings) to every corner of the globe.

Is that the answer then, that Catholics must become “conservative” in the sense of respecting tradition and the status quo? Not quite. If that were the case, the perfect Christian society would look like the Confucian ideal of cosmic harmony between heaven and earth, emphasizing stability in a very static sense. And indeed, the early Jesuit missionaries to China like Matteo Ricci (Li Madou) found much to admire in Confucian culture. But Christianity is far, far more than that. As noted by Pope Benedict in his highly insightful Europe Today and Tomorrow, when early Christians were looking for a term in the Roman world to express what Jesus the Christ meant to them, they considered the term Conservator, “which has designated in Rome the essential duty and highest service necessary to render to mankind”. From the perspective of the Roman empire, the highest duty was to protect against internal and external threast and uphold peace and justice. This fits very nicely with the Confucian conception of society. But Christians could not accept something so static, so rooted in the present. Instead, the term chosen was not Conservator but Salvator, a choice which, as Pope Benedict noted, “indicated the limits of mere conservatism and pointed to a dimension of human life that goes beyond the causes of peace and order”.

Pope Benedict goes on to argue that “salvation is located, not in what is eternally motionless, not in a today that is always the same, but rather in tomorrow, in the future that is not yet present.” From the Book of Daniel to Revelation, Christianity has a deep apocalyptic theme, where events will be fulfilled in history. God the Creator united cosmos with history through the Incarnation. So, as Christians, it is not simply enough to remain attached to the stability of the present. We need to focus on the promises of the future, immanentizing the eschaton in the person of Jesus the Christ (as Henry might say). The problem is that focusing on the immanent world devoid of God’s law leads to horrors like Marxist experimentation. But if we place the transcendent over the immanent, we tilt toward Gnosticism. Simple conservatism is never enough. It all goes back to responding to the will of God– in all aspects of life, public and private.

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