Paine's liberalism gives us a sense of the moral structure of reality at the level of individuals. For a truly adequate understanding, I would include nonhuman beings as well, whereas Enlightenment liberals with their Christian inheritance did not. But at least they had a sense of this context of intrinsic value. But Paine's liberalism could degenerate into an attempt to engineer society according to the engineer's vision as soon as contact with this deeper moral context weakened. Here liberalism provided a foundation that conservatism, for all its concern with foundations, lacked.
Burke's conservatism recognized the problems of deliberate change and acknowledged its need for foundations, but could never solve the problem that led to liberalism's rise: Christian monotheism could never instill a truly ecological mindset because its image of God was of hierarchical power and domination and it saw human beings as exercising that power in God's name over the world and often over one another. Therefore conservatism generally supported the religion that had led to the problems liberals were seeking to solve. Further, without a sense of this deeper ethical context conservatism could easily be perverted into simply being an apology for whoever was on top at the time. Conservatism could end up being a defense of elites because they were elites. Change was scary.
From my perspective, at this level both Burke and Paine were right and both were wrong, and a Pagan perspective clarifies both. Human beings are morally equal and they are always embedded within a framework of customs and contexts that make them who they are because the world itself also has value in itself, regardless of its utility to us. A Pagan insight situates people within a larger context of More Than Human value. We are not the Chosen Ones, but as Aldo Leopold put it, "plain citizens" within the world. This means we most appropriately treat other people with respect, but we also most appropriately treat everything else in the world with respect as well.
A common platform
We therefore need to cultivate the conditions needed to enable people to develop their own capacities so that moral equality becomes not simply a slogan trotted out on July 4, but rather a living reality. Here is where liberalism and conservatism can meet on a common continuum where what separates them is more emphasis than substance. Liberals informed by conservative insights will seek actively to cultivate this enrichment with a minimum of imposition. Conservatives will be more willing to put up with current problems and be more loath to cultivate anything but minimal changes but when possible would favor liberal values.
Politically speaking, I am on the liberal end of this continuum because I think the current system is unsustainable and seriously immoral, but the world is complex and good people can disagree with integrity and good will about how to minimize damage and promote positive outcomes.
The political and moral pathology that calls itself "conservatism" these days has nothing in common with traditional conservatism. It is its antithesis. Its members seek to impose their vision on people accustomed to and desiring to live within a different society. That its spokespeople use the term "conservative" is evidence of the same intellectual and moral dishonesty that accompanies virtually everything else its leaders do.
Why do I say this?
Today's so-called conservatives seek to impose their will not by winning consistent majorities, but by gaming the political system, using political blackmail, and other means to impose radical changes on the country. Many have advocated violence if necessary and some even have advocated a military coup if they do not get their way.
The current negotiations over the debt ceiling are a case in point. One hundred and thirty of the Republicans who are currently blackmailing the country over issues where they are a small minority, such as Social Security, not long ago voted to raise the debt ceiling under George Bush, in order to accommodate the ballooning deficits caused by his tax cut.
The original tax cut itself was justified by abstract economic theory that claimed lowering taxes would stimulate business and so bring in more tax income. This is abstract Enlightenment thinking at its most extreme and least competent—it did not work and has never worked.
These are the tactics of those who see society as the block of clay on which they will impose their vision, lacking even the moral sensitivity of liberalism and its concern with rights.
Modern "conservatives" are attempting to impose very radical changes on a population that, whenever asked in a clear way, indicates they do not accept the "conservative" policy. Americans consistently want Social Security, Medicare, and jobs put well ahead of the deficit as an issue the government should address. They want religious tolerance. As best I can tell, when the issues are put clearly, Americans favor choice regarding abortions, meaningful medical reform, and a lower defense budget. The modern "conservatives" do all they can so that these issues are not clearly put. In this way, they seek to destroy what remains of the substance of a free society through misleading marketing.