My ultimate goal with this site is to show that there are many conservative ideas that have been lost in our current political climate, and these conservative ideas deserve to be resuscitated. But conservatism has always been somewhat amorphous, and so the conservatism I will be focused on is a religious—specifically Christian—conservatism. This is only one stream of conservatism, but has been a very important one in American and British history. I have often assumed that my readers understand why I base so many of my arguments in Christian thought, but that is not a good assumption to make, so I want to spend some time explaining how I arrive at this outcome, and why I think it makes sense.
I am a Christian first, and everything else second. But I also believe in the importance of reason, which is the primary arbiter of truth within a liberal worldview and an important component of Christian thought. So this post is focused on showing that while Christianity may not be the only foundation for conservative views, it is one logically sound underpinning of political thought. That is, using Christianity to inform politics is not only valid, but I would argue, a better ultimate guide to truth than reason alone.
So in the next several blogs I will focus on point 1 below:
- Christianity (or other religions) could be a valid underpinning of political thought. That is, reason does not rule out Christianity in this regard, and Christianity is one among many worldviews that could play a foundational role in political thought.
- Having made this argument, I will not try to show that your worldview should be Christian. However, I will argue that whatever worldview you have chosen, you have chosen it based ultimately on faith, not reason.
- After a 3-part series on point 1, I will argue separately that for those of us who have chosen Christianity as our faith, it should form the ultimate basis of our political thought and action. I am not arguing for a theocracy, but I am arguing that Christians have good reason to base their personal political views in the Christian moral tradition. This will then serve as the starting point for ongoing discussions of conservative politics, though of course not everything I say will be narrowly religious or theological.
To establish the validity of Christianity as a foundation of political thought, I will progress through the following theses:
- All political action is moral action.
- All moral questions ultimately reduce to questions of value and purpose.
- Liberal frameworks for ascribing value and making moral decisions (based on ideas of consent and rationality) are inadequate by themselves.
- The framework we each use to ascribe value is chosen on faith.
- Thus, Christian faith is a reasonable foundation for political discernment and action.
It is important to note that this is not a piece defending Christian faith per se. My goal here is just to show why Christian faith will be my primary starting point for discussion on the conservative principles that have been lost in our current climate. With that prologue, let’s dive in.
All Political Action is Moral Action
We would not need government if we were perfect. But let’s face it, we aren’t perfect. As a result, even where no formal government exists we find ourselves in associations, communities, and at the lowest level, families, that structure and order life. In these structures, some things are allowed and encouraged, and other things are disallowed and even punished. All such rules and restraints imply something about what we think is good in life.
By way of obvious example, all societies everywhere have agreed it is not a good thing to let people kill one another indiscriminately, and so they have made rules against such actions. Americans have decided children ought to be educated, and so have regulations about ensuring children stay in school until a certain age.
Every political question ultimately boils down to a question about what is good, and so all political questions are moral questions. Let’s take a more prosaic example. If I approve a city tax to build more parks I am passing a moral judgment in the following ways:
- I am suggesting that individuals, myself included, have a responsibility to contribute to community improvement.
- I am suggesting that outdoor communal activity is inherently good.
- I am suggesting that in this case government is the correct body to use funds for such a purpose (rather than trying to effect similar results through private bodies).
- I am suggesting that building parks is more valuable than other uses of the same funds.
These words—responsibility, good, correct, valuable—all indicate the moral nature of politics. Ultimately I am affirming that all of these things together will lead to greater human flourishing than if the park had not been built, the tax not passed, and so on. That is, I am passing moral judgment by approving a city tax.
Morality Reduces to Questions of Value and Purpose
One of the emphasized words above—valuable—is particularly helpful in thinking about morality. We can think of morality as primarily about ascribing value: our personal or communal morals are defined by the relative value we place on different entities and actions. In the above example, my vote for city parks suggests that I place more value on parks than on other uses of the funds in question. A law against trespassing suggests that we as a society value the integrity of private property higher than the ability to move 100% freely through the land. Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty suggest we value freedom of thought more than demographic cohesion.
The same principle operates in negative situations, such as the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. In that case, American policy suggested that reducing domestic fear had more value than the freedom of some of its own citizens. This unjust outcome showed the weak morality of the nation in that sphere of life, by disordering value in its political actions.
Value is closely related to ideas of purpose, because we can decide what is valuable based on the purposes we aim to achieve. If our purpose is to maximize human flourishing, we make value judgments based on what best achieves that purpose. The idea that we decide what is valuable based on some purpose is called teleological ethics, teleology being the study of things as defined by their purpose.
We all make innumerable decisions every day based on purposes. We purpose to provide an income for our family, so we go to work. We purpose to maintain our physical health, so we eat and sleep and exercise. Even in science, purpose is intrinsic to everything that is done. Scientists purpose to understand the ultimate causes of all things, and so they design experiments to test and elucidate material reality.
Without purpose invading every nook and cranny of our lives, we would not do anything. And in fact, as we sadly know, when individuals do lose a sense of purpose, their lives can spiral out of control into depression, addiction, even suicide. So it is both practical and reasonable to suggest that what we value is determined by what we see as the purpose of human life and existence, and “human flourishing,” left undefined for now, is a purpose we can all rally around. We want humanity to flourish—whatever that means—and we decide what is valuable based on what we have in mind when we think of human flourishing.
Summarizing where we are so far, I have argued that politics is an expression of morality, that morality reduces to questions of value and purpose, and so politics always involves making value judgments based in some notion of ultimate purpose. In Part II of this series, we will consider the moral foundations of liberal politics.