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  • Conservatism Requires a Religious Foundation

    by Russell Kirk

    Russell Kirk

    Not all religious people are conservatives; and not all conservatives are religious people. Christianity prescribes no especial form of politics. There have been famous radicals who were devout Christians—though most radicals have been nothing of the sort. All the same, there could be no conservatism without a religious foundation, and it is conservative people, by and large, who defend religion in our time.

    Lord Hailsham, a talented English conservative of this century, in his little book The Case for Conservatism, remarks, “There is nothing I despise more than a politician who seeks to sell his politics by preaching religion, unless it be a preacher who tries to sell his sermons by talking politics.” Yet he goes on to say that conservatism and religion cannot be kept in separate compartments, and that the true conservative at heart is a religious man. The social influence of Christianity has been nobly conservative, and a similarly conservative influence has been exerted by Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Judaism, and the other higher religions.

    In America, a sense of religious consecration has been joined to our political institutions from the beginning. Almost all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were religious men. Solemn presidential proclamations, since the beginning of the Republic, have invoked the might and mercy of God. Most of our leading conservative statesmen and writers were men profoundly religious—George Washington, an Episcopalian; John Adams, a Unitarian; James Madison, an Episcopalian; John Randolph, an Episcopalian; John C. Calhoun, a Unitarian; Orestes Brownson, a Catholic; Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Congregationalist; Abraham Lincoln, a devout though independent theist; and many more. “We know and we feel inwardly that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and all comfort,” Edmund Burke wrote.

    Now a conservative is a person who sees human society as an immortal contract between God and man, and between the generations that are dead, and the generation that is living now, and the generations which are yet to be born. It is possible to conceive of such a contract, and to feel a debt toward our ancestors and obligations toward our posterity, only if we are filled with a sense of eternal wisdom and power. We deal charitably and justly by our fellow men and women only because we believe that a divine will commands us to do so, and to love one another. The religious conservative is convinced that we have duties toward society, and that a just government is ruled by moral law, since we participate in our humble way in the divine nature and the divine love. The conservative believes that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

    The conservative desires to conserve human nature—that is, to keep men and women truly human, in God’s image. The dread radical ideologies of our century, Communism and Nazism and their allies, endeavor to stamp out religion root and branch because they know that religion is always a barrier to collectivism and tyranny. A religious person has strength and faith; and radical collectivism detests private strength and faith. Throughout Europe and Asia, the real resistance to collectivism has come from men and women who believe that there is a greater authority than the collectivistic state, and that authority is God.

    A society which denies religious truth lacks faith, charity, justice and any sanction for its acts. Today, more perhaps than ever before, Americans understand the close connection between religious conviction and just government, so that they have amended their oath of allegiance to read, “one nation, under God.” There is a divine power higher than any political power. When a nation ignores the divine authority, it soon commits the excesses of fanatic nationalism, intoxicated with its own unchecked power, which have made the twentieth century terrible.

    Any religion is always in danger of corruption; and in our time, various people have endeavored to persuade us that the Christian religion endorses some sort of sentimental collectivism, a “religion of humanity,” in which the Christian idea of equality in God’s sight is converted into a dreary social and economic equality enforced by the state. But an examination of the Christian creeds and the Christian tradition will not sustain such an interpretation of Christian teaching. What Christianity offers is personal redemption, not some system of economic revolution. The human person is the great concern of Christian faith—as a person, not as part of a vague “People,” or “The Masses,” or “The Underprivileged.” And when Christians preach charity, they mean the voluntary giving of those who have to those who have not; they do not mean compulsion by the state to take away from some in order to benefit others. “Statists that labor to contrive a commonwealth without poverty,” old Sir Thomas Browne says, “take away the object of our charity; not understanding only the commonwealth of a Christian, but forgetting the prophecy of Christ.” The Christian religion does indeed enjoin us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us; it does not enjoin us to employ political power to compel others to surrender their property.

    Any great religion is assailed by heresies. In the year of the Communist Manifesto, Orestes Brownson declared that Communism is a heresy from Christianity; and he is echoed today by Arnold Toynbee and Eric Voegelin, Communism perverts the charity and love of Christianity into a fierce leveling doctrine that men must be made equal upon earth; at the same time, it denounces real equality, which is equality in the ultimate judgment of God. And other ideologies which would convert Christianity into an instrument for oppressing one class for the benefit of another are heresies.

    Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (1957). This passage is reprinted from the Imaginative Conservative website.

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • CharlesOConnell
    • Adam Baum

      I’m not at all sure that it is appropriate to characterize Lincoln as a “conservative”. Part of political conservatism is the recognition that there is a rule of law, that limits the state and similarly that individuals must be constrained, both because of the tendency to be corrupted and being subject to the law of unintended consequences.
      Consider Lincoln’s policies: Lincoln gave us the first income tax, suspended habeaus corpus and prosecuted a war of unbelievable carnage in the pursuit of a political abstraction-the preservation of the union, with the end of slavery being a more worthy, but merely collateral or opportunistic end.

      • Alecto

        I think you are too hard on Lincoln. After all, the South was the aggressor. It fired first, just as the Japanese did. Factually, Lincoln’s war was a defensive war. Southern aggression seeking to expand slavery into new territories long before that war erupted and Republican opposition to that expansion, seeking instead to first, restrict, then when war erupted, eliminate slavery in order to prevail. There were many opportunities to curb the South before the Civil War. Lincoln had few choices.

        Lincoln wasn’t half as imperial as Jackson, who disregarded the Supreme Court’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia, a ruling supported by the Constitution, unlike Dred Scott, then removed Cherokees from their land. The U.S. was conceived with the understanding that the practice of slavery could not continue. The fight was inevitable, began long before the Constitution was ratified, but the culmination under Lincoln’s presidency was, I think, a sign of Providence at work.

        • slainte

          Perhaps President Jackson was the inspiration for our modern day governors and attorneys general who arbitrarily decline to enforce select laws of the land, thus compelling reluctant citizens to take up the defense in their stead, only to be informed by the judiciary that they lack standing to do what their representatives refuse to do.
          What is an aggrieved citizen to do in such a post-religious, post conservative society where justice appears to have been upended?

          • Alecto

            Exactly my thoughts, slainte.There are many remedies available, some are a last resort. I listen to a radio program here called “The Forgotten Men” which explores these remedies. For example, we could divide states in order to create more states, more than the existing 50. There is talk in Colorado, in Maryland and other states of breaking from the existing choke hold of plutocracy. There are plans to take over New Hampshire. After all, there is no Constitutional limit of 50 states.

          • Adam Baum

            You mean Kathleen Kane?

            • slainte

              I was referring to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, then-Attorneys General Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris, all of whom reportedly refused to defend Prop 8 which had been enacted into law by the people of California.

              See link to article by Frank Schubert entitled “The Legal Circus That Killed Proposition 8″ posted July 22, 2013 by the Witherspoon Institute, Public Discourse.


        • Adam Baum

          I will not defend Jackson, but will not exhonerate Lincoln by comparison.
          It is my opinion that most presidents are not talented public-spirited individuals, but deeply flawed craven individuals obsessed with power and abstraction. Lincoln was such a man and that is not “conservative”.
          Given the fact that the Court’s power of judicial review is an inferred (concocted) one from Marbury v. Madison that can and has been inflated to one of judicial supremacy, and not an enumerated one , it might be a good thing if the executive occasionally made use of prosecutorial discretion to say “the court has opined..”.
          On the other hand, it is possible that Lincoln actually considered issuing or actually issued a warrant for Roger Taney’s arrest because of the decision in Ex Parte Merryman which determined the suspension of habeus corpus was a clear violation of the Constitution.
          Lincoln was no friend of the SCOTUS or the Constitution. Exigency is not a defense for his frequent and serious attacks.
          As for the war’s justification, let’s stipulate it was completely defensive and that armed conflict was necessary. That doesn’t justify any and all means in the war. Hundreds of thousands died in the conflict. Even as a grade schooler vising Gettysburg, I wonder whether there was a certain cavalier extravagence with casualties (by both sides, but Lincoln is under consideration here)
          Moreover while the Republican Party may have been devoted to abolition, LIncoln was clearly indifferent as illustrated in his letter to Horace Greeley.
          They say God writes straight lines with crooked pencils, and perhaps the very crooked pencil of LIncoln was the best tool humanity offered at the time. Maybe Lincoln selected the best of a lousy set of alternatives, given that politics, unlike polemics doesn’t provide an unconstrained set of alternatives. I’m not looking to rewrite history to say the demise of the Confederacy was unfortunate. Given what would happen in Europe decades later, one can wonder how worse things would have been if World would have been left to even greater foes of conservatism (Europe).
          All that having been said, whatever his sentiments, in the conduct of his office, LIncoln was not “conservative”.

          • Alecto

            Of course, I agree with you (as you well imagine) on the Constitution and presidential extra-constitutional actions. I was attempting an imitation of Brutus, coming not to defend Caesar, nor exonerate him, but trying to force context 150 years after the fact. Lincoln most resembles a “neo-conservative”, which is a Democrat who has seen God and converted to the Republican religion, but still in his heart cherishing power; power over everyone and everything. Perhaps Lincoln, like FDR, was a megalomaniac? War time presidents usually are.

            • Adam Baum

              The one exculpative factor is LIncoln’s case is that he was basically only a war time President, we don’t know what he might have done had he been President under different circumstances. Would his legacy have been the Transcontinental Railroad?

              On the other hand, we know how men like Wilson and both Roosevelts conducted themselves-high priests of the church of statist idolatry..

            • Adam Baum

              Out of curiousity, did you ever post at Tech Central Station?, aka TCSDaily? (now defunct).

              • Alecto

                Nyet, never heard of it.

                • Adam Baum

                  Interesting choice of words.
                  the poster I thought you were was an individual that used to go by the pseudonym “methinks76″ or “methinks1176″, who revealed herself as free market oriented individual, working in finance and of Russian descent.

                  • Alecto

                    You mean there are more? That’s a scary thought!

                    • Adam Baum

                      This sure sounds like the same person I was thinking of..

                      There were at least two others,, Tanya and Pam both attended Penn State about 30 years ago.

                      • Adam BAum

                        And Tanya was very insistent it was “TAWNya”, not Tan-YA”.

                      • Alecto

                        Amazing, but truly, that is not me! A kindred soul, but not me.

    • Me

      To the believer, any “-ism” requires a religious foundation.

      • HigherCalling

        Yep, even atheism. Anything that commits a person to some doctrine about the universe is that person’s religion. Murdering God does not kill the religious impulse. The soul abhors a vacuum, so the unbeliever redirects the authority innately held by God to the only two things powerful enough to contain it — to himself or to his politics — either you become your own god, or the government does (sometimes both!). Do read some Voegelin.

        • Adam Baum

          Atheism IS a religion. It is a statement about deity that requires BELIEF.
          It says declares that the nature of deity is nulity, and since you cannot prove nullity, it requires belief.

          • HigherCalling

            Yep. Or as Chesterton said, “Atheism is indeed the most daring of all dogmas… for it is the assertion of a universal negative.”

          • David Castlen

            Excellent. I am stealing this from you…..excellent

            • Adam Baum

              You are free to use it. I’m not sure it’s my original work.

            • slainte

              Hmmm, an honorable thief. :)

    • Alecto

      Many thanks to whomever made the decision to reprint this excerpt. This is exactly the ammunition to offer to those who claim religion ought not play any role in our society. More than that, it explains why Americans, long a faithful people, are losing their liberty as they lose their faith in God. I adore Russell Kirk.

    • David Castlen

      Abraham Lincoln was the most anti-free market president until Wilson and Roosevelt topped him. Lincoln was a racist, mercantilist and a conniver. No sophist has exist as cunning as him. He is always given credit for freeing the slaves and starting a war to free the slaves: no way. He wanted the war to insure that tariffs and the crony-capitalist would rule. He won.
      I would suggest beginning with readings of Tom Dilorenzo (Von Mises Institute) there are so many other sources. HE CARED NOTHING FOR THE black community.

    • BRF24871

      Very good essay, Kirk is definitely one of the top 20th century philosophers. In this work, he explained in detail two-thirds of the “evil trinity”, namely fascism and communism, which were the mainstay evils of his age. However, the third, secular individualism, was developed by his contemporary Ayn Rand, and is arguably the most sinister and malignant of the three. Unfortunately, many parts of Rand’s Objectivism were adopted by both the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties in the late 20th century, after the fall of communism in eastern Europe. As a result, the Republican party has now lost the moral authority that was gained by Ronald Reagan during the latter days of the Cold War. It has now come to represent pure greed, militarism, and disregard for the dignity of the human person and is now dominated by neoconservative, xenophobic, and libertarian partisans.
      This just underscores the need for a traditionalist, faithful, conservative political party that will replace and transcend the GOP. It is high time for the GOP to go the way of its predecessor, the Whig party. The latter could not handle the moral challenge of the Civil War, just as the former cannot handle the biggest moral challenges of today: respect for human life from conception to natural death, respect for all human persons in the global marketplace, and the rapid rate of technological change.