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What’s Wrong With Conservatism?6 min read

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First Things, the premier quarterly journal of Judeo-Christian political thought, has an excellent article (from 1996, but still totally relevant) on what’s wrong with conservative American politics.  I’ve exercpted his points, but you should give the original article a read.  It is noteworthy that for each of the points below, he contrasts the "moral error" (in red) with what he considers the true and correct Christian perspective (blue).

What’s Wrong with Conservatism
The "moral errors" of Conservatism include:
  • Civil Religionism – "According to this notion America is a chosen nation, and its projects are a proper focus of religious aspiration; according to Christianity America is but one nation among many, no less loved by God, but no more….The mistake [snip] is confusing America with Zion. She is not the inheritor of the covenant, not the receiver of the promises, not the witness to the nations. It may well be that all nations have callings of sorts-specific purposes which God in His providence assigns them. But no nation can presume to take God under its wing. However we may love her, dote upon her, and regret her, the Lord our God can do without the United States."

  • Instrumentalism – "According to this notion faith should be used for the ends of the state; according to Christianity believers should certainly be good citizens, but faith is not a tool….judges and legislators are…interested [only] in the social utility of the faith…and…indifferent to its truth."  That is, conservatism is only interested in faith as a means to an end – its utlility, not its truth.  This, the author intimates, is an abuse of faith."
  • Moralism – "According to this notion God’s grace needs the help of the state; Christianity merely asks the state to get out of the way. We might say that while instrumentalism wants to make faith a tool of politics, moralism wants to make politics a tool of faith; on this reading, what instrumentalism is to secular conservatives, moralism is to religious conservatives….Now I am not going to complain that moralism "imposes" a faith on people who do not share it. In the sense at issue, even secularists impose a faith on others-they merely impose a different faith. Every law reflects some moral idea, every moral idea reflects some fundamental commitment, and every fundamental commitment is religious-it proposes a god. Everything in the universe comes to a point. For moralism, therefore, the important distinction is not between religion and secularism, but between faiths that do and faiths that do not demand the civil enforcement of all their moral precepts."
  • Caesarism – "According to this notion the laws of man are higher than the laws of God; according to Christianity the laws of God are higher than the laws of man. With this error we have come back to secular conservatives. The peculiar thing about American Caesarism is that the state never says that its laws are higher than the laws of God; it simply refuses to acknowledge any laws of God, in the name of equal liberty for all religious sects."
  • Traditionalism – "According to this notion what has been done is what should be done; Christianity, however, though it cherishes the unchanging truths of faith, insists that any merely human custom may have to be repented….It is certainly true that precedents, traditions, and customs should not be needlessly disturbed; the gain in goodness from a particular change must always be balanced against the harm of change as such. But this truth applies to the choice between a good law and a still better one, not to the choice between a good law and an evil one."
  • Neutralism – "In essence, conservative neutralism is the notion that because everyone ought to mind his own business, moral and religious judgments should be avoided. By contrast, while agreeing that one ought to mind his own business – St. Paul warns three times against busybodies – Christianity holds that moral and religious judgments can never be avoided….[We must determine] where the business of one party ends and the business of another begins."
  • Mammonism – "According to this notion wealth is the object of commonwealth, and its continual increase even better; according to Christianity wealth is a snare, and its continual increase even worse. The idea was that virtue makes republics prosper, but prosperity leads to love of wealth, love of wealth leads to loss of virtue, and loss of virtue makes republics fall. Thus if you want your republic to endure, you will do well to seek a site unfavorable to great prosperity-not too warm, not too fertile, not too close to the trading routes. That our secular conservatives disagree with their ancient counterparts will strike no one as a new idea. Odder is the ease with which modern Christians make their peace with mammonism."
  • MeritismAccording to this notion I should do unto others as they deserve. With the addition of mammonism, matters become even simpler, for then those who need help are by definition undeserving, while those in a position to help are by definition deserving. That meritism is not a Christian doctrine comes as a surprise to many people. Large numbers think the meritist motto "God helps those who help themselves" is a quotation from the Bible. What the New Testament actually teaches is that in what we need most, we are helpless; the grace of God is an undeserved gift. According to Christianity I should do unto others not as they deserve, but as they need….the conservative mistake of meritism stands opposite to the liberal mistake of propitiationism – doing unto others as they want….The problem with subsidies is that they are not what is needed. They so completely split behavior from its natural consequences that they infantilize their supposed beneficiaries; to infantilize them is to debase them, and no one needs to be debased."

Again, the entire
should be read – it is excellent.