The Death of Conservatism
Friedrich Nietzsche's "The Gay Science" contains one of the most famous and haunting quotes of the nineteenth century: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." In a cry of prophetic passion, the Madman of the parable challenges those who killed God to accept the consequences of such a brazen act and recognize that they must become like gods "to be worthy of it."
This usurpation of divine authority by man, and thereby rejection of God's order of nature, has seeped into America's social imagination, reshaping what was once implausible about human identity into something plausible, if not obligatory. Conservatism has not escaped this moral and existential insurrection. For some time, the conservative movement has been sickened, but now it has reached the point of death. Now it lies beside God in the graveyard of America's history, for as God goes, so goes conservatism.
The cause for such a grim and pessimistic claim is none other than the reality that the foundational principle on which conservatism stands has been not only soundly rejected by the culture at large, but betrayed by conservatives themselves. This is not a political statement. You'll find no finger-pointing at nationalistic populism, Trumpism, pragmatic libertarianism, or even establishment puritanism here. These are mere symptoms, death throes, and feeble attempts to scrape together the last vestiges of American liberties — albeit in often conflicting ways. The issue here is cultural-moral, where the heart of conservatism once beat.
While there are many principles of conservatism (private property, realistic diversity of human experience as opposed to egalitarianism, principles of liberty, limited government, and circumspect alterations of systems), all are meaningless without the foundation from which each is derived. That foundation is God's objective ordering of nature and human identity.
If there is any word that best captures the essence of conservatism, it is "order" — the very order of existence. In The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Russell Kirk explains this point, saying the first principle of conservatism on which all others rest is a "belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems."
Quoting Edmund Burke, Kirk says there is a reason conservatives are called "the party of order." This order is not just external; it starts within the person. "The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of the spirit and character — with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest."
This theme flows throughout American history. From Washington to Adams to Jefferson — and all true liberty-lovers since — American freedom has been rooted in "the transcendent order." Kirk went so far as to say, "I allow that, if no supreme ruler exists, wise to form, and potent to enforce, the moral law, there is no sanction to any contract, virtual or even actual, against the will of prevalent power."
The conservative is the man who cherishes "the permanent things in human existence." While true conservatives might disagree on generalities, details of policy, applications of principles, and even personal depravities and moral failures (as long as they call them such), they all join together in "resistance to the destruction of old patterns of life, damage to the footings of the civil social order, and reduction of human striving to material production and consumption" — or at least they should. Again, foundational to this is recognition of and submission to God's natural and moral order.
God is the "author of our place in the order of existence," Kirk writes, "and that having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the part assigned to us."
This reality of God's control over our nature, who we are as human beings, and the order of society is so integral to human thriving and to any social contract that we should take every precaution to abide by it when considering whom we accommodate politically, what views we adopt out of political expediency, and whom we welcome into the fold of conservatism. "If our world indeed is ordered in accordance with a divine idea," Kirk writes, "we ought to be cautious in our tinkering with the structure of society."
This effort to maintain a social order rooted in divine order "is dependent upon the preservation of a delicate balance," he says, "and precisely as men who, abandoning that balance, destroy themselves, so any society which tosses away the weights at one end of the scale must end in a condition broken and desolate."
Our society has not only lost that balance; it has thrown away the scales, and conservatives have played a part in their own political destruction. Fundamental to social order is belief in God, that God made humans a certain way and for a particular purpose, and that morality is absolute. Yet how many conservatives reject the belief that we are created by God in his image; that sexual identity is fashioned by God for his purposes not self-determined by individual feelings and psychologies for self-expression; that man is born in sin and won't progress toward "the good" if left to himself; that individual authenticity is not merely expressive individualism, but derived from a relationship with God and the broader community; that the family is ordered by God; that sexual relationships are ordered by God; that the individual self is ordered by God; that institutions are ordered by God; and that liberty is ordered by God?
How many conservatives, even if they accept elements of God's order of nature, welcome people with ideologies and beliefs opposed to that order, plunging conservatism into chaos? The "big tent" of conservatism might involve temporary alliances with others acting within the political sphere toward a particular political end, but when it comes to the nature of conservatism itself and its impact on culture, aligning with and adopting views that seek to destroy God's order is foolish and self-destructive. Conservatives might get to the endgame of Survivor with such alliances, but when the true intent and ideological trajectory of those in control is to eradicate objective truth and divine order, they won't survive a day past their former allies' need to assert their godless will into the game.
Those who deny God's created order and purposes when it comes to human identity, sexual identity, and individuality are no friend to the civil society in the long run. They will inevitably turn on those who still believe that God is King of this world. This point has been lost on too many conservatives as they have welcomed haters of God and his moral order not only into their tent, but into their hearts and their minds — a self-deluded treachery of "openness" that has softy sounded the death knell of conservatism in America.
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