What is conservatism?
The most obvious meaning of the word "conservatism" is "a philosophy that revolves around the intention to conserve." Of course, this definition begs the question – "conserve what?"
When we begin to answer the second question, "what are we trying to conserve?" we discover that there are many different kinds of "conservatives." Everyone who claims the label "conservative" is not trying to conserve the same thing.
I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the major "conservative" groups.
Social Conservatives work to conserve the values of their particular culture. In our country, we can break this subgroup down even further, into religious and secular social conservatives. A religious conservative wants to convince the nation to order its public life around the values of faith –in our country, that means some form of Christian faith. (In the American South, this means some form of Evangelical Christian faith.) A secular social conservative, on the other hand, wants to maintain the nation's traditional culture but is not as interested in the spiritual aspects of that heritage. Thus, a religious conservative may differ from a secular one over immigration or abortion. The religious conservative may be sympathetic toward his or her fellow believers from other countries, while a secular conservative may view immigration as undermining the traditional culture. In the case of abortion, a secular conservative may be much less passionate about the issue than his or her religious counterpart and may even believe that a conservative government should not interfere with a citizen's private choice.
Orthodoxy is a term worth noting here. Orthodoxy is fidelity to a common core of beliefs and practices that transcends one's own historical era or geographical location. Orthodox Judaism seeks to preserve and propagate the historical beliefs and practices of that religion. There are several forms of Christian orthodoxy – many of them related to ethnicity and culture, such as Russian and Greek Orthodoxy. However, all forms of Christian orthodoxy profess allegiance to a common core of beliefs that transcends the boundaries of time and space. For most Christians, the two major creeds of the faith embody that common core.
It is possible to be a religious conservative (and certainly to be a cultural conservative) without being orthodox. For example, a religious conservative may be passionate about the music, practice and traditions of his or her particular brand of faith while being apathetic about whether those practices have historical or biblical roots. In other words, religious conservatism is about maintaining one's religious culture (which may be decades old); orthodoxy is about maintaining one's connection to "that which has at all times and all places been believed by the whole people of God." Mormons are religious conservatives but they are not orthodox. Southern Baptists are orthodox, religious conservatives and usually social conservatives as well. Some Roman Catholics are Orthodox but not socially conservative.
Fiscal Conservatives preach the values of historical Capitalism. The most important philosopher of this philosophy is Adam Smith, the man whose ideas molded American capitalism. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasurer of the United States, who almost single-handedly invented our economic system, was profoundly influenced by Smith's ideas.
Fiscal conservatives are usually (but not always) proponents of laissez faire capitalism, a fancy term that simply means, "allow the market forces to weed out bad financial judgment; don't try to regulate industry – the invisible hand of market reality will, in the long run, make life better for everyone." However, some fiscal conservatives (such as Theodore Roosevelt) have been in favor of placing boundaries around business to guard against the worst kinds of abuse against workers and consumers. (For example, a monopoly can control prices and supply in ways that rewards the monopoly but harms the consumer. Therefore, government will step in from time to time to insure that there is fair competition for goods and services in any section of the market.)
Here is a great term: "luddites!"
These people reject all forms of progress, including technological ones. The term has its roots in England, where textile workers once successfully resisted technological inventions for several decades because the new machines threatened to reorder traditional methods of making cloth.
Libertarianism is a belief that government should have a very limited function. Other than defending us when attacked or punishing murders and thieves, the libertarian's cry to government is "stay out of my life." People who hold this position have very little concern with "common goods or services." Parks, mass transit, food and drug regulation and so forth are not viewed as legitimate governmental concerns. Thus, while a religious conservative will fight for tough drug laws, a libertarian will resist the governmental intrusion into one's recreational choices. The same difference will surface around traditional morals.
A "conservative" in the American southeast is usually a religious conservative. A "conservative" in the American southwest is usually a libertarian. A conservative in the northeast is often religious and some sort of orthodox believer but probably not an evangelical. Wealthy conservatives in all these regions may or may not be religious but will most certainly be fiscal conservatives.
A religious conservative who is wealthy will probably be a fiscal conservative as well as a social conservative. A religious conservative from lower social economic levels however, may be a populist – someone who is willing to use public money to bring financial relief to people in financial duress.
As we can see, conservatism (like liberalism) is a very broad tent. An American Southerner who is a religious conservative and perhaps a fiscal one as well, may vote the same way as a libertarian but the two are hardly seeking the same kind of country. A fiscal conservative may disdain religious conservative values. A luddite who opposes trade with China will have very little in common with a free trade follower of Adam Smith.
The present bitterness in our public political discourse may well be due to the vastly different ways in which we try to define ourselves with only two labels – "liberal" and "conservative." The two labels have come to mean very little because we have tried to make them mean so much.
So if you consider yourself to be a "conservative" you should stop a moment to ask, "What am I trying to preserve? Are the people leading my party trying to conserve the same things that interest me? Am I voting for labels or have I made sure that the people claiming those labels truly hold to the values that I cherish?"
If you reject the label "conservative" for yourself, you might want to ask whether there is anything in life you wish to preserve and if so, whether you may have more in common than you might have thought with "conservatives" who wish to conserve the same things.