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True conservatism is not mere progressivism in slow motion

“Freedom Conservatism” misses a crucial ingredient from the Buckley-Reagan recipe

William F. Buckley Jr., left, greets Ronald Reagan and Sam Ervin after a debate in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 13, 1978. Associated Press/Photo by Lou Krasky

True conservatism is not mere progressivism in slow motion

American conservatism has many roots, but the modern conservative movement traces at last part of its heritage to a 1960 gathering of conservatives and a manifesto of principles they adopted. The Sharon Statement became a hallmark summary of the most fundamental principles of conservatism. One of the most notable passages in the Sharon Statement was its affirmation of “eternal truths” and to their ultimate grounding in God.

Now, conservatives have always debated the essence of conservatism, and for good reason. As an intellectual project, conservatism insists that ideas matter, and not just in some abstract Platonic way. Conservatives understand that ideas must eventually be distilled and crystalized into workable policies and programs.

But note this: Central to conservatism has always been a belief in God. Take, for instance, Russell Kirk’s summary of a central conservative axiom: “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.”

The Sharon Statement mentions God as the first reality for its political principles. In contrast, consider the recent statement of “Freedom Conservatism,” a statement released last week that bills itself as an heir of the Sharon Statement. What is most striking is not what it states, but what it leaves out.

I read the statement three times to assure myself that I was not overlooking an essential element of American conservatism—God, the notion of divine transcendence that gives existence and order to all things. Without God at the center of one’s political worldview, there is no principled ground to furnish what political societies need above all else: an unchanging morality and standard upon which to establish the purpose of the society’s organization in the first place. Apart from grounding morality in theism, justice—the essential justification for the political community—is illusory. This is only as radical as the Declaration of Independence and its overtures to theism and natural law.

Freedom conservatism asserts moral propositions without coherent moral foundations.

Freedom conservatism asserts moral propositions without coherent moral foundations. Sure, many of those pillars are wonderful and would be happily embraced by almost all conservatives. However, planks of the statement such as “liberty,” “freedom of conscience,” and “the pursuit of happiness” are pillars denoting a moral ought. They cannot be elastic and unbounded to the point of the absurd. Does it include the liberty to kill one’s baby, for example? But one would never know why any of these apparent conservative principles have any force to them apart from their mere assertion.

This strikes at the very center of Freedom Conservatism’s inadequacy as a consensus document for American conservatism: An arbitrary conservatism that exists in mid-air without any moral grounding is, in the long run, going to cede every moral ground that progressivism demands. If you do not believe that’s the inevitable result of metaphysical-less conservatism, just look at how what the New York Times calls conservatism valorizes drag queens as the defender of liberty, equates bans on child mutilation with government prohibiting the sexualization of children, and supports same-sex civil marriage. With conservatism like this, who needs liberalism?

The statement attempts to build a conservatism without religion or metaphysics. That’s immensely telling and it is a sad revelation. It’s what scholar Heinrich Rommen calls “metaphysicophobia.” The term is useful. Conservatism of this stripe ends up conserving very little (apart from moral relativism and tax cuts) because there’s no real moral foundation. In the end, the rapacious destruction of progressivism always hollows out any conservatism not grounded in an objective account of morality, which is impossible apart from God’s existence.

I know I sound harsh, and I do not want to appear more critical than I am. This is a friendly jab across the arm, not a broadside. This is not intended as a strident dismissal that is now too common with online conservative fratricide. But a morally denuded conservatism such as this will not stop attacks on unborn life, the redefinition of marriage, the obliteration of the male-female binary, the transformation of marriage into an adult-centered erotic escapade, or the near collapse of any other creation order truth that secularism seeks to destroy. In fact, some voices of “Freedom Conservatism” are not impediments of those pathologies but accelerants. Conservatism without God is slow-motion progressivism.

The statement has ten pillars that anyone familiar enough with North American conservatism would instantly realize as remnants of William F. Buckley’s fusionism. For this reason alone, I cannot be too critical. William F. Buckley, after all, is responsible for drawing me intellectually into the deep wells of American conservatism. I aspire for a conservatism large enough to assemble winning coalitions. That means there will be elements of anyone’s conservatism (except my own, of course) with which other conservatives will find fault. Moreover, I have friends I love and respect who signed the statement. In terms of what it includes, much of the statement is boilerplate Reaganism. What makes this new statement dangerous is what it does not include—an acknowledgment God and transcendent truth.

A conservatism that hopes to survive the burned-out and hollowed precincts of progressivist malignancy will need more than the fumes of what a secularized worldview can provide. True conservatism requires transcendent truth.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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