I have to admit: I love being “unplugged.” I cherish every opportunity to get away from modern society –especially politics. I am no partisan and I am certainly no politician, nor do I ever aspire to become one.
However…I am a conservative in the truest sense of the word. I care about the big Ideas and the driving forces behind civilization. I care about faith, family, tradition, and the ancient order from which we derive our Western civilization; and I have dedicated my life to the restoration of those civic virtues. Therefore, on my family’s vacation to the beach –despite all my efforts to stay away from the political arena- I couldn’t help bringing a somewhat political book along with me. During our trip I finished reading The Conservative Mind by Dr. Russell Kirk.
One thing that I couldn’t help noticing as I read through this book was the recurring theme of what the great British statesman Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination.” It is the idea that society consist of more than mere individuals –more than isolated economic units in a grand market who strive toward material gain. Rather, it is the idea of community, fellowship, and a spiritual unity that unites the living and the dead. One who has “moral imagination” sees that the purpose of life consists of more than just getting rich quick, starting a family, and buying a house.
Moral imagination perceives a true happiness greater than what most consider the “American dream.” It finds strength in relationships, in family, in tradition. It thrives in the context of religious devotion and a society free of government interference and social planning. It is the capability of an individual to find his place in the realm of a divine existence and to pursue his dreams in accordance to his Maker’s will. To have moral imagination is to understand that true freedom is found in obedience to God.
This is where 21st century conservatives fall short in the war of ideas. Most conservatives probably find that they agree with the points I have outlined above, but they are woefully inadequate, or downright fearful, to communicate them articulately to a society hostile to the true freedom which the moral imagination seeks to restore. This is also where our libertarian friends go seriously wrong.
Liberals and libertarians alike fail to understand that society consists of so much more than individuals born with abstract “rights” and liberties which they claim are supremely superior to restraint by law. They view all people as mere individuals –as mere economic units, completely divorced from the context of family and community. They seem to think that their decisions only affect themselves. Conservatives understand that society does not function as a collection of individuals but as a complex and intricate body with varying and sometimes contradictory interests. For this reason, liberty must be under the law. It can be restrained and indeed it must be strained by government under certain circumstances. As Kirk writes,
Men are never in a state of total independence of each other. It is not the condition of our nature; nor is it conceivable how any man can pursue a considerable course of action without its having some effect upon others; or of course, without producing some degree of responsibility for his conduct.
It is extremely important for conservatives to rediscover this type of moral imagination (even if it may at first seem foreign to our modern minds) if we are to stand any chance at defending our customs and traditions articulately. Whether it’s with the issue of gay marriage or drug legalization or any other liberal concoction, we have to learn to make the moral argument that one does not have a “right” to trample on the true rights of others. Nor do we have the right, as Kirk says, “to imperil the happiness of posterity by impudently tinkering with the heritage of humanity.” There are indeed unintended consequences to our moral choices that affect other people. It is ludicrous for the state to ignore that fact under the cliché of the mythical “wall of separation” between church and state.
We must learn how to articulate that conservatism is more than matters of dollars and cents. We have to stand for something more than tax breaks and spending cuts. We have to conserve something more than the path to prosperity. As Kirk so eloquently states,
When the aim of life is to imitate the rich, and “opportunity” is made generally available, general discouragement is the consequence. No paradox, this: the average man, formerly content in his special craft or his old simplicities, is hopelessly out of the running in the race for wealth, and exhausts himself very early, and lingers on only in boredom.
When all men desperately seek wealth, even at the assistance of the government, no one wins. Mediocrity reigns. Intellectual and moral curiosity dies. Think: the government gives everyone the opportunity to go to college so everyone can get rich. Now everyone goes to college and no one gets rich.
Luckily, there’s more to life than getting rich. Yes, we must continue to defend private property and the free market against government intrusion and social leveling; but fiscal conservatism can’t become its own end. If we want to win at the ballot box and if we want to succeed in restoring our nation, we must resurrect our moral imagination and understand what truly makes life worth the living.
This must be done on a cultural level; it cannot be achieved through any theocratic “political Christianity.” Spiritual and moral regeneration must come through a change in culture –an inward change not an outward one. “Change we can believe in” will not come from government, but from an inward ordering of the soul. That is the essence of the true conservative mind.