What Hath Buckley to Do with Barnabas? A Reflection on Christianity and Conservatism
(These remarks were delivered by Andrew Walker on the topic of “Christianity and Conservatism in the Public Square” during an event at Vanderbilt University.)
I recall a friend, a prominent conservative, who told me that he became a Christian as a result of attending pro-life events and interacting with the pro-life community. Prior to this his political worldview had been one of stalwart conservatism.
We’re more accustomed to hearing the opposite, that a person’s evangelical or Catholic faith led him or her into the pro-life fold.
My friend wondered why the pro-life movement was predominantly faith-based, because, for him, the right to life—and the need to protect the most vulnerable among us—was a self-evident truth grounded in a soul’s right to exist. “Thou shall not murder” was not just a principle carved into stone by Moses; for my friend, it was also a natural truth that served as a fundamental tenet for a well-functioning public order.
This fundamental question of Natural Law—that life should be respected—would ultimately lead him to ask whether there was a Supreme Law-Giver. The idea of Divine Truth unsettled his conscience, convincing him that the visceral concern he had for unborn life must spring from an eternal source. Soon after that he converted to Christianity, obviously for reasons of atonement given by Christ, but partly because he resonated so deeply with Christianity’s scriptural and historic teaching on human dignity.
This friend’s story displays a fundamental relation between conservatism and Christianity: The two traditions have a resonating, shared anthropology, which, when speaking about deciphering worldviews, is a paramount doctrine upon which to have agreement. Both traditions believe that man is not a machine; that in the act of creating us, God creates us for certain ends that result in human happiness.
Both traditions teach that humanity is “fallen,” or “imperfectible,” or “finite.” Where modern liberalism suggests that our nature and bodies are instruments of the will capable of being re-created, both Christianity and conservatism teach a view of humanity that is, according to Thomas Sowell, “constrained.” Both traditions acknowledge and celebrate limits. Christianity and conservatism both reject body-self dualisms found in contemporary ideologies, believing instead that the individual is not mere material, but also possesses a soul.
Contrast this with the world we now live in, a world described by Jennifer Roback Morse in Public Discourse as one that “promises health and happiness through science. Science is supposed to deliver human control over the constraints of nature. This, in turn, will make us happy, since the free exercise of our will is supposed to be the key to human happiness.”
In contrast, Christianity and conservatism alike have been suspicious of the unconstrained will; knowing that the untrammelled pursuit of “progress,” untethered from moral norms, has resulted in moral atrocity and human misery. The forward march of liberalism has resulted in a conception of human freedom coupled with policies that leave an unintended path of human wreckage in their wake.
While the classical tradition—which many contend is a precursor to the conservative tradition—has held that man is a political animal, Christianity complements this tradition by suggesting something further: That man is also a distinctly moral creature.
To be a creature is to admit that we are all created beings distinct from our Creator. To be moral suggests that there exists an enduring moral order to which humanity is obligated to align itself—not for the sake of mere alignment itself—but that such alignment produces human flourishing.
As a Christian, the language of “rights” so often spoken of by conservatives is what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “borrowed capital”—concepts derived from Christianity that secular political philosophies accommodate in order to give meaning to governance. For individuals like Schaeffer or C.S. Lewis, if there were no God, there could still be observable rights or wrongs—but these rights and wrongs would be a result of emotive observations, suspended in air and created by what Oliver O’Donovan calls “a vacuum of authority.”
However, to be a political animal is not to stand in contradiction to being a moral creature; it simply expands the concept by suggesting that how we order our lives—and we’re all ordering our lives whether we know it—is an action accountable to God.
It is no surprise that some of conservatism’s greatest thinkers have been Christians: men and women such as Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, Robert P. George, Dorothy Sayers, Jean Bethke Elshtain—individuals like my friend Ryan Anderson. Even Russell Kirk, perhaps the greatest proponent of traditionalist conservatism, converted to Christianity later in life. And it was he who offered these words: “The conservative is concerned, first of all, with 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.”
The reverse is also true, some of Christianity’s most astute thinkers have likewise been conservatives—from Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Allan Carlson, to Albert Mohler; men like my boss, Russell Moore.
But to say that much of conservatism has been Christian is not to say that all of conservatism is Christian. Some conservatives were Enlightenment Deists—many of our founders, for example—who spoke of owing their lives to “Divine Providence.”
I say that to say this: There is not to my knowledge a strong tradition of atheist conservatives.
The best of the conservative tradition recognizes that our political lives cannot be lived merely in the penultimate; and the best of the Christian tradition recognizes that a worldview shaped by the ultimate should inform and shape life in the penultimate; that each tradition demands and advocates for human excellence and moral order in the midst of inhabiting bodies, souls and minds that are disordered and fallen.
My personal worldview flows downstream from my faith, a Christianity that demands the recognition of human dignity and the priority of the family, met with a conservatism that shares this worldview and puts these Permanent Things into action by promoting and defending them.