Should conservatives think of themselves as classical liberals? In his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, George Will will have American conservatives only as “the custodians of the classical liberal tradition.” In Will’s telling, the alternative visions for the Right involve squalid worship of blood and soil. But this is an incomplete picture.
Because conservatism grew up as a hesitation in the liberal tradition, and because traditional conservatives and classical liberals find themselves allied so closely against progressivism and socialism, their vocabulary and self-conception are almost conjoined. Untangling them can almost sound like a riddle: A classical liberal believes man is free until the law touches him. A conservative believes he is free because the law guards him. A classical liberal guards his rights to do what he wants, a conservative protects his right to do what he must. One is a partisan of natural rights, the other of natural law. Often enough classical liberals, like Will, accept the label “conservative” proudly. And as a conservative, I still want to be thought of as possessing the virtue of liberality. The adjective suits some of us fine, but not the noun. I’m liberal, but not “a liberal.” This is not a new revelation to me in the Trump era, nor is it in service to some grand transformation of the American order, which has liberal and non-liberal elements.
We can define classical conservatism against its liberal counterpart. The classical conservative is more mindful of lived experience than of theory, is more zealous for the common goods we share than for the aggregate goods the market distributes, and sees our pre-liberal inheritance as the only source for preserving and renewing America’s liberal arrangements. Instead of getting our understanding of freedom from John Locke and his liberal theory, a classical conservative might look to Edmund Burke, or draw from a biblical worldview.
Conservatives tend to be most favorable to liberalism when it is given to us as Thomas Jefferson presented it, as the culmination and codification of the common-law tradition, as the ancient liberty of freeborn men, threatened by the engorged political authorities of modern absolute kings or tyrannical parliaments. A conservative may be deeply sympathetic to liberalism; its appeal and success are rooted in man’s desire that the law and his will should be reconciled, that an orderly and free society will arise spontaneously. But Enlightenment liberalism is not just the sum of the best medieval thinking; it is also a self-conscious break with that tradition.
What would a non-liberal conservatism even look like? It might reject or simply pass over the liberal theories of popular sovereignty and natural right. A classical conservative like Edmund Burke almost rolls his eyes at the first. To those who hold representation as the only task of legitimate government, Burke merely says that he “reprobates no form of government merely upon abstract principles.” And in unchecked democracies, he adds, “the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single scepter.” Oppression is worse under democracy.
Abraham Lincoln denounced popular sovereignty when it meant allowing a vote to determine the expansion of slavery, because “it assumes that there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another.” One could say that Lincoln was championing a highest good when, in his famous Peoria speech, he degraded Stephen Douglas’s account of popular sovereignty as a “declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery.” Lincoln considered himself an heir to the liberal and Deist Founders, but he brought the biblical God to bear on America’s self-understanding. How could a mere framework of rights speak to the calamity and devastation of civil war, or to the need to rebuild? Lincoln would practically preach to the nation that, in allowing America to be plunged into civil war, God had exacted terrible vengeance for the sin of slavery.
Locke describes natural rights this way: “Men being by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent.” But men do not meet each other as free, equal, and independent in the real world. They must be brought to a state of freedom, equality, and independence.
Instead of proposing a thought experiment about the state of nature, Burke simply acknowledges our lived reality, that we are born into a network of obligations: our families, communities, and nations. In Rousseau’s fictive state of nature, man is “born free, but everywhere in chains.” In the actual natural world we inhabit, children are born literally chained by a biological cord to their mothers. This is no accident; Burke acknowledges what traditional political thinkers called the primeval society, the family that shapes us for the world. Along with this nexus of responsibility come the unchosen duties that are entailed in being a member of a community and nation. Burke writes:
Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) “all the charities of all.” Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.
In the July 8 issue of National Review, Charles C. W. Cooke defended the classical-liberal order in some of the exact terms on which many classical conservatives could accept it, as a framework within which people of different religions can arbitrate their differences and in which they can live peacefully. That is in accord with our experience. But then Cooke says that the charge that a classical-liberal system “merely pretends at neutrality and toleration while in fact smuggling in its own values and imposing them on the public square” would be “fatal” if true. He holds that the classically liberal system is just the bones on which the culture and democratic deliberation put sinew and muscle. Don’t like the results? Changing the culture is the only option, he maintains. Cooke holds that injustices such as the harassment of Christian bakers and Christian institutions are not attributable to liberalism but to those progressives who are acting against it.
I’m not convinced. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a much quoted and occasionally mocked passage of his ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, wrote that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.” The heavy implication of Kennedy’s ruling is that for the state to rule the killing of unborn children impermissible would be not just to interfere in the family but to impose beliefs — perhaps sectarian beliefs — about life itself. And that to compel belief that way would be to falsify it.
Of course, every law about homicide implicates a belief about human life. But in those words, Kennedy was re-pronouncing the fundamental contradiction at the heart of liberalism, present since it was born in the political philosophy of John Locke. The contradiction or pretense is the belief that society can agree to a law that doesn’t impose on its subjects, even in the absence of a common understanding or creed. We shall come back to this later.
First it has to be said that Cooke’s test of neutrality is extravagant. Liberal arrangements may still be worth defending as a best or most suitable option for a people even if they aren’t perfectly neutral when arbitrating among us. And it seems they aren’t. Because liberalism is based on individual rights, it naturally favors the individual asserting his rights against traditional social subjects, whether they be the community, the family, or even his own marriage. If a classically liberal system has no effect on the values of society, it is an astonishing coincidence that wherever liberal political arrangements emerge, a new liberal understanding of marriage eventually replaces the previous Christian understandings as the legal and social reality. John Witte Jr. in his book From Sacrament to Contract (2012) traces how liberal theorists built on the already established necessity of consent for a valid Christian marriage but in such a way as to obliterate, eventually, the binding force of the vows attached to marriage. Having done so, they displaced the Catholic understanding of sacramentality creating a one-flesh union, and the Anglican notion of marriage as a commonwealth. References that reflect the pre-liberal understanding can be found in American laws as late as the early 20th century. But here as in England or Ireland or anywhere that adopts a liberal constitution, the law that governs marriage now could be called Whig marriage. It provides for divorce for all couples, even those whose public vows exclude it.
Classical conservatives such as Lincoln turn to, rather than natural-rights theory, the Bible, and they read it liturgically and typologically. In it we find that freedom has several components. First there is God’s Providence, acting to free the Hebrews from domination and slavery under Pharaoh, whose own wickedness is his self-destruction. But this absence of domination doesn’t make them free. They must then learn to follow the laws of God, given to them in the wilderness; the Israelites must master themselves. In this way, the biblical account of freedom is much like the classical republican one, with emphasis placed both on propitious circumstances and on the good character of the people. But it is also a graced account. Freedom is for something, as we learn in the histories of the Bible — namely, it is for right living and worship. Lincoln saw that, as Israel disobeyed God, or fell into immorality or oppression, it adulterated its worship. God would send prophets calling the nation back to him. Unheeded, God allowed his people to fall into calamity so that they might turn back to him. Even if conservatives disagree with the doctrines of America’s Puritans, they acknowledge with respect the Puritan desire to worship publicly and corporately. This is a duty that John Adams could even write into the Massachusetts constitution. In the New Testament we are confronted with an even more radical message: dignity even for the slave, an amused indifference to the image of Caesar, and a radical trust that “the truth will set you free.” Even amid tyranny, Christ sets man free from the bondage that kills the soul, and raises him a servant of the true King.
John Locke also turned to scripture, but for different reasons. Some readers find in Locke a liberal theorist more compatible with inherited Christian understandings of society. Unlike Thomas Hobbes before him or John Stuart Mill later, he seems to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. He even affirms belief in the Resurrection. But Locke’s reading of the Bible is a curious one. God’s sovereignty is established because for Locke human beings are “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker — all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business — they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.” Instead of being made in the image and likeness of a Heavenly Father, we have the Divine Whig, a property owner whose unchallengeable judgments are to remain undisturbed. Locke would have, instead of right living and worship, human strife ended by the flowering of a civil society “the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.”
Locke recognized that this society needed to be held together by morality, but his elaboration on Christian teaching degrades the status of individual churches in favor of a mere Christian morality. Liberalism was not just a political project but a theological one. And, across his essays A Letter concerning Toleration and The Reasonableness of Christianity and his commentaries on the Pauline epistles, Locke takes up the task to diminish the controversies between Protestant sects with his own position that the only doctrine to believe is that Christ is the Messiah — all other titles for Christ are reduced to this in his reading. And the only thing to be done is to live according to the moral precepts derived from reason or taught commonly in scripture. “The preaching of our Savior and his apostles has sufficiently taught us what is necessary to be proposed to every man, to make him a Christian,” he writes. “He that believes him to be the promised Messiah, takes Jesus for his King, and repenting of his former sins, sincerely resolves to live, for the future in obedience to his laws, is a subject of his kingdom, is a Christian.”
In Locke’s reading, the miracle stories and the histories are not expositions and revelations of the character of God but rather over-awing demonstrations of power to the vulgar masses who cannot, like a philosopher, divine morality from pure reason. “It is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality in all its parts upon its true foundation with a clear and convincing light,” Locke writes. “And it is at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a king and law-maker, tell them their duties and require their obedience, than to leave it to the long, and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them.”
Locke’s entire approach to scripture is to reduce the doctrinal controversies among Christians to mere “speculative opinions and divine worship” on one side, whereas moral teaching and his minimal creed are the parts that matter to supporting public morality and the life of the state. For Locke, immorality is a more grave offense against his true, “reasonable” Church, than “any conscientious Dissent from Ecclesiastical Decisions, or Separation from Publick Worship, whilst accompanied with Innocency of Life.” Consequently, his form of toleration excludes Catholics, not because their nations had not proven themselves bastions of liberty but because Catholic morality could not be separated from the teaching authority of the Church itself — namely, its ecclesiastical claim to define matters of faith and morals.
But the link between morality and authority is a feature not only of Catholicism. Most Christians understand that morality depends on doctrine and cannot be separated from it. And therefore tolerance, but not for Catholics, becomes generalized: tolerance, but not for “the intolerant.” Not for those who would impose on others “a concept of existence” and “speculative opinions.” It’s important to note that this generalization was predicted at the time by Locke’s contemporaries. In a heated attack on Reasonableness, Anglican divine John Edwards criticized Locke for his minimalism. “This Gentleman and his fellows are resolved to be Unitarians,” Edwards wrote. “They are for One Article of Faith, as well as One Person in the Godhead,” and when Christianity is “thus brought down to One Single Article, it will soon be reduced to none: the Unit will dwindle into a Cypher.” And yet we must make laws that point to and implicate truths. Lincoln sought to “impose a concept of existence” on his hearers and on his nation: that Negroes were men. Laws will reflect theological commitments about the world, even if they pretend not to do so. The purpose of classical conservatism is to be clear-eyed and wise about this point, to engage in the world in an undeluded way. Liberal arrangements may be tolerable and even well suited toward a people, but conservatives will not presume that that is owing to the nature of man. The presumption that men are “free, equal and independent” by nature is wrong. They can be made so by the nurture of family, community, nation, and faith.
The Bible’s political lessons offer almost nothing to support John Locke’s natural individualism, but there may be a scriptural type useful for understanding or at least seeing liberalism’s predicament, the contradiction born in John Locke’s theology and reexpressed in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s jurisprudence: the idea that there can be a common morality with no common creed, a common law without a common life. There is a character in the Bible whose political motive is fear of religious extremism, a man who rules by giving the people what they want, whose judgment is effectual even as it retains the pretense of not passing judgment. This official is careful not to impose “a concept of existence” on the subject before him. And his ruling is pithier than Justice Kennedy’s. Just three words before a quick wash of the hands, on another unpleasant Friday of executions: “What is truth?” Pilate was the first, perhaps the ideal liberal jurist.