I encourage you, my son, to be a conservative but not in the narrowly political sense. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats embody the fullness of true conservatism, and I have no desire here to give you partisan advice. I want to draw you to something deeper, a way of life that is grounded in essential truths about God, man, and society.
The true conservatism I would steer you toward begins with a foundational truth that is revealed to us in the Bible but which has always struck me as the height of common sense: namely, that we were made in God’s image but are now fallen. The first part is the ground of all human dignity and intrinsic worth. Apart from it, we are nothing more than great apes with no ultimate claim to specialness. The second part is the reality check, the reason why we need laws and limits, checks and balances.
Without a clear knowledge of our status as bearers of God’s image, we will allow the forces of big government or big business (or both) to use and manipulate us. Without a sense of our inherent sinfulness and depravity, we will attempt to purify society by reeducating (or purging out) undesirable elements that stand in the way of utopia. Either way, man is reduced to a cog in a machine. Never forget that you are both the glory and the scandal of the universe: neither beast nor angel but an incarnational mix of the two.
The second truth I would have you learn is that the family is the core institution of society: the state is a creation of the family and not vice versa. Do not let your children become wards of the state but raise them up in all that is good, true, and beautiful. That does not mean your children cannot attend public school; it means that you and your wife must be the primary source of their growth in wisdom and morality.
After the family, the church is the second most important institution. It grounds the community in faith and service. There are many things for which government bureaucracy is helpful, but you must learn to do things on the smallest and most local level you can. That is true conservatism. In many ways big business is good and beneficial, but when it strangles free enterprise and the entrepreneurial spirit, then it is as dangerous as an intrusive federal government. Learn to be self-reliant, but also learn your place in the local community.
Finally, respect freedom without tolerating vice. You should not judge, for you too are a sinner and you do not know the struggles that other men face. But you must guard society from those evils that will tear it apart. Respect the traditions that have been passed down to you, but do not allow injustice to infect those traditions or turn them awry. Do not be fooled into thinking that progress is a good in and of itself. Test all things and rely on the wisdom of age and experience.
Such is true conservatism, for it allows us to conserve all those things that are true and noble and right and pure. Be the salt and light, my son, that preserves and illuminates such things.
This essay originally appeared at The City Online and is republished here by permission.
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