In response to the Trump presidency and alarming liberal trends, conservatives have been compelled to examine again the principles that unite them. In doing so, it would be worthwhile for them to look to G.K. Chesterton.
The recent National Conservatism conference is one of many examples that conservatism is going through a significant re-evaluation process. This process began in large part as a response to the Trump presidency, but it is also a response to alarming liberal trends: transgender issues, gay marriage, immigration, abortion, and many others. All these factors have forced conservatives to examine again the principles that unite them. In the midst of this re-evaluation process, it would be worthwhile to look to G.K. Chesterton and consider his thoughts on conservatism.
While Chesterton shares many of the principles of conservatives, he also sees the common weaknesses in some forms of conservatism. For example, conservatism which seeks to simply maintain what was done in the past is not enough of a vision for true conservatism to thrive. Chesterton instead argues that true conservatism has to be able to re-align itself and make adjustments. That is what is happening in the national conversation among conservatives today. Conservatives are asking: Where did we get off target? How do we recapture a true vision for American culture and society? As we work through this evaluation process, it is helpful to consider Chesterton’s vision for conservatism, a vision that offers our generation a robust reminder of what it looks like to thrive.
Chesterton first shows how true conservatism is a radically inclusive vision. In looking to the past for guidance for today and tomorrow, conservatives are not promoting a static position but one that is truly dynamic and democratic. He writes, “I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.” In looking back to what our forefathers thought and said about our country, we are acknowledging the voices of the past that continue to have a say in our lives today. These men and women shaped where we are today and so we cannot really understand our own time unless we understand them.
The past also gives us a measuring stick with which to judge our current moment in time. The past is not the only standard to use but it is a good one that many have forgotten or ignored. Why only count the “vote” of the current generation? Let’s be radically inclusive and count the “vote” of those who first built this country. Conservatives are being truly democratic in reminding us to look to the past to gain a better vision for the future.
Chesterton next shows us how true conservatism is radically active. Rather than being a vision that idolizes one point in the past—some might call it “the good old’ days”—instead true conservatism is a constant re-evaluation process driven by a standard which we are seeking to align with more and more. The current re-evaluation that conservatives are conducting is actually something that conservatives must always do. Chesterton writes, “But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.” The world is always changing. People grow old and things fall apart. True conservatives must be vigilant and active because there is a standard which we are aiming for and we cannot reach that standard trying to maintain the status quo.
New things will arise that we must think through and understand. Some new things will be good and some will be bad. It takes vigilance to keep up with the changes and know how to handle them. To grow weeds in a garden, you don’t have to do anything. And so true conservatives realize that we need to weed a little every day. A conservative vision is one that cultivates, prunes, waters, and weeds. Conservatism is not static but a living force to be reckoned with.
This leads to Chesterton’s third point: in being for permanent truths, the conservative position is not a static position. Rather, the truly permanent things are the ones that are most alive. Chesterton looks at the sun as a great example of this truth: “Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.” This is like the child sitting in a swing going back and forth over and over again. Adults get tired of that kind of action but a child will do it all day. Why is this? Because the young and youthful do not get tired like the old and aged. We tire easily. In this way we see that the sun is a wonderful picture of the conservative vision. It never tires of rising and setting. It does the same thing day after day, not because it is bored, but rather because it has never gotten tired. It is full of a robust life that we old humans must once again grasp anew.
That is why we need a constant and consistent reminder of the true and permanent things. We wear out but the permanent things never do. That is why they are permanent. They survive every twist and turn in the road. They do not change but we do. And so we need to look to them again and again. We need to refresh the vision or we will lose it.
Chesterton then looks to the only permanent thing: God. He never changes. To our ears that sounds like a dreadful, boring thing to say but that is because we do not know what that really means. To be unchanging means to be perfect. It means to be all that He needs to be. There is no lack. He doesn’t grow tired. He does not need to grow more or to improve. He is the most alive thing. Philosophers speak of God’s aseity, that is, his self-sufficient nature. He is his own source of existence. Rather than being stuck in place, like we are, God is a rushing wind, a roaring tidal wave, a cosmic dance, that never ends.
Chesterton describes it this way: “It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we.” We see then that true conservatism is the vision of eternal youth. The permanent things are not really old; they are the eternal young. We are the ones who grow old and wear out; the permanent things do not. That is why they last. They are truly alive.
It is only the things that are truly alive that can outlast death. The test of time is a test of the grave. Can you kill this thing? If you cannot kill it, then it must be eternal. This leads to what conservatives ultimately need: not just permanent ideas or visions but a permanent person. Only a person who can stand the test of time is able to give conservatives a truly living standard. That is the central thrust of Chesterton’s radical vision for conservatism. There is an eternal standard—the Lord Jesus—who does not change. That standard enables us to look to the past to honor our parents, it also motivates us to be vigilant because we can see what we are aiming at, and it also gives us a vision of the true life. That vision is alive and active and we must hurry to catch him.
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 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908, 84.
 Ibid, 212.
 Ibid, 108.
 Ibid, 109.
The featured image is a photograph of G.K. Chesterton taken by Hector Murchison (1864-1934) and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.