What Does It Mean to Be a Conservative in 2017?

Nov 11th, 2017 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Until quite recently, if someone mentioned “conservative” it was rather clear what that meant—generally a commitment to limited government, individual liberty, and free trade.  In 2017 the meaning of “conservative” is no longer clear.  Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas recently wrote:  “Last year, for the first time in our nation’s history, the American people elected as president someone with no high government experience—not a senator, not a congressman, not a governor, not a cabinet secretary, not a general.  They did this, I believe, because they’ve lost faith in both the competence and the intentions of our governing class—of both parties!  Government now takes nearly half of every dollar we earn and bosses us around in every aspect of life, yet can’t deliver basic services well.  Our working class—the ‘forgotten man,’ to use the phrase favored by Ronald Reagan and FDR—has seen its wages stagnate, while the four richest counties in America are inside the Washington Beltway.  The kids of the working class are those who chiefly fight our seemingly endless wars and police our streets, only to come in for criticism too often from the very elite who sleep under the blanket of security they provide.  Donald Trump understood these things, though I should add he didn’t cause them.  His victory was more effect than cause of our present discontents.  The multiplying failures and arrogance of our governing class are what created the conditions for his victory.”  Although Trump understood the changing nature of the 21st world, is he a conservative?  Evangelical Christians, 81% of whom voted for him in 2016, are apparently answering that question, “yes, he is.”  It is time to evaluate the term “conservative” and how it applies to President Trump.

Christian conservative writer and author, Rod Dreher, comments “I’m a social and cultural conservative, and I think Trump is a disaster–because of his incompetence, his recklessness and his malice.  Plus, he is destroying conservatism as a credible public philosophy.  The conservative movement needed serious reform, but this is annihilation.”  For Dreher, “. . .  the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night . . .  A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.

  • . . . The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.  That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.  This word order signifies harmony.  There are two aspects or types of order:  the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth.  Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand.  The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.
  • Our twentieth[-first]-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order . . .  A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.
  • Anyway, as Kirk said, conservatism is an attitude toward the world, not a dogmatic religion. It irritates me to no end that the American conservative mind is so closed, even to thinkers and resources in its own tradition.  As Kirk’s tenth canon says, “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.”  That means that we have to be willing and able to think creatively about conservative principles, and apply them to new facts and circumstances.”

But today Republican voters and much of the Party have jettisoned traditional conservativism in favor of the Trump-Bannon brand of ethno-nationalism.  As Peter Werner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center contends, “They have turned inward instead of outward, they have embraced white identity politics as a matter of course and they have developed a disdain for the intricate work of governing . . . There is a nihilistic strain coursing through the veins of a significant number of people on the American right.  They delight in Mr. Trump’s effort to annihilate truth and peddle conspiracy theories, and they draw energy and purpose from the unsettling effect he has on the nation as a whole.  For them, Mr. Trump is a ‘fighter,’ and politics needs to be weaponized in order to be enjoyed.  They see politics as World Wrestling Entertainment, and Mr. Trump as the best wrestler in the ring.”  To that end, Bannon has declared that “There is a time and season for everything.  And right now, it’s a season for war against the GOP establishment.”

Into this foray in mid-October, stepped former President George W. Bush, who broke his nearly nine years of silence as a former president in an important address in New York.  He declared that “We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty.  At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger that the forces binding us together.  Argument turns easily into animosity.  Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.  Too often we judge other groups by the worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.  We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism.  Forgotten is the dynamism immigration has always brought to America. . . . Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. . . This means that people of every race, religion and ethnicity can be fully and equally American.  It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

That former President Bush was thinking of President Trump is obvious.  A rather common defense of Trump is the positive things he has accomplished (e.g., the appointment of Neil Gorsuch and other conservative judges, the war against ISIS and his deference to the evangelical right).  But as conservative columnist Michael Gerson argues, what is not considered is “the cost on the other side of the scale.  Chief among them is Trump’s assault on truth, which takes on a now-familiar form.  First, assert and maintain a favorable lie.  Second, attack and discredit sources of opposition.  Third, declare victory based on power or applause.”

Nearly thirty years ago, University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom began his most influential book (The Closing of the American Mind) with this statement:  “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of:  Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”  Gerson writes that “Conservatives were supposed to be the protectors of objective truth from various forms of postmodernism.  Now they generally defend our thoroughly post-truth president.”  The consequence of President Trump’s (and Steve Bannon’s) “dark, divisive, dystopian version of reality” is a “pernicious form of tyranny:  a tyranny over the mind.”  But here is the cost:  When there is no objective source of truth—no commonly agreed upon set of facts and rules of argument—political persuasion becomes impossible.  There is no reasoned method to choose between one view and another.  The only way to settle disputes is power—determined by screaming mobs or because ‘I’m president and you’re not.’  Politics become an endless battle of believers, conditioned to distort and dismiss every bit of evidence that does not confirm their preexisting views.  The alternative to reasoned discourse is the will to power.”  As columnist David Brooks so wisely observes, “The traits Trump embodies are narcissism, not humility; combativeness, not love; the sanctification of the rich and blindness toward the poor.”

In America, evangelical Christianity is becoming increasingly “Cultural Christianity,” which bears little resemblance to genuine, biblical Christianity.  Cultural Christianity’s embrace of Donald Trump has astonished me.  If a Democratic president lived a lifestyle like Trump, talked and lied as he does, and attacked and belittled as he does, they would be leading the effort to impeach him.  But an end-justifies-the-means ethic drives them, apparently.  “At least he is president and not Hillary” is what I constantly hear.  But Trump is no longer running against Hillary, he is running the nation.  It matters how he is governing.  I just finished reading Ian Kershaw’s monumental two volume biography of Adolf Hitler.  Although the historic circumstances are totally different, the character and temperament of Hitler perfectly parallel Trump.  Hitler was an extreme narcissist and a perverse egomaniac, as is Trump.  Germany followed Hitler because he promised to restore the greatness of Germany after the humiliation of Versailles—“make Germany great again” and “I am the only one who can do that.”  Germany, including the German religious leaders, followed Hitler because “better Hitler than Stalin” was their mantra.

It is my conviction that America is a nation under judgment—and has been for some time.  Trump is not our messianic savior but an instrument God is using to discipline this nation.  Evangelical leaders see him as the savior of evangelical culture and they are as deceived as the church in the Germany of the 1930s was.  May God have mercy on us.

See Tom Cotton in Imprimis (October 2017, 46:10); Rod Dreher, “What is a Conservative,” The American Conservative (22 September 2012); Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (16 and 23 October 2017); Peter Waldman in the Washington Post (19 October 2017); David Brooks in the New York Times (27 October 2017); and Peter Wehner in the New York Times (22 October 2017). PRINT PDF

7 Comments to “What Does It Mean to Be a Conservative in 2017?”

  1. John Garner says:

    After all the good stuff you have written, I can’t believe you wrote this. Take me off your mailing list.

  2. Peter Wiebe says:

    I believe it would benefit folks to listen to this former refugee at this site. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d2BGSIt3GM It is helpful to point out weaknesses of administrations, but only if we get a balanced picture. Trump has weaknesses that hordes of people are eager to point out. I would like to have a Mike Pense or a Mike Huckabee as President of the United States. The choice was between Hillary Clinton and Don Trump. Trump was by far the superior choice. I believe God blessed Trump to avoid Hillary Clinton. To point out the shortfalls of President Trump would be acceptable if we were given a balanced view of both choices. That’s not happening. All the violence, all the hatred spouted out publicly, including Hollywood is from the leftists, Democrats. Is this hatred God-inspired? What do the Democrats offer? That would be a worthwhile exercise to engage in. Hillary Clinton has been alleged to “steal” money that was offered for emergency relief. It has been alleged she is responsible for a number of people ending up dead who might have evidence against her. She certainly promotes abortion on demand. Statements like “Christians must bow down and deny their faith” should be of concern to Christians. If only reading articles that are maliciously denouncing Trump, but never giving a picture of what the other party has to offer, is unbalanced and would lead the reader to conclude the other choice must have been extremely superior. That conclusion would be most deplorable. Thank God Hillary didn’t win. Trump is being maliciously slandered from all sides. Some of that deserved, most of it not. For example, look at the accusation of Trump colluding with Russia. After millions of dollars are spent trying to prove this allegation, evidence is pointing at Clinton being the one who colluded with Russia, and that she and Obama acted against the interest of the United States in the uranium deal with Russia and the special prosecutor, Mueller, was a party thereto, is ignored. In order to get a clearer picture of the options open to the American concerned public, even in the Christian circle, we need a balanced view. To make an informed choice, correct information is needed on both sides of the choice.

    • Dawn Gerhart says:

      I believe you proved Dr. Eckman’s point when you say, “I believe God blessed Trump to avoid Hillary Clinton.”

      “In America, evangelical Christianity is becoming increasingly “Cultural Christianity,” which bears little resemblance to genuine, biblical Christianity.  Cultural Christianity’s embrace of Donald Trump has astonished me.”

      It is astonishing that any believer would actually think that Trump was blessed by God. Trump is the author of proven lie after lie, and yet conservative Christians continue to make excuse after excuse for it.

      The only outcome for those who believe a liar, is for the believer to finally realize they were deceived. Make no mistake, I do not heap unearned condemnation on Trump and his disgraceful administration. What people seem to fail to realize is that Trump is creating conditions ripe for totalitarian rule. First, destroy truth, then destroy the institutions that stand to protect free people. NO ONE should encourage the investigation into a political opponent! No one should listen to a leader that degrades our intelligence agency, our judicial independence, or cries fake news every time a fact is reported negative against the leader. That is the very essence of destruction of our institutions. How is that not clear? If the legitimacy of our institutions, which, are the pillars of our republic, are destroyed, there is nothing left to protect the people. Might makes Right!! May God have Mercy on us when we have seen in the last year Christians willing to blindly follow a master deceiver driven by narcissism and power! Christian culture is destroying Biblical Christians by pressuring believers to ignore and excuse deplorable behavior in the name of Jesus. I do not believe that God blessed Trump. I do not believe that God blessed Roy Moore in Alabama. God did not bless Julian Assange, God did not bless George Papadopoulos, nor Ivanka Trump or her idiot brother Donald Jr. No. I am a Grace grad. I am not a Hollywood left. I have eyes and ears and I can see that Donald Trump is the most dangerous leader we have ever had and the only people supporting him despite his hypocrisy and lies, are Christians. What on earth is wrong with this picture. What does Hillary Clinton have to do with our civic duty to stand up and demand honesty from our leader today? Nothing!!

      Thank you Dr. Eckman. Great article.

      • Jim Roberts says:

        We now have a president who probably to his on detriment does not have a meeting with his handlers every time he comments on an issue as was the case with the last administration. That being said if you take a critical look at the Obama administration and don’t conclude that Obama was has much of a liar and possibly far more corrupt than the Trump administration ever could be its only because you don’t want to see it. The fact that Obama had the help of a mostly devout media to run cover for him shielded him for 8 years. Donald Trump is a flawed human being as have been the last 44 presidents. Considering the current state of our government when he took office its hard to imagine anything he does making the decline of our nation any worse than it was when he took the oath. As far as the issue of conservatism is concerned to look back on the last 2 republican presidents I don’t believe you can look at their time in office and credit them with being the protectors of conservatism or of objective truth.

  3. Great article – just a comment on your next to last Paragraph – where you compare Hitler’s rise to Trump’s. In the paragraph you seem to imply that there are different kinds of Christians – ie: evangelical Christians, cultural Christians, etc. I am not aware, nor do I agree with distinguishing between type of Christians. Either they are Christians or they are not. Faith in Christ demands that you acknowledge that Jesus was in fact the son of God, and that thru his death and resurrection we are made children of God. We either believe it or we don’t. There are no distinctions or adjectives in front of the word “Christian”. Either you are, or you are not. Putting distinctions before the word Christian simply segregates or puts into separate boxes. Where is this taught in the scriptures.??? Thanks and have a great day, unless you have other plans W Mellema

  4. Arlie Rauch says:

    Very interesting article!

    I’m not sure you actually equated Christianity and conservatism, but it seemed so at times. I have been an avid reader of conservative writings over several decades and have had to conclude that being conservative is not the same as being biblical. There may be more than one definition of conservatism. What I have observed is that known conservatives are headed the same direction as the liberals, only at a slower rate. Just my two-cents worth. I participate in the process we have here and even work on an election team on election days, but only God has the solution we need–He will bring it about at the perfect time.

  5. Terry Klopfenstein says:

    We listened to Dr. Eckman on the radio and then have read issues every Saturday morning. We respectfully but strongly disagree with this issue and therefore will no longer read issues in perspective.

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