On being a politically conservative Christian

So, I go away for a few days, and on my return discover that my former boss John Selwyn Gummer, aka Lord Deben, has been casting aspersions on my spiritual and theological integrity (he probably didn’t like this post; my thanks to Cranmer for his kind words). I thought that it would be worth saying a little bit more about my political perspective, not least considering the statement publicised today by many Bishops.

I see it as axiomatic for a Christian to be concerned with social justice. As I wrote in my book, it is not possible to be a Christian and not have such a concern. Where there are political parties that are based around a repudiation of social justice, that explicitly embrace ‘devil take the hindmost’ then I would see an irresolvable tension between support of such a party and continued Christian faith.

However, that does not mean that there is no longer any room for political argument. Most especially it does not mean – as so often seems to be assumed amongst the less reflective of the progressive establishment – that it is impossible to be a conservative and a Christian. As I see it, the heart of the disagreement lies in how we are to understand the role of the state. Roughly speaking, the progressive side of the political divide sees the state as a generally benign institution, and one to which resort may be made whenever a problem presents itself. Whereas the conservative side of the political divide is sceptical about the state, sees it as tending towards being a malign institution, and would far rather find non-state solutions to problems that arise.

Lying behind this difference is a divergent understanding of human sinfulness. The progressive agenda proceeds on the basis that human nature is perfectible, that, if the structural conditions were only to be correctly arranged, then human flourishing would be enabled. The conservative agenda, in contrast to this, sees human sinfulness as endemic and therefore seeks to avoid concentrations of power – for where there is a concentration of power it is inevitable that such a concentration of power will be wielded by a sinful human being, causing much havoc in consequence. Moreover it sees the wider distribution of power as best being embedded in the peculiar and local institutions that have grown organically around distinct communities. It sees the warp and weft of historical culture as a safeguard against the unwitting tyranny of bureaucrats with a Procrustean “vision of the anointed”. So everything from a monarchy to a parish council can be part of a human ecology which best maximises human flourishing. It will never be perfect – but it is the acceptance of imperfection that is both the blessing that a conservative perspective brings to the political conversation and also its vice, when it curdles into blind reaction.

Consider today’s statement signed by bishops. It is indeed a terrible blight upon our society that people face the choice between ‘heat or eat’, and also that there exists such malnutrition – although I suspect that latter might have as much to do with ignorance as with poverty directly. Yet the political conversation that Christians can have in such a context begins with ‘what shall we do about this?’ If the truth is that the state and only the state can provide an answer, all well and good. Yet if a more diverse response, with distributed power, is able to provide an answer then that, from a conservative perspective, is devoutly to be preferred. As Tim Worstall points out with regard to Jack Monroe, her story is actually about the horrors of being left with nothing to turn to except a remote and incompetent bureaucracy.

It often feels strange to enter into political argument with ‘progressive’ Christians, for it seems to me that the nature of the progressive stance does entail a great many consequences which the progressive would instinctively wish to fight against. For example, my opposition to Tesco was rooted in the conservative vision that I described above, a concentration of power leading to impoverishment of the local and the particular, in this case farmers and local communities. This is, on the surface, a cause that progressives seem to be sympathetic to. It is a form of resisting the imposition of a monoculture, and monoculture is the inevitable result of the concentration of power. The sick ideology that justifies what happens when Monsanto is given charge of seed provision is the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when monopoly supermarkets eviscerate our High Streets, but this is also the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when the centralised state is given a monopoly on social welfare.

We know what this sick ideology looks like. It is the enemy at the heart of so much popular culture. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. The matrix has you.

What I find most striking is that so much progressive language uses Christian tropes in the service of such a dark, dehumanising and nihilistic project. Then again, the enemy is called Lucifer because he has stolen the language of light.

To my mind, the greatest grief that comes from this conversation – and indeed the bishop’s statement – is the ignorance of the wider crisis that we face as a society, of which the increase in poverty is simply a leading symptom. Not only are our bishops distracted by second order issues, on which they cannot even get their facts right, but they have lost sight of the spiritual heart on which we are to stand as we engage with the deluge of problems descending upon us. For more on this, see my book.

In our present context, the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of the progressive worldview are now bearing their inevitably bitter fruit, and the centralised, legibility-seeking, monolithic, overbearing and incipiently dictatorial gigantism exemplified in the EU is going to crash. I see the single most important political step that needs to be taken as withdrawal from that Leviathan. This is why, as I explained in my earlier post, I support UKIP. I am both a Christian and a conservative, in that order of priority, and the only political party that comes close to reflecting my understanding of the world is, with all of its flaws and embarrassments, UKIP.

8 thoughts on “On being a politically conservative Christian

  1. Hi Sam. I’d struggle with the generalisation that ‘progressives see the state as generally benign’. There are of course progressives who are against such concentrations of power – eg the various types of anarchist. I’d also struggle with the idea that conservatives are in favour of a ‘small state’. Some are – we call them libertarians – but some love the state as the embodied beneficent repository of all good conservatism. And I’m still vastly simplifying all the various combinations of views. This confusing profusion is why we have ‘conservatives’ against gay marriage because it’s so progressive, and other conservatives in favour of gay marriage because the most conservative thing is to extend the traditions of marriage to a group who could only otherwise identify with progressive ideals.

    I align myself with your instinctive conservatism though I’m also aware that much of what I wish to conserve are the privileges afforded to bright, white, middle-class people, and where conservative tradition denigrates or refuses to acknowledge my gender and sexuality I find myself wanting to sweep it all away. In other words there’s something important behind and beyond these labels that’s moving me first to the right and then to the left and terms like ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ will never do it justice. The fact that we can’t align Christianity to a point on the political spectrum only goes to show that Jesus had something else in mind altogether as he preached and healed.

    I think my conservatism might take me back to the time of medieval landowning monasteries as a personal preference but I doubt I’d have much luck persuading many others of its blissful perfection :) – except maybe when it comes to plainchant, from which music has clearly only degenerated ever since.

  2. Some good insights, Sam – and you know my dislike of the ‘progressive sneer’ – but I would chime with Tess about your reduction of the ‘brands’ of conservatism. There are, indeed, some within the ‘conservative fold’ who do take the ‘let the devil take the hindmost’-position, just as there are some within the ‘progressive fols’ who regard ‘the State’ as a supernal panacea for all ills.
    Meanwhile, on the question of challenge to human governments about the basics of human dignity – whether we can eat, or heat, either or both – this is not a second order question, but a first order one. The gospel has at its heart God’s heart for the poor and – written through the Law which Our Lord comes to fulfil (cf last week’s Sunday Gospel) – the call for a change of heart for all. This does include government. The reflections on this start in the Letter to the Romans, and have a strong lineage since…
    I think you are being precipitate. Let us see what the prophetic challenge does, yet…

  3. Thanks for this Sam. You’re very brave I must say. I find it very hard to be a young, politically conservative Christian because I am regularly made to feel that I am an inadequate follower of Jesus because of it. I have Christian friends who genuinely believe Christian political conservative is an oxymoron.

  4. Thanks all for comments. Of course the post is a sketch of political views, but not unreasonably so. This is the starting point for ‘left/right’, descending from the French Revolution and so on. There is a clear lineage; I’m just situating my views, and for those who are familiar with the technicalities I’m articulating a bog-standard Burkean perspective. FWIW if I wasn’t a conservative I’d be an anarcho-socialist!
    Tess – absolutely agree that we can’t align Christianity with one (party) position on the political spectrum, which is why I think someone needs to stand up for the compatibility of a conservative perspective with the faith!
    Paul, the second order issue that I was referring to was about sexuality; I see social justice as deriving directly from the second commandment. My fundamental point there is that as a church we don’t tend to apply – or even understand – the first and greatest commandment very well.
    JD – that’s exactly the problem!

  5. I’m not convinced that you’ve actually set out any case for joining UKIP. You seem to imagine that UKIP are the party of the small and local – but they simply aren’t. They are bankrolled by wealthy individuals who want their private institutions to be larger and wealthier. They simply want to shrink the state (apart from the military) to the benefit of large corporations. Their interest in leaving the EU is not to restore power to individuals, but rather to rescind legislation and regulations that protect workers and the environment, for the sake of short-term profit.

    It seems to me that you just simply misunderstand and dislike the EU, hence your overblown language (the EU is, after all, created and controlled via its constituent countries, with a directly elected parliament). The principle of subsidiarity is also embedded in the EU (whereas it isn’t in the UK), and there are many issues that are best addressed at the multi-national level (international crime, environmental damage etc). hence the Government’s ‘balance of competencies’ review seeming to find that the EU has got things pretty much correct.

    This is a position which doesn’t really have any theological support (it’s just an aversion). I really don’t see how it’s enough to overcome the obvious drawbacks of UKIP – the anti-muslim agenda, the removal of foreign aid (in a world where 1 billion people go hungry daily) etc.

  6. Tom, the case for joining UKIP was in the first one, being a) a conservative, seeking a conservative party, and the official Conservative party no longer being an option, and b) the over-riding importance of the EU. You can say I misunderstand the EU if you like, but I suspect I have a much less naive view of it than you, having worked with it. You mention two ‘drawbacks’ – we can disagree on those too.

  7. I must say Rev I am in complete agreement. I think many of the problems we face in presenting a Christian / Conservative vision is the limited language of left and right. If you are not aware of the political compass may I draw your attention to it: http://www.politicalcompass.org/ although maybe even this reduces the debate too far.

    In reality I think as Christians with a particular bent towards catholic social teaching and subsidiarity we need to find new ways of categorising our political beliefs for those with prejudicial views against the all-encompassing terminology we presently use.

    For instance I am happy to describe myself as conservative in many ways, particular with regard to my suspicions towards the state or any concentration of power wielded by sinful humanity. Certain models of conservativism though also possess strong paternalistic streaks with a desire to centralise and control; this particularly is the model envisaged by those on the continent when I say I am a conservative. Clearly then the term conservative becomes meaningless in such discussion, thus I believe we need to find a new phraseology if we are to make any progress.

    Presently society seems to be stuck at a level of superficial criticality, unable to move past emotional sound-bites and therefore destined to treating the patient’s symptoms in perpetuity rather than tackling the underlying malaise.

  8. I couldn’t disagree more.

    The division between those who regard the state as benign and those who regard the state as malign does not run between prgressives and conservatives, but between those who control the power of the state and those who don’t. When conservatives control the power of the state, they regard it as benign, when they don’t, they regard it as malign.

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