The Conservative Christian Mind

In 1953 Russell Kirk published his famous manifesto The Conservative Mind, which offered a narrative account of a movement that contrasts with post-Enlightenment progressivism. From its beginning, conservatism has been against things and for things. It is not an inexplicable series of reactions. It is neither standing still nor walking backward. Some changes are intolerable, but many changes are desirable, provided that they are the right kind. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.” But how do we know where we are?

Kirk proposed six canons of conservative thought to lay atop a centuries-long literary and philosophical project, and the first was “belief in a transcendent order.” Political conservatives do not necessarily have to be Christians — see William F. Buckley’s heavy inclusion of Jews in National Review, and the role of Mormons in the conservative moment today — but the overlap with many Christians is predictably large. The gospel of Jesus Christ is inseparable from “belief in a transcendent order.” A particularly Christian conservation project emanates from there, and it takes place across denominational lines.

The common mind of conservative Christians is not mere grouchiness, but rather a desire to protect and hand down what they have received. Conservative Christians think this legacy delivers the goods for a better individual life and a better society than its alternatives. But this identity has been forgotten (or never learned) by many who identify as conservative Christians, leaving those of a different persuasion with a caricature instead of an accurate portrait. Sadly, some conservative Christians are content to be the caricature, at times even wallowing in the misperceptions of those who see faith and culture differently. This is a mistake that serves neither the Church nor society well. The pairing of conservatism and Christianity therefore needs rehabilitation.

In the spirit of Kirk’s famous canons, here are six truths that have traditionally occupied a conservative Christian mind. To see the relevance of this exercise, each is paired with current social or political concerns.

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Andrew Petiprin is a Catholic writer and former Episcopal priest. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself.