There are "conservatives" and then are ... conservatives. The problem with the way the word "conservatives" is often used is that it inheres in it a degree of ambiguity. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word "conservative" as "tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions." But what do conservatives want to maintain? To answer this question, I believe we must distinguish between two camps of "conservatives."
1. The first camp of conservatives are cultural reactionaries. For them, "conservatism" simply means preserving or restoring a state of affairs that serves to benefit them, if no one else. It's often a yearning for a social order that is static and inflexible. What is to be maintained is not so much a set of principles, per se, as it is a certain status quo. I will, for the sake of this discussion, call them Reactionary Conservatives.
2. The second camp of conservatives are those who seek to maintain or restore certain principles. Deviation from a standard is repugnant to these conservatives. I will call these individuals Principled Conservatives.
How does this differentiation play out in politics? Reactionary Conservatives will talk about limited government up until the point the concept threatens their sense of identity or desired state of affairs. They'll go after the "welfare queens", but won't touch the entitlements that go to married suburbanites. They'll oppose "nation building" unless their favored politician changes his mind. They believe government shouldn't be involved in raising our kids unless they want to censor what our kids might see on the Internet.
Principled Conservatives, on the other hand, will say no to government handouts and kickbacks, whether it is for the "welfare queens", the feminist social workers, the agrobusiness lobby, the defense industry lobby, the bailed out real estate speculation lobby, or yes, the married suburbanites. The Department of Defense will be just for that, period (Not the world's police). When it comes to social mores apart from the defense of life, limb, and property, the government will neither be the Mommy who spoils nor the Daddy who spanks. Why? Because Principled Conservatives hold steadfastly to the virtue of limited government and resist any encroachments of the State upon an accepted standard of governance (such as the Constitution).
But what I am saying also applies to religious matters--at least in the case of Evangelicals. When we talk about "religious conservatives," we need to distinguish between the Reactionary ones and the Principled ones. Reactionary Conservatives embrace the conservatism of dressing up in their Sunday best, quoting dead religious luminaries, and preserving institutionalized religion. Religion in this case is about conveying a wholesome image - the "form of Godliness" whether or not there is any real power to it. These conservatives pen screeds against the materialism of married couples who have no children, but not a lot, if any, screeds against the materialism of families with large houses, large automobiles, and large church buildings. These conservatives tell young men not to worship sex and women, but often discount any notion that men can have God-given fulfillment apart from taking a wife. The Reactionary Conservative talks about "sola scriptura" but mostly in the context of flashing his Evangelical credentials. Beyond that, his theology is a jambalaya of cut and pasted proof-texts, shaming language, threats, authoritarian gestures, demagoguery, and the "such like."
The Principled Conservative, on the other hand, wants to know just one thing: "What does the Bible say?" In matters of faith, he has no loyalty to Spurgeon, Calvin, Edwards, or any other uninspired person pushing up daises because he knows they are not the final authority on matters pertaining to "life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3; 1 Pet. 4:11; 2 Tim. 3:16). He doesn't want proof-texts; he wants context. He notes that the same Bible which requires one to "provide for his own" does not demand that anyone today start a family. He notes the same Bible that says husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church says nothing about a man asking women out or paying for dates. The Principled Conservative takes seriously little observations like these and doesn't take seriously those who would demur on this matter. His faith is isn't about saving our church buildings, our neighborhoods, our nation, or the cultural hegemony of the Protestant lifestyle ... it's about saving souls.
I think you can see where I am going with this and its relevance to what I write. The next time someone invokes God, the Bible, the notion of "conservatism", etc. and talks about what "real men" need to do, ask yourself if the person in question is a Reactionary Conservative or a Principled Conservative. Just speaking for myself, I intend to keeping reading my Bible ... and rooting for Ron Paul [*grin*].
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