Can a Theological Conservative Be a Political Liberal?

This past Summer on a university campus a conservative Baptist friend suggested to me that a conservative Christian could not be a liberal in politics. He suggested that theological conservatism and political-liberalism were incompatible. This was not a startling statement as consistency would seem to demand as much. Not long after this the political views of Pope Leo XIII came to my attention as they were interpreted by Gilson. According to this Roman pontiff, liberalism is the denial of any divine authority and the refusal to accept it as a rule. It is based on the fundamental tenet of naturalism which affirms the supremacy of human reason.1 Obviously the Pope subscribes to the conclusion that theological conservatism and political liberalism are inimical. Coming as they do from widely divergent ends of the conservative theological spectrum, these views will bear some investigation.

There are those who would avoid political labels. In these days of the ascendency of political liberalism those of the right may hesitate to stand up and be counted for fear of the opprobrium of extremism. For example, Birchism has tended to reRect unfavorably on all political conservatism. There are also the independents who affect a stance of aloofness above the conflict of party participation presumably on the basis of superior insights. It’s cheaper that way too. They don’t have to pay any party dues. Then there are those who, while giving assent to conservative theology, follow the liberal political tradition. They seem to think that the liberals are more humane. They like people. They dispense more of the milk of human kindness. So we can ask the question, Can the theological conservative consistently subscribe to a political liberalism? Isn’t he pursuing his interest in humanity in the wrong direction?



In answer to these questions we must immediately point to the fact that liberalism begins in opposition to basic Biblical truth when it subscribes as it does to the perfectibility of man. Liberalism moved the source of evil with man out of man’s heart and into man’s environment. This belief dominated the thinking of Rousseau with dire results in the French Revolution.2 In America. a man like Jefferson placed the blame on the environment when he suggested that the city was the source of riot and evil while the country was the source of reliable freeholders. Liberal democrats like Whitman suggested that in the people there existed “a miraculous wealth of latent power and capacity.” In Dewey this confidence in the people was re-enforced by a scientism which anticipated utopia on the basis of man’s intelligent use of scientific controls.


The kind of humanism which subscribes to human perfectibility has generally already succumbed to a naturalism which removes the source of political and general sovercignty from God to man via the route of natural law. This kind of displacement of the ultimate source of political sovereignty cannot jibe with the theological conservative’s belief that ultimate sovereignty resides with God.

Rousseau placed ultimate sovereignty in the Common WiII of the people. While it is one of the anomalies of Rousseau that one cannot find this Common Will either on land. sea, or air. and that it remains ineffable because it is not equated with the majority, nevertheless, this Common Will is the ultimate Sovereign and it is “always everything it ought to be.” It cannot avoid infallibility by Rousseau’s prescription precisely because the Common Will sets the standards. It detennines what ought to be.3

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the notion of sovereignty had been ex-pressed for the liberal in the phrase, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” Whether construed pantheistically or not, this slogan can hardly be appropriated by the theological conservative. Nor can it point out the source of sovereignty for anyone who wants his political theory to comply with Scriptural principles. Not only does Scripture not place sovereignty with the people; both Scripture and secular history prove how untrustworthy and wrong the majority can be.


The confidence in the moral judgment of the majority and. a displacement of sovereignty leads to another fault in political liberalism, namely, its ethical relativism. Rousseau had made the Common Will of the people the source of ethical standards. In the United States the influence of Rousseau was fortified by pragmatism which also abhors transcendent absolutes. William James suggested that pragmatism “has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.” But John Dewey as a great apostle of political liberalism exerted an all-pervading influence on the American scene. He more than any other has thoroughly saturated political liberalism with ethical relativism.*

Dewey doesn’t like to deal with far-off absolutes. He feels that this frustrates the individual. Dewey says, “If such a person would set his thought and desire upon the process of evolution [italics Dewey’s] instead of upon some ulterior goal, he would find a new freedom and happiness. It is the next step that lies within our power.” In the same place, speaking of virtues, Dewey suggests, “They can be defined, therefore, only on the basis of qualities characteristic of interests, not on the basis of permanent and uniform objects in which interest is taken.”4


We can go on to notice that the relativistic approach to ethics has led to a disregard for tradition’s moral tenets. Among those which the political liberals of our century have flouted is the prohibition against theft. Since the advent of the New Deal, political liberalism in the United States has set aside the Eighth Commandment by its perennial policy of deficit spending. To some it may seem strange to have deficit spending indicted as immoral. But what is it if it is not theft? 1t is stealing from coming generations for the benefit of our present comfort and convenience. Can we with moral justification mortgage future generations for the sake of our own preoccupation with physical comfort and security? The political liberal may answer yes, but the theological conservative will pause and ponder. And in doing this he will presently have to say no to deficit spending.


The disregard for traditional ethical standards coexists with another preoccupation in the liberal mind. It is the preoccupation with man as an animal at the expense of spiritual considerations. Why all the defici.t spending? Aside from Cold War expenses, millions are spent in an effort to minister to man’s animal comforts both at home and abroad. Thomas Paine gave impetus to this particular liberal trend when he suggested that every man had a right to rest and leisure. In our day this list has been expanded to include the payment of Hi Fi installments with welfare checks.

As to foreign policy, the liberal seems to move on the assumption that if we give physical comfort to the body then we will be able to control the mind. However, it turns out that we have not been able to buy support with our random and extravagant foreign aid handouts.5 At home there seems to be some indication that we are willing to follow the candidate who will promise us the most in high standard of living commodities. If this is so.. it is only because we have succumbed to the damning influences of materialism, a materialism which is complemented by the naturalism of political liberalism.


Perhaps one could go on and point to other tenets of political liberalism which the conservative Christian cannot accept. But one should quickly go on to suggest with the liberal opposition that not all conservative political thought and action has been characterized by adherence to Scriptural principles. This is entirely true. Some of those who have represented the conservative mind cannot be classified theologically orthodox by any method of theological juggling. For example, if Henry Adams believed in a God it was not in the orthodox sense.6 Yet the conservative tradition has generally held to a belief in a providential God, the depravity of man, objective moral standards, and the spiritual character of man. None of these are hostile to Christian principles. By contrast, it is difficult to understand how the conservative Christian can work within the framework of the beliefs of political liberalism as they have been worked out since the days of Rousseau.


The political conservative need not seek to elude his rightful political label Christian fail to speak out against those tenets of political liberalism which are contrary to Christian principles. We may say with Dr. Gordon Palmer, “No one need to be ashamed to be caned a rightist, if he thinks right, speaks right, and lives right. This is the day to come out of the grey into the white, to come out of the dark into the light, to come out of the left into the right.”7

1. The Church Speaks to the Modern World. Etienne Gilson Ed. New York, 1954, p. 55.

2. Cf. Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom, Noonday Press, New York, 1955, p. 29.

3. Cf. Rousseau, Social Contract, Chapter VII.

4. John Dewey, Theory of the Moral Life. VII, 5.

5. Cf. Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative. Victor Pub. Co., Shepherdsville, Ky., 1960, p. 95.

6. Cf. Russell Kirk The Conservative Mind, X, 4.

7. Dr. Gordon Palmer, “Men of the Right,” Christianity Today, June 22, 1962, p. 919.