Ever since I can remember, I have been a “Conservative” politically. I have believed in lower taxes, a smaller government, national defense, traditional marriage, protection of human life in the womb, and any and all other tenets typically associated with this political philosophy known as “Conservatism.”
But my thinking has been adjusting quite a bit as of late. Do I reject any of these things? Up until this point, you might have been expecting me to say “yes,” but I actually believe in them far more deeply. So what has changed? Why not remain a Conservative? Or perhaps a better question, how can you believe these things and not be a Conservative?
I can’t answer all of these all at once, and this will be the first of many posts on this subject, so forgive my somewhat general answer for now. Also, please indulge me in this somewhat longer post, as it is necessary in order to accurately reflect on a topic of great, but not often discussed importance.
I am no longer a Conservative because I believe that one of the single most powerful forces in the creation, dissemination, and sustaining of any idea are the words which are used to describe and define it. After receiving the declaration from King George III that the American colonies were in rebellion, Samuel Adams noted to a friend in January 1776: “How strange do the tools of a tyrant pervert the plain meaning of words!”
How insightful and prescient for our time! For the student of history, it becomes clear that the beginning of all tyranny is not in a certain government action or policy, not the rise of one power or another, but in words, in ideas. The Holocaust did not begin in Auschwitz, or even at the Wansee Conference at which it was designed. No, the Holocaust had its unofficial beginning the moment a Jew was labeled a “sub-human,” untermenschen in the original German, and it was accepted. This became “The Final Solution.” Communism was not born with the Russian Revolution of 1917, but once people accepted the notion of an endless and historical “class war” as a fact, a “fact” which laid hold of their imaginations, their affections, and their purpose. This became “The Workers’ Paradise.” The slaughter of tens of millions of people in Maoist China was intended as an extension of the already accomplished Chinese Revolution, and became “The Great Leap Forward.”
Does anyone see a trend here? Each and every one of these tyrannies, arguably the greatest the world has ever known (purely in terms of number of deaths they caused) labeled their evil as something which was ultimately a great good, a solution, a paradise, a leap forward. Fascinating, isn’t it, how such nice sounding words could be used to justify some of history’s greatest crimes? And apparently some people accepted such words, because some man named Adolf doesn’t get a Holocaust on his own, nor a Lenin or a Stalin a gulag archipelago on their own. And being named “Mao” certainly doesn’t guarantee that you can slaughter 60 million people either. No, each of them had followers, because before any of their crimes became real, they were first ideas which captured the imagination, and all too often, sometimes the best of intentions of their followers.
As a Christian, the importance of words is even more profound and undeniable. By His word, God created the universe. By His word, He performs many miracles, signs, and wonders. By His word, He directs the affairs of nations, and the course of history. He sent prophets to the nation of Israel to proclaim His words to His people. Perhaps most importantly, for our sake, is that by His word, He has saved us by the sacrifice of Christ at the Cross. Christ Himself was called the Word, and it was that word which expressed to the world God’s indescribable love. How can anyone accept the Gospel unless he first hears it, and in hearing it, is it not words that he hears first, which only then become beliefs? Has a belief ever preceded the words to describe it? Did the universe precede the words by which God made it? The Bible is clear and unequivocal: words matter, and should be of great concern.
So what on earth does that all have to do with us “Conservatives”? Quite I bit I would say. Let’s look at our own day: the destruction of marriage is justified under the guise of “equality.” The justification for all sorts of sexual perversion is labeled as “liberation.” A fundamentally unfair tax code (for the rich and poor alike) is justified as necessary for everyone to pay their “fair share.” All new taxes are re-termed as “revenue” (confusing actual result with intention). The systematic divorce of any religious or otherwise supernatural thought from human life is labeled “education.” The elevation of a right to murder an unborn child has been enshrined under the guise of our Constitution as being the expression of a position which is “pro-choice.” And to top it all off, this is all advanced under the all-too-comforting word “Progressive.”
Who among us, might I ask, is against equality? Who is against liberty? Who is against everyone paying their fair share? Who is against education? Who is against the individual having choices? And who on this celestial globe is against progress?
The answer in the vast majority of cases is “no one.” But, clearly that depends on one’s definition of all of these terms, and clearly, the “Progressive” definition of these terms amounts to complete and utter distortions of their meaning and how they should be used. And yet, somehow millions have been convinced by these words. Oh how strangely do the tools of would-be tyrants pervert the plain meaning of words!
So what do we see is the definition of “Conservative”? A quick glance at the Dictionary brings up these definitions: “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc…cautiously moderate…traditional in style of manner…avoiding novelty.” In addition to this proper definition, the term “Conservative” has cultural baggage which often times equates it with “old and/or old-fashioned…white…status quo,” etc. The problem is, these definitions do not describe my beliefs, political or otherwise. If you are a “Conservative,” do they describe yours?
Perhaps more importantly, the term “Conservative” has become a purely political term, nothing more. That is perhaps its Achilles Heel. If history teaches us anything, it teaches that politics, its practices, its players, its institutions, is downstream from culture. Too often, people do not arrive at political opinions via political reasons and/or principles, but by the values of the culture in which they live. In other words, you cannot simply advocate a political position and expect people to accept simply because it is factual, logical, and works. It has to be convincing to the values of the culture. The American system of ordered liberty did not arise in any other area of the globe because few other places had a culture in which the required worldview was present, one which believed in liberty, yes, but a liberty guided by knowledge and virtue. But notice where the change happened: in the definition of words. Somewhere along the line, “liberty” was stripped of the values of knowledge and virtue, and thus stripped, has taken on a completely different character. Taking this into account, a “Conservative” cannot possibly hope to achieve their goals for our country by simply keeping to politics, but this is precisely what a “Conservative” has become: someone who holds a certain set of political opinions.
Let me illustrate my point with regard to the importance of culture: I debated a “pro-choice” friend of mine once, and when it came down to it, and as he had no problem admitting, he was ultimately pro-choice because he felt that if he wanted to have unprotected sex and have the “full experience,” he shouldn’t have to worry about having a kid. He did not arrive at this position through political persuasion or principle, but quite literally through his penis. He had accepted the values of this hyper-sexual culture of ours, applied them to his life, felt they were to his advantage, and obligingly proceeded to adjust his political opinions accordingly. Don’t tell me we just have to win elections.
So, we have the two parts in place: words, and culture. How does this add up to a rejection of the word “Conservative”? Here’s how: we cannot achieve our goals unless we utilize the immense power of words to our advantage by accurately and convincingly portraying our ideas, and we cannot achieve our goals through politics alone, since politics is downstream from culture, and our goals are far more than just political goals, but goals which aim to improve human life. “Conservative,” therefore, not only implies the wrong things (status quo, old-fashioned, etc.), but also applies to the wrong things (just politics).
Now, some will say “But ‘Conservative’ in the way I mean means ‘to conserve something.’” Fine and dandy, but I got news for you gang: I don’t like that either. That strikes at only one aspect of what I previously called “Conservatism,” namely the actual values, principles, etc. of our movement. It says nothing about how to maintain them. It says where you need to be, but not how to get there. It’s like a Christian saying “you need to love them,” and refusing to model how to do it. To say you believe in “conserving something,” and then only go about that in a political way merely reinforces the preaching of politics, when politics has never been the source of our problems, only a result of our problems, which then brought even more problems. Our Founders recognized this clearly: before they even got to politics or putting together our Constitution, they had to recognize the one basic fact of all human culture, and that is that it is fallen and flawed. For being the people who supposedly value the Founders, why is this so difficult for us to get?
It’s all wonderful if we agree on that which needs to be conserved, but not when we have no idea on how to actually make that happen, and looking at the modern “Conservative” movement, you would think that politics is the only means to “conserve” that which we hold most dear, which is really not political at all. Additionally, the words we use have an enormous impact on the thoughts we think and the actions we perform. Perhaps it is just me, but “to conserve something” feels like a poverty-mindset. It feels like it is being said by someone who is always on the defense, not that we shouldn’t be on occasion, but where on earth is our offense? “To conserve something” sounds like the thought of a man who is worried because he is already in the process of losing everything else. Does this not perfectly describe what so many of us who cherish “Conservative” beliefs have felt for a long time? Is it more complicated than simply using the right word? Yes, absolutely. But to a certain extent, words cannot be divorced from reality, and we ourselves are suffering the consequences of that truth as we speak, as the best-sounding words are used to justify the growing tyranny of our time. The word “Conservative,” when we actually look at it, has nearly nothing to do with either our values, or how we get those values in the culture. On the latter question of culture, it falls silent and has nothing to say. Only politics here. There is very little inspiring in it, nothing to capture the imagination, and it is ill-equipped to intellectually combat the growing tide of tyrannical thinking in our culture. Unfortunately, “Conservatism,” out of its abhorrence for the state whose reach has excelled its grasp, has found itself focusing on almost nothing else, and continually defines itself almost exclusively in political terms. “We’re trying to save only what we were given! We’re trying to save what we have left!” No thanks, I’ve got better things to do.
I truly believe that in many ways, unless the “Conservative” movement gets a grip on some of these basic realities, it will not be in a position to capture the hearts and minds of the American people, let alone the people of the world, at this crucial time in our history. It is lacking the first line of defense, and I would argue the first line of offense as well, particularly in an age of mass-marketing: the right words. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where if you don’t get someone in the first few seconds, you too often don’t get them. If you were ignorant of politics, and had no qualms with our current culture, which would you want to hear more about, “Conservative” or “Progressive”?
So, while there is far more to this fight than simply using the right words, using the right words is an essential first step. So what word do I suggest? What word do I think captures the reality that what we are talking about is not a set of stale, old-fashioned ideas, but eternal, powerful, and inspiring ideas? What word do I think can be applied to both politics and culture, rather than just staying sequestered to politics? What word do I think begs more questions from the listener, rather than make them feel they just heard the same-old-stuff, and uninteresting stuff at that? What word is focused not just on preserving what it has been given, but adding to it and enhancing it? What word do I think can help breath fresh new life into the cause of liberty?
So what is a “Reformist”? We take a look at the Dictionary, we see it is “an advocate of reform.” Already sounds far more interesting and thought-provoking than “Disposed to preserve existing conditions,” doesn’t it? From the get-go, it is defined as standing up for something, advocating something, not just being against something else. So we look at what “reform” is in the Dictionary: “The improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.” which seems to only be possible if you actually believe there is a morally right, uncorrupt, and satisfactory alternative. In an age where crisis seems to haunt us around every corner, where so many seemingly overwhelming problems exist in all realms of society, doesn’t this not only seem more attractive and inspiring, but far more accurately describe our actual positions and goals?
Additionally, as you saw with the definition, a “Reformist” is not confined to politics. A “Reformist” recognizes that the “Progressive” welfare state cannot be fundamentally destroyed simply by defunding welfare programs, but by REFORMING the culture that gave birth to them in the first place. A “Reformist” believes that we cannot possibly talk about fiscal discipline without REFORMING the monetary system, and the culture of credit and easy money which helped bring about its downfall in the first place. A “Reformist” does not believe that abortion is ultimately ended by it being made illegal, but by REFORMING our culture in such a way that sex again becomes sacred, the family is valued, and children are seen as a blessing, not an obstacle. A “Reformist” does not believe that all economic problems are solved by lowering taxes on the DC side of things, but that we ought to be REFORMING our society around us through our giving, our volunteering, our entrepreneurial efforts, and how we raise our families so that DC doesn’t have to constantly tax us more to supposedly solve the very same problems.
On, and on, and on, and on, we see that a REFORMIST is from the get go far more capable of innovative thinking, far more capable of thinking out of the box, far more capable of addressing not just politics but the culture which informs it, far more optimistic, and thus far more capable of being inspiring and capturing the imagination of the American people. When you are simply trying to “conserve” something, you are automatically on defense before the game has even begun. But our ideas are worth going on the offense for, and because they are true, noble, and eternal, there is an infinite number of ways they can be applied for the betterment of both individuals and society. Because our words have so shaped our thinking in this way, we have too often missed the boat when it comes to defending the same eternal truth through sometimes completely different means in an ever-changing, dynamic culture. In our current culture, a “Conservative” is the man who for all the right reasons is trying to save the family pictures from being destroyed in the house fire. The “Reformist,” however, is not only the fireman trying to preserve (or “conserve” if you like) the house and the family inside it, but the construction contractor behind him to rebuild for them, the neighbor to comfort them, and the mentor/teacher/pastor/rabbi/etc. to teach them. A “Conservative” only seems to be capable of being a President, a Supreme Court Justice, a Senator, or a Congressman. A “Reformist,” on the other hand, can be all of those things, but also the businessman, the artist, the mentor and teacher, the banker and the street sweeper, the writer and the coffee barista. We can no longer act as if we are “conserving” anything from the destructive forces of the state while at the same time almost completely focusing on that state. To do so is to engage in the very idolatry which we say we abhor.
“Reformist” is our “Progressive,” but we actually mean it for good, and while we actually back it up with ideas that work, it also opens up avenues for new ideas on how to advance the same principles. We’re not trying to beguile or coerce voters, we are trying to convince, persuade, and inspire them. We’re about more than politics, we’re about culture, and we recognize that we will only see what we want in the former if we do the hard work of fostering the right things in the latter. We’re about more than helping groups, we’re about enhancing quality of life for all. We’re about far more than just the poverty-mentality of “conserving” what we have left, but the forward-looking mentality of making the world a better place by applying the eternal truths in new and innovative ways. We’re not just about the rights in the Declaration of Independence, but the responsibilities which come with them and maintain them. We’re all for the institutional separation of church and state, but affirm that a society which rejects God, religion, and morality is on a sure path to hanging itself, and destroying the very liberty it seeks to protect. If you are a Christian, I affirm that while we should care about both, it should be of far greater concern to us that we are involved in raising up disciples, being a disciple ourselves, and discipling the culture which informs our political system rather than whether some politician in DC decides we shouldn’t say “Under God” anymore. We’re not just about freedom, we’re about justice, from the most successful and prosperous among us, to the least fortunate. We don’t want politicians in DC to be the only people espousing the doctrines of liberty, as if that will make it all better. We want it proclaimed in our churches, our synagogues, our social clubs, our schools, our city halls, our art, our music, our movies, our buildings, our media, our websites, our books. We want liberty proclaimed and lived in the halls of Congress, in the White House, in our Courts, but more importantly in our finances, in our economics, in our science, in our literature, in our relationships, in our organizations, in our sports, in our businesses, on Wall Street, on Main Street, in our universities, in our dance clubs, in our restaurants, our coffee houses, in our gated communities and in our slums. The eternal truths are not compartmentalized. They apply to all of life. Liberty is not a political idea. It is at its foundations a spiritual one which has political implications. How then can we expect to maintain it by focusing only on mere politics?
“Conservative” is backward looking, “Reformist” is forward looking. ”Conservative” sounds, well conservative. ”Reformist” sounds positive, upbeat, interesting, and perhaps even inspiring. ”Conservative” is stuck in cultural mire from which it remains to be freed, and much of which is self-inflicted. ”Reformist” provides a more fresh start. ”Conservative” is dependent on the past generation. ”Reformist” beckons the rise of the next generation. ”Conservative” focuses incessantly on Washington DC. ”Reformist” starts with “We the People” first, you guys in DC second. ”Conservative” wants to preserve only what it has been given. “Reformist” wants to make it better, in-line with the eternal truths. ”Conservative” wants better social policy. ”Reformist” wants a better society. It is not the Reformation of culture through politics, but the Reformation of both culture and politics, recognizing that you cannot reform the one without the other.
We don’t want to just “conserve” what we were given, but add to it, enhance it, and make it better. In other words, we don’t want to change just our politics, but more importantly, we want to change our culture, and rebuild the foundations which make liberty not just possible, but sustainable. Our goal is not simply better politicians and politics, but the better people and the better society which is only possible when man is free.
Congratulations. If this is you, then you are a REFORMIST.