Conservatives: What they are and what they aren't

We all live in a moment in history where it is all-politics-all-the-time. Everything from our health to our wealth, from the womb to the tomb, is viewed through the lens of increasingly divisive and rancorous politics. The resulting distortions are many. The most serious is language, the very tool we use to make political sense to one another. The meaning of the word "conservative" has been a major victim.

When asked what the term "conservative" means, most of us are flooded with images, such as Fox News, Sean Hannity, phrases in support of big military budgets, and slogans like "repeal and replace Obamacare" and "Drain the Swamp." But that is "politicospeak," and a fundamental distortion of the core meaning of "conservative." A similar fate has befallen "liberal," which classically referred to a defender of free-speech and now is attached to an advocate of policing "hate-speech." That, however, is another story for another time.

Conservatism is a lens ... a way of looking at the world around us. It speaks to what one loves and values. A conservative is "disposed" toward "faith, family and hearth." That is where and how he leans. It is written on his heart from his earliest contacts with parents, family, friends, neighborhood, church, teachers and myriad other associations.

One's dispositions, how one leans and what one values, of course, can be changed. The culture into which we are immersed can strengthen or weaken those earlier, more conservative dispositions. Perhaps, that explains why so many conservatives immersed in a hedonistic culture define themselves as "culture warriors."

But what defines a conservative? How can you tell him from the rest of our neighbors? For one thing, he values traditions, such as how the family celebrates Christmas or birthdays. Conservatives like stability in their family, in the neighborhood and the world at large. Dickering with the local high school curriculum, so that their children read different stories than they read in school puts parents' teeth on edge.

Conservatives have a middle-of-the-road understanding of human nature, of the nature of man. Men are neither sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice, nor predatory beasts. They are neither malleable creatures who social engineers can shape into productive citizens, nor so much genetic material whose destiny is set at birth. Man is a mix of nature and nurture. While the conservative recognizes the plusses and minuses of the human body and intellect which nature has dealt out to each of us, it is nurture to which the conservative pays most attention. That is why his eye is primarily on the children, and therefore on schooling.

Conservatives are instinctively suspicious of Progressive Education. Not because they are against human progress, but because they believe real progress is built on a foundation of the very best knowledge and ideas from the past. Rather than being allowed to randomly search and discover the best thought and skills that mankind has achieved, children need to be "taught."

They support "classical education," for its commitment to this core knowledge, but, also, for its focus on character formation. Conservatives know in their hearts that children are not naturally virtuous. A child needs to be both trained and inspired to become a good person. Therefore, conservative parents want schools that focus on establishing in their children the good habits begun at home, habits such as kindness, persistence and responsibility.

Personal responsibility is the defining value for the true conservative. While others look to the government as their safety net, the conservative believes the primary provider for his wellbeing and that of his family is himself. He believes that his dignity as a person rests on his ability to fend for himself and not to be a burden on others. While acknowledging his connectedness to others, his worst fear is his failure to protect and care for himself and his "responsibilities."

The conservative, therefore, has a tricky relationship with the state. He knows that alone he is vulnerable and needs protection, whether from fires and floods or the dangerous enemy on the other side of the mountain. He knows "no man is an island." Still, in recent years his growing fear of a powerful state, claiming to do more and more for him, is making him increasingly vigilante. He sees government making promises, but more and more limiting his freedoms, whether in how he makes a living or how he worships.

The conservative is equally uncomfortable with revolution-talk, such as, "Bust up the furniture" or "Throw the bums out." Americans have a receptivity to the word "revolution," based on our truly glorious experience of the American Revolution, where men and women took personal responsibility for their own fate and freed themselves from the overweening power of the King of England. But the conservative keeps in mind those other revolutions, the bloody ones: the French, the Russian, the Maoist, and closer to home, the Cuban. Revolution is a two-edged and often bloody sword.

The conservative has his mind on another responsibility: What's happening to our earth? To our cities and towns? To our oceans? To the air we breathe? A critical question for the conservative is, "What kind of a world am I leaving for my children and those who follow?"

And, yes, the conservative respects and "clings" to his religion. Whether an orthodox believer or not, he knows that religion provides social stability to a community and that religion is a strong justification for not giving into one's personal voice to have more and more pleasure, and more and more personal power. While many others are shucking off the rules and constraints of organized religion and are making up new laws about marriage, birth and sexuality, the conservative, in contrast, is steadied and steered by his faith in the healing powers of religion.

The conservative knows in his heart and mind that the best way to deal with the present and to face the future is to be guided by the conserved wisdom of the past.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.