The problem with conservatism

I guess in the end, protecting what we cherish is why I am a conservative. The Left like to portray conservatives as doddery old fools opposed to modernity. But as its very heart, conservatism believes there are things in life, values and institutions, worth conserving.

Conservatives don’t oppose change; they just don’t believe in change for change’s sake.

If there’s a good case made for change, they will support it but aren’t afraid to stand up for things that have stood the test of time.

Conservatives don’t always get it right. Sometimes they’re far too slow to accept change but they’re mindful that once things have changed, it’s hard to change them back.

Peta Credlin, Daily Telegraph, January 29, 2017

Those are the words of Peta Credlin, chief-of-staff to Tony Abbott while he was Prime Minister. On Peta’s description who would have a problem with conservatism? Who doesn’t believe that there are things in life, values and institutions worth conserving?

The problem with conservatism is not that “sometimes they’re far too slow to accept change” but that on the great moral issues of our time they’re nearly always far too slow to accept change. When the abolitionist movement emerged in the United States of America, calling for an end to slavery, conservatives eventually agreed the institution needed to be abolished but pleaded for a long and slow phasing out; when Martin Luther King and the African-American church were leading the civil rights movement the leaders of the white church begged him to slow down, to avoid radical change; when the feminist movement called for an end to the abuse and oppression of women, pastors all over the western world raced to their bible’s to show that male “headship” was God’s good intention; when Eddie Mabo won his famous court case John Howard went on national television with a map of Australia, declaring that almost every square inch of the country was now at risk of being transferred to native title; when the global scientific community demonstrated that climate change was anthropocentrically induced and that the future of humankind would be shaped by our response, it was conservatives that refused to accept the science and rolled out conspiracy theories.

It is difficult to think of any area of moral progress in which conservatives have led the way. I think the reason for this is the social location of conservatism and its tendency toward uncritical analysis of power. Conservatives tend to be those who have benefited most from the institutions and the power structures of society, are predisposed to emphasising the merits of the existing order and minimise the ways social institutions privilege one group while excluding others. Yet moral progress in Western society has come by being attentive to the voices of those who are marginalised, exploited and oppressed. It is only by leaving the centres of power and control and moving to the margins that these voices are ever heard. And when they are, empathy creates a holy dissatisfaction with the present order that demands change. And once you’re there you’re no longer a Conservative.

Rather than hearing the voices of the oppressed, conservatives all too often portray them as radicals who aim to bring down everything that is good about our society. How often growing up did I hear mutterings about Nelson Mandela being a dangerous Communist terrorist; of aboriginal activist Michael Mansell being an angry ideologue; and all kinds of hysterical claims about “the feminist lobby” and the “gay lobby” and what they wanted to foist upon us.

So please, spare me the “we don’t believe in change for change’s sake” line. I don’t know anybody who does. My friends on the progressive side of theology and politics believe in change for the sake of people who are being bullied, oppressed, marginalised and exploited. And yes, I agree that progressives have their flaws. Bucket loads of empathy can never substitute for well thought through policy  and Progressives can all too easily demonise Conservatives  as people who don’t give a damn about anything but themselves.  And yes, there are some things I want to hold onto and value and leave fundamentally untouched, but in my basic orientation to life I want to be an intelligent, well thought through progressive, because this is the only way moral progress is ever made.

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