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Reading to Understand Conservatism

In the Nick of Time

The current political season has revealed that many avowed conservatives are less driven by ideas than they are by resentment and ambition. The turn from thoughtful conservatism to a conservatism of bitterness is unfortunate. Conservatism begins with ideas before it moves on to policies and then political candidates. Sadly, few today who label themselves conservative can rehearse even its most rudimentary concepts. For conservatism to survive, let alone thrive, these ideas must be recovered, and the recovery must take place primarily through the writings of key conservative thinkers. The following authors are among the foremost in presenting conservative ideals.

G. K. Chesterton

A Roman Catholic, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a one-man brigade in the war for conservative ideals. He ably defended the notion that the universe is not only ordered but also moral and transcendent. He wrote works such as Orthodoxy and Heretics explicitly to defend these ideas. He also produced reams of fiction that embodied the defense of an ordered, moral, transcendent universe. A good place to begin reading Chesterton is The Club of Queer Trades, especially “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown.” Alternatively, the Father Brown mysteries are little gems.

C. S. Lewis

Best known for his Christian apologetics, Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis was an adult convert who, like Chesterton, went beyond “mere Christianity” to defend an entire understanding of reality. Like Chesterton, Lewis understood the universe to embody a morality that included right feeling as well as right thinking. Everybody knows The Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Most have also encountered Lewis’s “big three:” Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Abolition of Man. Other important works include God in the Dock, An Experiment in Criticism, The Great Divorce, A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Discarded Image, and The Weight of Glory. Anything Lewis wrote is worth reading.

T. S. Eliot

An older contemporary of Lewis, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born to the son of a Unitarian minister in St. Louis, Missouri. By the time he was forty, Eliot had professed Christianity and become a British citizen. Known chiefly as a poet, Eliot also authored works of literary and cultural criticism. Since political conservatism is ultimately impossible without a strong cultural conservatism, mastery of these works is important for shaping conservative sensibilities. Several of his essays into literary criticism have been collected in On Poetry and Poets and To Criticize the Critic. His book The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism contains his Norton Lectures from 1932-33. Two of his important essays on cultural criticism have been published in Christianity and Culture.

Russell Kirk

One of three authors who launched the American conservative movement after the end of World War II, Kirk was a father of what is now called paleo-conservatism. His doctoral dissertation, The Conservative Mind, not only surveyed the history of conservative thought but also provided workable definitions for conservatism and liberalism. Other important works included Roots of the American Order, where Kirk argues that order must precede liberty, and Enemies of the Permanent Things, a reflection on the relationship between literature, culture, and politics. Also important is Kirk’s Eliot and His Age. Kirk’s ghost stories are also worth reading.

Richard M. Weaver

Richard M. Weaver was the second founder of American post-war conservatism. Where Kirk provided the historical underpinnings, Weaver articulated the philosophical basis of conservatism in his Ideas Have Consequences. Though he taught in Chicago, Weaver identified with Southern Agrarianism, from which position he offered a conservative critique of certain expressions of capitalism. Other important works include The Southern Tradition At Bay, In Defense of Tradition, The Ethics of Rhetoric, and especially Visions of Order. Weaver is one of the most difficult but important conservative authors to understand.

Friedrich A. Hayek

When President Ronald Reagan advocated “supply-side” economics, he was following the so-called “Austrian Economics” of Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and especially Friedrich Hayek. The best known advocate of this school, Hayek is the third founder of post-war American conservatism. He first won fame with The Road to Serfdom, in which he argued that free markets are inseparable from other freedoms. Hayek was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in 1974. Other important books include The Fatal Conceit, Individualism and Economic Order, and The Constitution of Liberty.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

If Kirk, Weaver, and Hayek were the intellectual lights of American conservatism, William F. Buckley was its great popularizer. As the founder and editor of National Review, Buckley almost single-handedly rescued conservatism from the clutches of both the conspiracy theorists and the libertarians. His God and Man at Yale first marked him as a conservative leader in 1951. A decade later, his Up from Liberalism skewered the liberal establishment of the 1950s, but its appeal is perennial. Several of his books are collections of occasional pieces: examples include A Hymnal and Right Reason. Buckley did for the spy thriller what Chesterton did for the mystery story—his Blackford Oakes novels wrestle with the problem of a moral center.

Robert Bork

One wonders how the Supreme Court might have been different had the Senate approved Robert Bork. His experience as a jurist placed him in a unique position to critique American judicial philosophy and practice. Bork defended his own views in The Tempting of America, then attacked the New Left in Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Given the tendency of courts to exceed their discretionary powers, Bork was deeply concerned about the status of international courts, a concern that he explored in Coercing Virtue. One of his last books was A Country I Do Not Recognize: The Legal Assault on American Values.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a Harvard-educated economist and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Sowell has articulated his economic views in three volumes: A Conflict of Visions, The Vision of the Anointed, and The Quest for Cosmic Justice. He is better known for his writings on social issues, particularly issues related to race. Among his contributions are Ethnic America, The Economics and Politics of Race, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, and Affirmative Action Around the World. Sowell is the sole living author in this list of conservative pundits, and his writings continue to generate controversy as he defends a substantially conservative position.

Conservatism has philosophical, historical, economic, cultural, and religious dimensions. While the foregoing list is far from comprehensive, all of these authors will help conservatives to think better about the permanent things. At minimum, every conservative should read the most important works of each. Seminary teachers, pastors, and other Christian leaders have a special responsibility to grasp how political and social conservatism cohere with Christian commitments. These authors can assist them in that work.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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When Any Turn From Zion’s Way
John Newton (1725–1807)

When any turn from Zion’s way,
(Alas! what numbers do!)
Methinks I hear my Savior say,
Wilt thou forsake Me too?

Ah Lord! with such a heart as mine,
Unless Thou hold me fast;
I feel I must, I shall decline,
And prove like them at last.

Yet Thou alone hast pow’r, I know,
To save a wretch like me;
To whom, or whither, could I go,
If I should turn from Thee?

Beyond a doubt I rest assured
Thou art the Christ of God;
Who hast eternal life secured
By promise and by blood.

The help of men and angels joined,
Could never reach my case;
Nor can I hope relief to find,
But in Thy boundless grace.

No voice but Thine can give me rest,
And bid my fears depart;
No love but Thine can make me blest,
And satisfy my heart.

What anguish has that question stirred,
If I will also go?
Yet, Lord, relying on Thy Word,
I humbly answer, No!

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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