This month, the American Conservative Union's Conservative annual Political Action Conference, or CPAC, convened in Washington, D.C. This year's conference featured many of the GOP's presumed up-and-comers, people like Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal. There was much talk about economic liberty, the Obama administration's assault on the American tradition of individual liberty and self-determination, and the crisis of America's spiraling national debt. The crowd was full of energetic, motivated young people excited about taking on the forces of big government in order to secure a bright future for themselves and their children. What didn't register as much on the agenda at this year's CPAC were subjects involving marriage and family, namely, same-sex marriage and abortion.
John Murdock, writing for First Things, lamented the myopathy of a GOP that ignores foundational social issues in favor of an obsession with the ideological abstraction called "liberty."
"In the exhibit hall, an earnest looking and red-sash wearing defender of Tradition, Family, and Property handed me a pamphlet featuring a rainbow colored beaver gnawing away at the social leg of the conservatism’s three-legged stool of fiscal policy, national defense, and social values. The danger to social conservatism, however, is not so much barbarian beavers at the gate, but internal dry rot.
Social conservatism can be debated, but economic conservatism must be celebrated—often in quasi-religious terms. 'And Entrepreneurship Shall Set You Free: How to Celebrate Free Market Capitalism in the Popular Culture' proclaimed the title for one main stage offering, and bright faced college students (46 percent of the attendees were under age twenty-five) could be seen handing out 'I Love Capitalism' posters."
Regardless of how these people might identify themselves, they certainly are not conservatives, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Russell Kirk, one of the greatest conservative minds of the 20th century, articulated simply and elegantly ten hallmark characteristics of a true conservative. This year's CPAC attendees would have benefited from reviewing a few of these principles.
"First," he wrote, "the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order." An enduring moral order implies that there exist objective truths about the good, true, and beautiful that are prior to the will of mankind. We are obligated to align ourselves with this moral order. We don't make the rules, and we don't get to define right and wrong according to what suits our desires. The kind of radical individualism on display among many young "conservatives" today indicates little faith in such an order.
"Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity." We should respect the wisdom and sacrifice of those who came before us, assuming that the accumulated wisdom of the ages has more to teach us than our own isolated opinions on a given matter. A GOP that doesn't care to fight for traditional marriage and weighs the sanctity of unborn human life against the political costs of appearing "anti-women" is a party that's lost touch with its conservative roots.
"Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription." Again, this speaks to the idea that the wisdom of the ages has more legitimacy than the prevailing winds of the moment. We toss aside longstanding social institutions and practices at our peril. The up-and-coming generation of Republicans might believe that supporting same sex marriage will put them on the "right side" of history, but in reality they are hammering the final fatal nails in the coffin of society's most critical social unit: the family.
"Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability." A true conservative is keenly aware of man's fallen, sinful nature, and shies away from worshiping overmuch at the altar of money, power, and success. It doesn't seem that there was much of this humility in play at the recent CPAC. Capitalism left unchecked by virtue, decency, and humility merely becomes a tool for unscrupulous and greedy men to aggrandize power and wealth.
"Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions." Contrary to what many young "conservatives" believe, conservatism has never been about the promotion of unchecked freedom. True conservatism recognizes first that there are certain ends for which man has been designed. The role of liberty is to enable men to pursue these good ends, not for them to pursue whatever ends they deem good for them. When you focus only upon one kind of liberty but spurn or ignore the institutions that sustain an ordered and virtuous liberty – namely, marriage, faith, and family – then you are missing the forest for the proverbial trees. This is the antithesis of conservatism.
In short, man and society are greater than the sum of their economic parts. The role of government is more than to preserve the opportunity to promote one's own economic self-interest, and the American tradition is about more than unbridled freedom. As the Founders indicated, the government's role is to secure our God ordained rights, including the right to life. It is also about protecting basic human dignity and and ensuring justice for all, including the unborn, the handicapped, and the elderly. As Thomas Jefferson famously observed, the chief purpose of government is to protect life; abandon that and you abandon all.
Government also has a role in fostering an environment in which the family, the cornerstone of society, can flourish. Families are an institution of self-government. The stronger the family is – the more it is supported and promoted as a social good – the less need there is for government to intrude. Strengthen families and communities, foster a culture of life and faith, and the results will provide the foundation necessary for America to thrive. Economic prosperity and fiscal responsibility will be the natural by-products of an America that embraces its founding ideals and values. It doesn't work the other way around, however. If we allow America's moral and cultural backbone to wither, it is only a matter of time before the rest of America's greatness falls to pieces.
In a recent piece for Public Discourse entitled "Why Liberty Isn't Enough," Samuel Gregg discusses the essential relationship that must exist between freedom and virtue in order for a nation to endure:
"Those who promote liberty need to grasp the degree to which, as the philosopher Roger Scruton recently wrote, 'liberty is threatened by license.' The notion that a free society can be sustained on the basis of a citizenry that is narrowly self-interested, narcissistic, inclined to choose unjustly, disinclined to be charitable, who won’t honor their promises, and who refuse to be accountable for their choices would have seemed nonsensical to figures ranging from Edmund Burke to Adam Smith. Whether it is free markets or constitutionally limited government, these prominent progenitors of modern American conservatism understood that the success of these institutions of freedom depends on the prevalence of specific habits and virtues among the citizenry."
It is no exaggeration to say that the GOP is a party in crisis. Some serious soul-searching needs to be done at the grassroots level, and we need leaders with the gumption, intelligence, and eloquence to articulate a complete vision of what it means to be conservative. America is in serious trouble, and capitalism alone isn't going to save her.