I know, I know, we’re all supposed to believe that God is above politics. And certainly, God is not a member of a party, nor does He endorse one of them. But He certainly does talk a lot about how human beings ought to relate to one another, and that’s politics when one goes beyond the family and the workplace and out to society at large.
And God says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” This is a profoundly conservative principle.
In Ephesians 6:2 Paul calls the command to honor father and mother the first command, meaning the primary command that creates the foundation for all the other commandments dealing with our interactions with other human beings. Our relationship with our parents is a defining relationship in so many ways.
When God said that, He knew your parents weren’t perfect. He knows that in many cases they might be pretty bad people. And yet, it is His will to bring you into this world and make you who you are in large part through who your parents are. And that means that if I despise my parents, if I have contempt for them, then I am rejecting my own identity, the reality of who I am, and that is not a good strategy for success in life.
We all like to think we just get to decide who we are. Teenagers are especially prone to this, and sadly our society encourages this kind of thinking- “You can be whatever you want to be!” No, you can’t. As a facile example, I could not have played on the NBA no matter how hard I worked. I could not have been a sniper for the army- bad eyes. I could not have been a Nobel-prize-winning mathematician. I’m not that smart. I could not be a mother. Wrong biology, and that matters, no matter what people today are trying so hard to tell themselves. I was born as a particular kind of human being, and no human being can just make himself a different kind of human being just by willing it hard enough.
As with our parents, so also too with society. We are all profoundly shaped by the society into which we are born, and we didn’t get to decide that. Being born an American in a white Christian home in 1974 profoundly shaped who I am in lots of ways. I am thankful for the blessings I received, but I also know that my parents were not angels, and white Christian American society of 1974 was not composed of seraphic hosts either. Nonetheless, I know that God has shaped me through all these various influences to be who I am, and I know that God has plans and purposes, and those plans are very good, even if I don’t always know what they are. Therefore, I walk in the path God has laid out for me. I accept my past. I learn from the wisdom of those that have gone before, though I do not idolize them. We believe in progress, for we know that we are called to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ and we’re a long way away from that still, but we start by learning from those who have been engaged in this battle before us. In that way, we can gain a head start.
Any society that has lasted any length of time has provided many good things for its people. Here, by “society” I mean the whole collection of institutions that make up a particular society, formal and informal, along with the expectations and norms that define how people will relate to one another, both written and unwritten. So these are things like families, churches, charitable and educational institutions, businesses, and the like. Then you have the rules of society, both written and unwritten, like “drunkenness is bad,” “people should get married before they have children,” “women should always be subordinate to men,” “children should usually do the same thing for a living as their parents” and the like. Some of these norms and institutions you probably agree with; some of them probably you don’t. But together, they make up a society. And that society has allowed people to live in relative peace, to raise their children, to feed their families, to achieve art and music and things like that.
Criticizing society is the easiest thing in the world to do, just like criticizing your parents. It takes no special intelligence to see things that are wrong, that things aren’t as good as they could be. It takes no special sophistication, after about age eight, to see your parents’ faults. What is a lot harder than criticizing your parents though is actually being a good parent. And so too with society. The world we live in is insanely complex. Just the economic systems that go into creating the products around us are beyond the comprehension of any one man or group of men, something the famous essay, “I, Pencil” does a wonderful job of illustrating. Read that essay if you haven’t before, if you think that you could do a good job of managing this country’s economy.
If anyone think himself capable of organizing our economic systems better than society already does, he should first learn how that economic system actually works. Other issues of society- the relation between men and women, raising children, sexuality- these things are even more complicated.
The man who thinks he can cast out all of his parents’ learning and strike out on his own is like the child who thinks he can climb into a car and figure it out all by himself, with no instruction from others. His parents make it look easy. How hard could it be? That child, unless someone stops him, will likely do a great deal of damage to himself, the car and others before he learns anything useful about the car. How much better to learn from his elders first, and then, from a position of safe expertise, can make some improvements on the driving technique he learned?
How much more true is this of society as a whole! For if economics is complicated, then society is more complicated, for it includes economics, as well as many other things. If sexuality is a deep and mysterious thing, then society is even more deep and mysterious, for sexuality is an important component in society.
So Proverbs tells the young man to listen to the instruction of his father, and heed the law of his mother. This is much broader than just your parents. One can easily point out flaws in America’s past. But who would have the hubris, the pride, the incredible ignorance, to think they could do better? America, with all its faults, has produced a level of prosperity, of security, of liberty for its people that has rarely been seen in the world. I mention America only because I happen to live in America. If one were a Russian, one would have many tremendous accomplishments to point to as well. France gave us incredible treasures of culture, industry and science. China produced a culture that lasted for centuries and produced beautiful works of art and amazing accomplishments of cooperation and organization. Every one of these cultures and societies also had great failings.
There is a reason why as people grow older they mostly become more conservative. Young people, because of their pride and ignorance, are drawn to radical ideas. They are drawn to schemes about how society could be radically reorganized much more justly and efficiently than it already is. But once they try to raise kids, have a successful marriage, produce products for sale, work in a business, they tend to get more conservative. Once people understand how hard it is to make a pencil, they come to appreciate the miracle that it is that pencils get made at all, and tend to get a lot more careful about tinkering with the machinery. When people, for various reasons, have successfully reorganized their society in radically different ways than was done in the past, the results have usually been mass starvation.
A child will look at the decisions his parents make, like telling him he has to eat all his vegetables, brush his teeth and go to bed by eight. He does not understand those rules and therefore he thinks his parents are fools or being arbitrarily cruel. But as he grows, he comes to understand better. Maybe he will let his kids stay up until nine. But unless he can understand why his parents wanted him in bed by eight, he is in no position to say they were wrong. Chesterton’s proverb comes to mind, that you have no business taking a fence down unless you know why it is there in the first place.
This is what it means to be a conservative. It means to respect the wisdom and the knowledge of those that have gone before. It does not mean to worship them, for they were flawed. But it means to carefully work to understand the broader context of the decisions they made, to learn from them, and only once one has done that, to propose careful and modest changes. Sometimes it means recognizing that if you have made bad decisions in the past, you will need to go back down the road a ways before you can go forward again. Many American conservatives feel just this way about present day America- not that we worship the past or think that there were no problems to solve, but that sometime in the past we made some radically wrong turns, and so we need to go back to the past before we can go forward to a better future.
But all too many simply despise the past. They delight in finding any flaw, any mistake that was made in the past and trumpeting and highlighting it as a reason why we should reject it wholesale. Why didn’t the Founding Fathers outright ban slavery? Well, why don’t you spend all your time and money trying to end abortion? It is easy to point out the flaws of others; much harder to do a better job yourself. When you do not have to take responsibility for the changes you advocate, it’s much easier to advocate for radical change or to criticize others for their failures to make those radical changes. So you can criticize the Founders, even though they took steps to limit and reduce slavery, combated its greatest evils, and foresaw the time when it would end, even though they lacked the political power to end it immediately. You can say, from the comfort of your couch and behind your keyboard, how they should have done things exactly the way you think they should, like the teenager who complains how his parents did such a lousy job of raising him, having no idea what it’s like to work for a living, pay bills, raise kids, try to have a decent marriage, and all the rest. The example of Ham and Noah is so instructive. Ham was a fool, a mocker, a scorner, who thought it was very clever of him to ridicule the drunkenness of his father, while his brothers were wise enough to cover their father’s shame. I tend to think of the curse of Noah as less about how Noah wanted Ham punished for what he did, and more a prophecy of what was the natural outcome of such an attitude. Shem and Japeth would have good things come from their line, because they honored their father. From Ham’s line would come bad things, following the example of Ham the mocker and scorner.
So what do we see around us today? Mockers and scorners. Those who, when you quote the wisdom of the founding fathers, will say, “Yeah, but they owned slaves” and therefore you can dismiss everything they wrote. This is the foolishness of the factory worker who thinks he knows so much better how the factory should be run than the owner of the factory. It’s so much easier to mock those who try and fail than it is to actually do it yourself. And this is the reason why those who have actually had to achieve things with their lives tend to become more conservative. Getting married, raising kids, producing goods and services, running a business- all these things tend to make one much more conservative.
So God calls us to heed the wisdom of those that have gone before, to learn and master that wisdom before we seek to improve on it. Radicals and revolutionaries only ever produce death and misery, because the revolutionary mindset is above all a violation of the fifth commandment, a failure to honor our fathers and mothers. And those that violate that commandment will not live long on the land.
If you saw a man putting a child of six in the front seat of the car and handed him the keys, with no instructions, and told him, “Go to it, have fun!” what would you think that man was trying to accomplish? If you thought he was trying to kill that child, you’d have good reason. So if a college professor or a journalist or some other thought leader today teaches you to despise your parents, despise tradition, despise the way things have been done in the past, and he does nothing but tear down, criticize, point out all the flaws of those that have gone before, if he encourages you to, like Ham, expose the nakedness of your ancestors, and to support the radical restructuring of society according to some scheme he is proposing, do you think his intentions for doing so are good? Or is he, like the seductive woman in Proverbs, leading you down into the grave? Is he fleecing you, flattering your pride and ignorance so that he can take your money? Or worse, turning you into the agents of destruction against that which he hates? And how many history books spend all their time talking about all the failures and mistakes of our ancestors? Do they honor them, even while being realistic about their failures? Or do they simply, like Ham, seek to uncover their nakedness?
The fifth commandment requires us to be conservatives. It requires us to honor and respect the wisdom of those that have gone before. It requires us to preserve and strengthen the institutions which have given us this society- family, church, military, state, economy. We ought not idolize any of them, for the true conservative knows we’re not in heaven yet and that no past era is a golden age, but we ought to seek to understand and respect them before we seek to improve them, not merely tear them down. This is why the New Testament does not call on Christians of that day to be radicals, to overthrow the deeply unjust structures of Roman life, but rather to live at peace, to be better themselves, to raise their kids with love and to stop mistreating their servants and beating their wives. There were radicals and revolutionaries in Rome, and they never accomplished anything but chaos and destruction, that only justifies the arguments of the despots that cruelty and tyranny is necessary for order. But the quiet, humble, incremental change introduced by Christianity is what really changed the world. The American War for Independence was deeply conservative, drawing on the traditions of English Common Law and representative government going back to the Magna Carta, Republican Rome and Greece and even ancient Israel for their inspiration, and the result was prosperity and success. The French Revolution was deeply radical, seeking to sweep away the past, even proposing different calendars, and the result was the Reign of Terror, mass executions, the tyranny of first Robespierre and then Napoleon, and massive global war and death.
Even the worst examples you might raise, examples like Nazi Germany or North Korea today, just prove the point. Those situations arose when people rejected their own traditions and introduced radical change, with all the resulting miseries. Even those situations would be radically improved by conservatism, recognizing how badly they had gone wrong in the past, and going backward to when things worked better before going forward.
Only by honoring your parents and learning from them do you have any chance of being better parents than they were. Despise them, and you start from square one. If your parents are complete psychopaths, then find better models to emulate. Only by honoring and respecting the past of your nation do you have any chance of being part of positive change, rather than just being another wrecker and looter who takes us backward instead of forward. The mocker and the scorner never produces anything but death. But the true conservative is the one who produces real and lasting progress, and conservatism, as a political and personal philosophy, is taught from one end of the Bible to the other.