Reading Edmund Burke will really mess you up.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
This article has been coming for a long time, but I have waited until now to write it because I did not have the time to solidify my adult positions on these matters until after 2016, but 2016 forced me to really think through the answer to the question of “Why do I hold to certain tenants of conservative thinking?” Why do I believe in Small government and limited government spending? Why do I believe in incremental changes to the status quo that help ensure the flourishing of the greatest number of people? Why do I believe in the power of institutions like churches, the media, town governments, local grocery stores and locally owned businesses? Why, well, my faith informs many of these, and we can talk about that later, but the easy answer is that I hold to all of these because I was taught about them. Not as essential beliefs or articles of faith, but as common-sense approaches to government that, though informed by biblical principles, were not biblical principles themselves. My parent’s way of encouraging me to live in both kingdoms and teaching me how the Kingdom of God could encourage and inform my participation in the kingdom of man. I was taught the principles of Burkian conservativism and I was taught them well. Growing up in Appalachia during the collapse of the coal industry I saw how communities could band together to care for one another. My church had a massive “Basic Needs Ministry” that helped hundreds in our small town. I saw these principles at work on the local stage and saw them nationally with George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservativism” in 2000. I actually remember my dads opposition to the 2005 bailouts of the auto industry because they violated tenant number 1. Governments job is to follow the laws of the land and protect the people of the land. Or so I learned from reading the founding fathers. My parents were center right, and they taught me how to be center right. There are points where I diverge from that position and lean a little to the left, but for the most part I lean center right on most issues. On top of those principles I remember all the arguments about the character of our leaders, and I internalized those. When I came of age I saw pastor after pastor fall to either secularism or sexual sin and take their churches down with them, character obviously mattered.
Let me be clear here when I talk about conservative principles and Ideals, I am not talking about policies or isms, but core tenants of conservativism, I am staunchly Pro-Life if you define Pro-Life as from the moment of Conception to the date of death, what some are calling “whole-life” but that is a policy position informed by a tenant, specifically the idea that the status quo needs to change incrementally to make sure the maximum number of people are flourishing, but it is not a tenant and that distinction is important. When you abandon the tenant to try to advance the policy, you make the policy something it is not. That is what has happened with the current conservative iteration of the “Pro-Life” movement, it has reduced itself to selling policy that is really just “Anti-Abortion” while it tramples over every single other life in the room. If we believe that life has sanctity, then it has to have sanctity from the time it is conceived, to the time human life passes. We cannot ignore the sanctity of other lives by steamrolling over them in favor of our policy. Further, I want to offer too a full-throated rejection of the sins that unchecked conservatism has indulged in, particularly in the Church. Misogyny, bigotry of any kind, Nationalism, sexual misconduct, particularly in conservative churches that has been covered up to protect the leader. I reject all of these, they are abominations before God and sins to be sure, no less sinful than the sins of the world we love to demonize. They need to be repented of, and forgiveness needs to be asked for them, lest we stand before God and be told to depart from him. As it stands, I cannot currently uphold our present idea of “Personal Liberty” because, again, it is not a tenant of Classical Conservative, what is a tenant is “Social Liberty,” that being the idea that society is free and men and women are free within that society to do as they wish so long as they are not doing harm or hindering the life of another. Free societies were intended to punish those who sought to undermine them, who created oppression and profited from it. This is another aberrant idea, yes, man is free, but you are only as free as your neighbor. Making sure your neighbors life is conserved would help to ensure that your life was conserved.
Like said, I learned these tenants well and so it was concerning when the Bailouts were rolled out and compromises on these principles and claims were legitimized. That opened the door for more undermining of those principles and claims. As a Church Historian I recognize the pattern that begun in the generation after Martin Luther and John Calvin, you make a compromise, the next generation makes another and before you know sect and schism are rampant in the 19th century and though the Church grew until the 1950’s, we are now seeing an ever quickening decline. Which is what happened with conservativism as I watched it, one compromise led to another, which led to another and then they began gaining speed and ground and eventually it snow balled and all that talk about a persons character were thrown out. The principles I had learned so well still worked when applied, but they were no longer being applied, instead conservativism became not compassionate, but power hungry, rude and vulgar. It was not what I was raised with and on top of that, all the people who had told me to trust institutions are now telling me not to trust the institutions as we see democracy undermined (another system I was taught well).
Those institutions though were meant to uphold civic and moral order while helping to create a society built on just laws. The Media was to inform us, and while it had stumbled in that job, it had not totally lost its way. Churches were to encourage us, to help us become good and Holy (though this is an area where I disagree since The Church is not an intended to be an institution but an organism and only Christ makes us good and Holy). Democracy, as ai institution was the greatest government system since sliced bread and we should fight to uphold it. But most of those people who taught me these things have now given themselves over to illiberalism, they have abandoned any pretense and told me straight up that I cannot trust the institutions designed to help inform and uphold our society. This is reflected not so much in statistics about the Media, since a vast majority still trusts the media, but in public trust in Churches and Clergy. Clergy now ranks second to last on the list of most trusted professions, why? Because character became an afterthought in many seminaries. As Chuck DeGroat noted in his book: “When Narcissism comes to Church” we have favored charismatic personalities which can often be driven by narcissistic personality disorder types over the quiet men of character who will humbly lead through service. Most pastors have sought to secure their comfortable futures before caring for their flocks, when those pastors fall from some moral failure or other reason, we shake our heads, wonder why it happened and then find the next Charismatic Seminary student.
Public trust in institutions in general is extremely low in the mid-west as many of those institutions have been taken over by outside groups or government agencies based not in the states, but in Washington DC. There is a reason to be concerned with bigger government and weaker state and local governments since the people who are most likely to know what life is actually like on the ground are the people who live on the that very ground. Therefore so many feel alienated, why we heard so much about: “the forgotten man” in 2016. Strange that we did not hear about him in 2020.
I worked in Stafford Country Kansas as a Pastor and probably could have predicted 2016 based on what I heard and saw. As you enter the city of Stafford on US 50 coming from Wichita one of the first things you see is the shell of what used to be Bowing’s Engine Assembly plant. In 2014 Stafford Country had the second highest Opiate death rate in Kansas, trailing only Rice country where I lived. The Churches there had just voted to merge, except for my little Baptist church which may not be there anymore. I was the fifth pastor they had called in four years and was the longest tenured when I left in the summer of 2015. All four had been bi-vocational and 2 of us had lived in other towns and commuted in because we had to live where there were jobs. I was working for Sterling College’s maintenance department at the time, which for a single college graduate was a good gig. I tried to explain this picture to my classmates at Gordon-Conwell during a session of Dr. Price’s Project of Reconciliation after the 2016 election. I understood the grievances of the Midwest, and even shared many of them, but I did not understand, nor could I, give up principles that had been engrained in me from my youth. The price for having my voice amplified was way too high for me and it still is. Grievance Politics just leaves us, in the words of Special Agent Dinozzo, with: “a bunch of toothless blind people” and I cannot stomach it.
I recently became a subscriber to the center-right “The Bulwark” through their “Bulwark+” subscription service. Even if you do not subscribe you can still get their daily podcast with Conservative talk show host and author Charlie Sykes formerly of The Weekly Standard. You can listen to the podcast here but one of the things that caught my attention was Charlie’s statement that “we are better than this.” That struck me, because if you look at all this nation was built on, all the principles and laws of democracy, all the appeals to moral order and justice, we really should be better than we are now. And Christians, we should be even better because we have the transcendent life and truth of Jesus Christ dwelling within us and allowing us to be better, to “grow up into maturity” as Ephesians puts it. But if you are just an average conservative or even an average liberal and you believe in what this country stands for, then we should be better than this. We should be better than these petty divisions, we should be better than the nasty fights and silly culture wars that have divided us and divided our politics. How can the very people who call us “one nation under God” turn around and act like we are one nation under two parties? That is unsustainable and we are currently reaping the rewards of that in our national moment.
We have become a nation of children, governed by children, this is not good. But here is the thing, this is not just run of the mill hypocrisy, no, as Jonathan V. Last (also of The Bulwark) pointed out, this is pure nihilism since: “Hypocrisy implies that there is a moral norm and they have left moral norms behind.” Nihilism is a philosophy that should stay far from the halls of power, if you believe there is nothing to believe in, you should not be a leader in any world. Or if power is all you believe in and worship, you should not be a leader, leaders have to lead, but they should lead through service, not might. Again, this is a place where biblical principles inform conservativism and in fact the American founding, the idea that our leaders are servants who serve people through upholding the laws.
Let me close by saying that while I still hold to the tenants of conservativism generally, they are not primary for me, they probably should not have been. Through Christ I am learning a new how to live in this world as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. If you want to know what this looks like in real time, go listen to my sermons or follow Brian Zahnd on Twitter. It is true that Edmund Burke will mess you up, but reading the bible, really reading it, will make it even harder for us to live in such a way that denies the truths of scripture or synchronize them with the philosophies of this world. As Conservatives, we should accept the results of the election and turn to praying for President-Elect Joe Biden not because we have trust in the system of democracy, but because we have trust in God and His word. Joe Biden is the next leader God is placing over us, so let us pray for Him as Romans tells us. Let us also work to lower the abortion rate through not just through an anti-abortion lens, but throat did ugh a fully Pro-Life lens. If the Church is every going to regain public trust, then it needs to start doing what helped it gain public trust in the first place over 2000 years ago. It needs to reclaim its uniqueness as the Called Out Body of Christ, the continuation of His presence on this Earth. To lead again in things like Health care from the beginning to the end of life. To reclaim its prophetic role as a truth teller which tells the truth in love through service. Maybe then we can start informing conservatism again, or perhaps we can come up with something better. Who knows, when we do what Christ calls us to do the possibilities are absolutely endless.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center