[These are notes from a recent Collegiate Reformed Fellowship talk I gave.]
So it’s election season once again, and nearly every Republican political ad touts that adjective “conservative,” but not all those who claim the name mean the same things by it. What I want to argue is that real conservatism must recover the notion of multi-generational covenants. In other words, real conservatism is presbyterian.
Dave Rubin & Conservatives
There have been waves of conservative influence in our land with some notable accomplishments (most notably, the reversal of Roe), but in many respects, these waves have arguably not accomplished significant conservative gains. In recent months, the situation that has brought this to the fore for me is Dave Rubin’s announcement that he and his homosexual partner are “starting a family.” In case you don’t know, Dave Rubin was your average liberal Democrat who began interacting with notable conservatives and in significant ways changed his convictions. However, Rubin is a practicing homosexual, and together with his partner, they purchased eggs from egg donors, fertilized eggs with their respective sperm, and have rented surrogate wombs to carry two children to birth. Upon this announcement, many within the broad conservative world congratulated Rubin.
Jordan Peterson just joined the DailyWire team in the last few months, and for his premiere on the network, he interviewed Dave Rubin about this process. It appears that Peterson and Rubin view this situation as something akin to an infertile couple doing something like this to obtain children. Rubin’s marital situation is seen as something like a disability. They say it isn’t normal or ideal, but somehow, because of Rubin’s so-called sexual orientation, this somehow makes it OK. Jordan encouraged Rubin to consider how he and his partner might in some ways make up for the lack of a mother in the home, and Rubin exuberantly agreed and explained that’s why his partner is studying up on skin-to-skin care and also why they have stored up “freezers full of breastmilk.”
Drag Queens & Consistency
Meanwhile, mainstream media continues to push debauchery in every way. The trans train continues to pick up steam, with many hospitals beginning to perform transition surgeries or prescribing hormone therapies. And Drag Queens have showed up everywhere: in libraries, public parks, deliberately targeting children. One recent politician running for office vowed to put a Drag Queen in every public school in their state. In this context, a number of “conservatives,” including Dave Rubin himself, have spoken out against the sexualization of children, grooming children, and the transgender train. And it really is encouraging to see the backlash of many conservatives against the targeting of children. There was a Drag Show for children scheduled for a Pride Festival in Boise this Fall that was sort-of cancelled because of the backlash. And that’s all to the good.
But what many “conservatives” don’t seem to have thought through is the moral and logical consistency of their positions. And the question is this: if it is perfectly acceptable for an adult man to wear women’s underwear and dance provocatively in public, why is it not acceptable for children to be introduced to this lifestyle choice? If some grown up men are really women on the inside, why can’t young boys be offered hormones or sex change surgeries? And just to be clear, I think we should apply this principle across the board: fornication, adultery, homosexuality – not just transgenderism and drag queens. No doubt Dave Rubin will raise his son to believe that homosexuality is an acceptable option (even if unusual).
Frequently, the argument in favor of this is free speech and the First Amendment. The claim from some is that if we ban the free expression of Drag Queens in public, then the Leftists can ban our free expression of religion in public. But this position is pretending that there is no right and wrong, no moral compass at all. It has never been legal for someone to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. There have always been limits to freedom based on immediate threats to life and safety. And laws against public indecency and obscenity have generally limited free speech/expression because certain displays were considered threats to morality, and morality is essential to life. Good morals are not just good ideas; they are the conditions under which societies flourish. Bad morals are not just bad; they are literally destructive to society.
And it’s actually this point that I want to jump up and down on. Real conservatism is not liberalism in slow motion. Real conservatism is not liberalism riding the brakes. So for example, Barack Obama began his first term as president insisting that marriage should be continued to be defined as one man and one woman. But now prominent “conservatives” are congratulating Dave Rubin on his “family.” Real conservatism is committed to the generations. Dave Rubin literally cannot make a generation through his “family” except by practicing eugenics, and even then, he is intentionally creating a “Frankenfamily,” with two dads and no mothers.
John Locke and Edmund Burke
John Locke (1632-1704) wrote two Treatises of Civil Government and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and they are his most important works that still influence many discussions of civics and political theory today. One of Locke’s principle opponents was Thomas Hobbes – who had argued that people are basically selfish brutes and only band together in nations as a tactic of self-preservation. The civil government/nation is a monster (Leviathan) that keeps everyone in check. Locke on the other hand argued that nations are formed by the free agreement of the people – through social contracts. That free consent is represented in the Parliament, and executive power (e.g. monarch, president) is delegated by the legislature. Therefore, the people can withdraw their support for government when the trust is violated and government devolves into tyranny. Locke argued for what he called the “natural rights” of men, principally life, liberty, and property – which is partially echoed in our Declaration of Independence. John Locke is often known today as the “Father of Liberalism.” But here, you should think traditional or classical liberalism.
Rather than grounding individual rights and dignity in the image of God and creation, Locke emphasized a vague notion of freedom and rights arising out of a hazy primitive state of nature. But this means that Locke assumed a basic, original goodness in man, with the ability to reason and tolerate others naturally. While Locke intended to give the people the ability to check raw, political power, he actually left them relatively defenseless as mere individuals. Rousseau would come later during the French Revolution arguing from Locke’s writings for the “General Will” of the people, a vague notion that either amounts to pure democracy or else a raw might-makes-right majoritarianism. And Karl Marx didn’t mind using Locke’s individualism tied to labor and property to develop his theories.
Against Jean Jacque Rousseau and John Locke who taught this mere “social contract” between those living in the present, malleable and changeable into virtually anything the majority demands, Edmund Burke taught that a truly free society was a partnership with science and art and virtue between many generations, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” This “partnership” concept was a lot closer to the older biblical covenantal/feudal notions of society than a mere present tense contract.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is often considered the “Father of Conservatism.” Burke decried the abstraction of some “pure” or “absolute” liberty, which is what he saw in France with the French Revolution. True liberty is the freedom to do what is right under God and toward our neighbors. But an undefined “spirit” of liberty – doing whatever you want, whenever you want is actually a form of arbitrary power. Therefore, Burke taught that to let that revolutionary spirit run wild is to invite tyranny. And right on schedule as the French Revolution burned itself out in the name of the abstract, vague notions of “liberty, fraternity, and equality,” Napoleon Bonaparte showed up as a military dictator.
The American Revolution vs. French Revolution
The Americans broke with England not to demolish their way of life, customs, laws, and traditions, but to preserve them. The French revolted against the monarchy and hierarchy in France in order to burn the whole thing to the ground. While the Americans appealed to God as the Creator and Final Judge of truth and goodness and justice, the French Revolutionaries abolished Christianity as the official religion and attempted to establish a new religion to the goddess of Reason. The Americans recognized the long standing Christian practice of resting on Sunday, and the US Constitution gives the President the day off from official duties. But the French abolished the seven day week, and tried to establish a ten day week. The Americans fought an entirely defensive war to defend their English common law, charters, and feudal rights going back to the Magna Charta. The French fought an offensive war with no clear objective except for some abstract notion of the “Rights of Man” grounded in no historic or transcendent standard. Commentators note how conservative, sober, and limited were the aims of the Americans, whereas the French broke out into something of a drunken frenzy, with murder and theft and debauchery running wild.
The American War for Independence was called by King George, “The Presbyterian Revolt” both because it was driven by an age old Scots-Irish covenantor skittishness for British overreach but also because of the 100 proof covenant theology that permeated the colonies.
In England during the War for Independence, the presbyterian pastors were derisively called the “Blackrobe Regiment,” not because there was literally a regiment of soldiers in black robes but because England was well aware that behind the fierce courage of the American colonists were thousands of presbyterian preachers (often preaching in black robes), preaching freedom in Christ alone, a freedom that flowed out into the public square. In fact, John Adams wrote that these pastors had “effected a revolution in the hearts and minds of the people,” well before the actual war had commenced, culminating in the presbyterian General Assembly endorsing independence a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
The War for Independence itself was led by many psalm singing presbyterian elders and ministers and members. One anecdote recalls the presbyterian minister Rev. James Caldwell, who helped win some battles, when they ran out of paper for musket wads, he pulled out Isaac Watts’ Psalter-Hymnal and started ripping out pages, saying, “Give ’em Watts, boys!”
The prime minister of England, Horace Walpole said in Parliament that “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson,” apparently referring to John Witherspoon, presbyterian minister, signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of the presbyterian college Princeton. And when Gen. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown all but one of the American Colonels were presbyterian elders.
Conclusion: Reformation & Radical Repentance
Edmund Burke was a fierce critic of revolution but a staunch supporter of reformation. Revolution is violent; reformation is generational. Revolution seeks to burn the previous iteration of society to the ground and start over; reformation assumes that much goodness was been passed down and only some moderate changes or improvements should be made. Revolution aims only at immediate solutions without regard to long term effects; reformation considers the outcomes for children and grandchildren for generations.
Of course Burke was writing as a Christian in a Christian Britain with a long tradition of relative Christian influence in his land. What might conservatism look like in communist China or North Korea today? Perhaps initially far more disruptive, but in the covenant, we are grafted into a generational line that is beyond kin. In the covenant, you’ve been given a faithful generational past in history and Scripture. In Christ, you become Abraham’s children, the descendants of Augustine, Alfred the Great, Samuel Rutherford, and George Washington. To that past, conservatives always seek to be in partnership with, a covenantal partnership with those “who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Finally, repentance is always to be radical. We are not to modify our sins; we are to mortify them. We are not to regulate idolatry; we are to topple the idols. Conservatives frequently compromise with sin, and then make peace with it, rather than repent of it. Just because our fathers sinned, doesn’t make that sin now a venerable tradition. We must seek the good paths of our fathers while casting down their idols, so that our children and grandchildren will be blessed.