The Christian Case for Conservatism

David Burrowes 28 Sep 20

We are committed to applying our faith to our political engagement and this does not stop when it comes to our political and party allegiances. As we have reflected on elsewhere, all political ideologies correctly hold to some Biblical truths and all political ideologies fail to recognise other Gospel realities. We cannot therefore add to the Gospel and demand allegiance to one party or cause, for we cannot bind what the Bible does not bind. Our interaction with parties, policies, and voting is more often than not a wisdom call. One which should be influenced and shaped by our faith but not one we can attribute salvation status to. As Christians then we are free to choose our party and free to choose who to vote for. 

We asked some Christian politicians and party members to help us think through the UK political parties and how their faith influenced/influences their party involvement. The following blog by former MP David Burrowes explores why as a Christian he is a conservative. The views expressed in the blog belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of UCCF. 

It is our prayer at the Politics Network that this series is an encouragement and model for you as you think through how your faith informs your political engagement.

Whenever I am asked to put forward the Christian case for Conservatism, I am usually defensive for Conservatism but particularly for a right view of Christianity and Politics. Thirty years ago at Exeter University, with fellow student Tim Montgomerie, we established the Conservative Christian Fellowship in response to two world views. First, that you could not be a Christian and a Conservative. Second, that Christians needed to unite around a Christian political movement or political party. 

The latter view is hopefully being rebutted by these posts on the Politics Network which show that you can authentically be a Christian in all the mainstream political parties. Further, in our pluralistic society with sufficient freedom to manifest our faith, there is no biblical mandate to form a Christian political party but rather there is a mandate to be involved and be an active witness of Christ’s grace in the world of party politics. I can understand that party political activism is not for all Christians but Christians don’t have a choice about the need to be involved in politics. Government is the least supported of the three God ordained institutions; if only we prayed, preached and involved ourselves in government as much as we do for church and family.

Conservatism is often misunderstood or misrepresented or both. It may well be because making the case for Conservatism is different from the case for conservatism. The former (big C) involves a judgement on the Conservative Party’s policies since its formation in the 1830s, whilst the latter (small c) leans on a more historical and philosophical approach to politics and life in general. It is even possible to support conservatism but not necessarily the latest incarnation of Conservatism. I will for the sake of this blog merge the two seeking to make the case for the principles of conservatism as generally applied by the Conservative Party.

The very nature of Conservatism is hard to defend because it is not by essence prescriptively ideological but rather driven by pragmatism and process - ‘conserving the best of the past’. Conservatives cannot point to a revolutionary day, or founding statement. They shy away from the imposition of an ideal society, either by culture or state, and recognise the imperfection of this world. That is not to say that Conservatism is devoid of values and ideals, not least because much of the best of the past has been influenced by a Christian worldview. Nevertheless, an understandable challenge in a pluralistic society is that there is no guarantee that the historic Christian influence on Conservatism will continue in the face of significant secular thinking. So I welcome this opportunity to communicate with the next generation of political influencers and representatives, and seek to make the Christian case for Conservatism for the good of society.

Conservatism leans on the fundamental biblical understanding of a fallen humanity (Gen 3), which extends beyond our souls to our physical selves, our hearts and minds. Edmund Burke picked up on the sceptic’s view of an understanding of human perfection not being achievable this side of eternity. Conservatives do not use a blank canvass to paint a plan to fit in with the needs of a modern age. Rather, Conservatism is the idea that we can lean on the past, that we can develop learning, support social organisations such as marriage and the family and ways of doing things that mean we do not have to reinvent the wheel. For Conservatives these inherited values from previous generations may take a different form for a modern age but are respected and passed on. In an age of identity politics, Conservatives are more at home in the culture and history of our nation whilst striving for improvement.

Conservatism has an inherent respect for institutions; a biblically infused respect for authorities (Rom 13:1-5) and historically for the monarchy. As Burke said, “We fear God, we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates.” Conservatives should be big on the value of trust. As we know from the very beginning, we are designed and called to be good stewards (Gen 1:26-31), holding all creation in trust from God under ordained authorities. Indeed marriage and the family (Gen 2:24, Heb 13:4, Eph 5:25) is the key institution at the heart of Conservatism, supporting values of trust, sacrifice and service within and between generations. 

Conservatism is woven with a positive view of the individual. As a student through to being an MP, the main attack lines were of Conservatives being selfish, materialistic and individualistic. The defence is fundamental because Conservatism recognises and fulfils the Christian principle of human dignity created by our loving God (Gen 1:26-31). He wants us to be free – most importantly from the consequences of sin but also free and accountable to respect the rule of law and human rights. Crucially for Conservatism, it leads to a positive view of enterprise and wealth creation based upon the freedom to decide how God wants us to use our talents and our wealth from the work we do. With individual freedom comes responsibility, not least to the poor and needy (Deut 15:11, Prov 29:7). Conservatism though recognises that individuals not governments generate wealth and are more comfortable with the redistributive example of the early church freely giving out of love (2 Cor 8:7) than any state compulsion. Conservatives though should defend the individual, not necessarily individualism. Conservatism values the freedom of individuals to flourish and follow in the footsteps of Adam Smith supporting free trade. However, Conservatism is a restraint on unbridled capitalism as much as corporatism through a moral foundation based on trust and  mediating structures like families, churches and other voluntary associations.

Conservatives should judge the compassion of society primarily not by the size of the state but by the strength of families and voluntary associations to care for others. (Deut 15:11, Matt 25:44-45). Conservatism respects and values the state to restrain evil and promote good (Rom 13:4-5). Conservatives will lean on the state to provide law and order and defend our realm. However, what distinguishes Conservatism is support for Burke’s beloved “little platoons”, of organic, often small local groups who make up society and are the true bulwark against tyranny and defender of our freedoms. It is not surprising that Conservative associations have members who are often more committed to local charity groups and causes. David Cameron called it the “Big Society”, Christians would know it simply as being good neighbours (Matt 19:19). Conservative Christians stand on the shoulders of Christian politicians like the Earl of Shaftesbury, who led factory reform for children and women, and of course William Wilberforce. He demonstrated a deep commitment to human dignity and concern for the vulnerable as he led the Parliamentary abolition of the slave trade and support for charity as he pioneered the RSPCA, RNLI and mission organisations.

“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed” Psalm 82:3

May I finish with a few warnings:

First do not fall into the trap laid by a Daily Telegraph journalist for the late Brian Mawhinney when , as Conservative Party Chairman, he was asked whether God was a Conservative. He answered faithfully “No”, which led to a front page headline of “Government Cabinet Minister says God is not a Conservative!” Brian went on to say “God is not a Socialist and not a Liberal”, but by then the journalist had got his headline. God and belonging to Christ are much bigger and more important than political creeds. 

Second, don’t just vote. There has been a tendency for Christians to think that voting is the extent of engagement in politics. Of course it is important but (not least because you already have a deeper interest in politics than most by reading this far!) Christians are obliged to follow Christ into the world He loved so much and the messy social shaping of politics, being at the forefront of loving our neighbour and supporting the common good. It may well take us to a protest rally or into a party political meeting, but sitting on the sidelines is not enough.

Third, don’t just settle for single issue politics. There are many important  single issues which Christians rightly campaign on - abortion, family, religious liberty, poverty, debt, refugees etc. However, Christians are needed to be “salt and light” in party politics where numbers really count, whether voting to select a leader or candidate, or as a local Councillor or MP. A crunch question for me was, unless I am here who is taking my place?

Finally, being in politics is tough and messy in our fallen world and can weigh us down. Be like angels, who as GK Chesterton said “can fly because they can take themselves lightly”. Be like Jesus Christ, our ultimate example. He came to serve rather than be served, upheld truth over lies, showed compassion rather than indifference, and suffered for all those times that we get that wrong. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). It is Christ who has faithfully modelled the way to be Christians in politics.

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