What Does It Mean To Be Conservative?
Amid the third federal Conservative leadership race in five years, you’d think that we would have clarified what small-c conservatism actually is and what the big-C Conservative party stands for. Yet, despite three leadership races and twenty-three leadership candidates between them, it seems that the overarching definition of conservatism is still up in the air.
Each of the six 2022 Conservative leadership candidates champion different takes on what it means to be conservative. Which of these brands represents conservatism and which brand should the Conservative party adopt?
The best answer is somewhere between none of them and all of the above.
Historical Conservatism (and Liberalism)
Part of the problem in defining conservatism (as well as liberalism) is that we often tie the philosophies to the federal party bearing the same label. Yet, as we have seen in criticism of the Conservative Party in recent years, there is no guarantee that the name of a political party will match the name of a particular philosophy. A large-C Conservative might not be all that small-c conservative. At best, these names are approximations.
The first step in defining conservatism involves looking to the past. If nothing else, conservatism seeks to “conserve” something, and so it would be unconservative to ignore the past and to try to redefine what it means to be a conservative based on what only people today think.
Conservatism, and its largest competitor liberalism, mean very different things today than they have in the past, at least in North America. This reality is recognized by many political philosophers and political theologians. For example, David VanDrunen, a professor at Westminster Seminary (California), identifies what he sees as the “big ideas” behind both conservatism and liberalism. Conservatism’s big ideas are that “first, conservatives ordinarily believe in an objective moral order that underlies human justice. Second, they tend to think of human beings as flawed creatures whose experience in this world is complicated… this core of the conservative mind explains man of its other characteristic features, including its love for continuity, the small, and the local.”
This objective moral order historically loved by conservatives has generally meant that conservatives have been supporters of the institutional church and the monarchy, as both institutions promoted moral order. This objective moral order was often explicitly grounded in Scripture, and conservatives historically have had few qualms about using coercive state power to create a good, moral, virtuous society. On the other hand, conservatives opposed the French Revolution and progressivism in general as a source of immoral disorder.
Conversely, the big idea behind small-l liberalism, according to VanDrunen, “is maintaining a social order marked by pluralism and tolerance.” John Locke is the primary father of liberalism in the political sphere, advocating for explicit rights and freedoms. Adam Smith is the primary father of economic liberalism, in the form of free markets. Historical liberalism sought to remove, or at least limit, institutions that interfered with individual freedom and choice. For example, classical liberals championed constitutions and bills of rights that limited governments in Britain and the United States.
Let’s think about this historical conservatism and liberalism in the Canadian context. Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister who ran under the Conservative banner, vigorously defended Canada’s place in the British empire under the monarchy, raised high tariffs on imports to try to protect developing businesses, and extensively used the levers of government to construct the Canadian National Railway. It was the Liberal party that entrenched the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the constitution and advocated for free trade throughout most of Canada’s history.
Looking backwards through the topsy-turvy lens of hindsight, it seems odd to us today that conservatism has historically been fond of strong institutions and that liberalism has been the ideological vehicle of individual rights and freedoms. Today, the opposite seems true.
Although there is no definitive time when these ideologies and their name-sake political parties changed, we do see change through the mid to late 1900s. During that time period, a historical liberal consensus emerged. For example, although Conservative governments created big government institutions like Ontario Hydro, Canadian National Railway, the Bank of Canada, and the CBC early in Canada’s history, by the post-WWII era, it was the Liberal party creating the big government welfare state. Although historical conservatives weren’t champions of individual rights and freedoms, Conservative Prime Minister Diefenbaker introduced Canada’s first Bill of Rights, which was later constitutionally cemented by Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The free-market Liberals were more amenable to free trade throughout Canada’s history than the interventionist Conservatives until finally Mulroney’s Conservative government inked Canada’s first comprehensive free trade agreement in 1987.
By the dawn of the twenty-first century, many politicians and academics had remarked something to the effect that “we are all liberals now.” This doesn’t mean that all Canadians are progressive or leftists, though some will argue that’s true as well. It means more that individualism, pluralism, and tolerance have become so ingrained in the Canadian psyche that no major movement opposes this state of affairs. It also means that modern Canadian politics, particularly the dominant federal Conservatives and Liberals, occupy a relatively similar spot on the political spectrum.
This explains, for example, why it is hard to convince the Canadian public to be against abortion or euthanasia or gender transitions. The god of liberalism is choice, and all three procedures are defended largely on that basis. This also explains why it is often hard to argue from an explicitly Christian perspective. Historical liberalism rules out absolute truths and consciously embraces a diversity of religions. Even here at ARPA Canada, we often argue from a liberal perspective: we argue that we should have educational diversity, choice in child care, choice in elder care, the freedom of the pre-born to live, or freedom from vaccine coercion. Liberalism – choice, freedom, and pluralism – is the dominant language of our day.
That doesn’t mean that liberalism is absolute. If you accept VanDrunen’s (perhaps simplistic) tenet that the heart of historical liberalism is freedom and the heart of conservatism is the pursuit of objective moral good, you could argue liberalism took a hit and conservatism regained some strength through COVID. Enacting wide-ranging restrictions in the pursuit of the objective moral good of protecting life and health could be better characterized as the more conservative response to a pandemic, while respecting the rights and freedoms of individuals would be the more liberal response. Of course, our modern understanding of conservatism and liberalism is so different today that to describe lockdowns as conservative policy is on the verge of blasphemous to many. But that just goes to show how differently people throughout the generations understand “liberalism” and “conservatism.”
But enough about abstractions and political history. How does this apply to Canada today? How is conservatism as a philosophy and Conservatives as a party relevant when “we are all liberals now?”
Different people answer this question differently, but many Christians follow the same general thrust. VanDrunen advocates for what he calls “conservative liberalism,” a combination of the two dominant ideologies – both of which in Western culture are already historically based in Christianity. This tries to extract the best of both ideologies. For example, society must be grounded in objective truth, conserving the truth accumulated throughout history while not hesitating to discard what is false. This conservative liberalism would favour free institutions such as the market, the university, and the church, but yet always be ready to limit governments, businesses, and even the church when they grow too powerful and unaccountable. Conservative liberalism would realize that each level of civil government – local, provincial, national, and even international – as well as other core institutions in civil society have a constructive and irreplaceable role to play in society. Rights and freedoms are important, but they are not ultimate.
David Koyzis, in his book Political Visions & Illusions, goes further by rejecting the labels and ideologies of conservatism and liberalism (as well as nationalism, democracy, and socialism). All of these philosophies have facets of the truth, he argues, yet focus on one facet so much that these movements become ideologies and thus idolatry. In other words, Christians are not fundamentally conservatives or liberals even if they primarily operate within right-leaning parties. That fundamental identity and allegiance lie with Christ and His Church.
Rather than looking for the most conservative candidate, Christians should support candidates that best support biblical policies and exemplify virtuous character regardless of where others might classify them on the political spectrum. Looking to the federal CPC 2022 leadership race, each of the current candidates have something to offer here as well as something that detracts from their appeal.
Pierre Poilievre and Roman Baber are carrying the liberal freedom torch high after it was hidden under a basket for most of COVID, yet they are over-committed to freedom so that they lose touch with what is objectively morally good: both are in favour (at least to some extent) of abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc.
Leslyn Lewis strikes a much better balance between promoting what is biblically good and safeguarding rights and freedoms, although she, like Poilievre, has started to strongly criticize financial institutions, media institutions, government institutions, and international institutions that each have a legitimate role to play in our society.
Patrick Brown seems most committed to a form of pluralism and diversity through his outreach to different ethnic and religious groups. For instance, he has been a long-time critic of Quebec’s restrictions on wearing religious garb or religious symbols. But does he appreciate and respect institutional pluralism and does he know the limits to diversity, or is his pluralism lead him to moral relativism?
Jean Charest, the candidate with the most political experience, arguably best wears the mantle of law, order, and good government brand. Scott Aitchison emphasizes the need for conservatives to be civil citizens in a peaceable society. Yet when it comes to policy, neither seem to offer much in the way of policy that respects God’s standard of good and evil. Christians should look for more than experience and style, as important as those are, in their leaders.
Hopefully, each of these candidates will not just argue about who is more conservative to win the votes of the Conservative membership but also consider what type of leader Scripture calls them to be.
Every citizen can push leadership candidates and ultimately entire political parties in this direction. We encourage you to question leadership candidates on key issues being debated today, issues such as euthanasia, free speech, and conversion therapy. That’s something that any citizen can do, regardless of their party affiliation. Read this article for more on that.
But the greatest impact that you can have in leadership races is to become a member of a political party and vote for the best leader. For this particular Conservative leadership race, you have to be a member by Friday, June 3. If this is a party that you, your family, or your friends wish to influence, then time’s ticking!
 David VanDrunen. (2020). Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World. Zondervan; Grand Rapids, MI. Page 369.
 David VanDrunen. (2020). Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World. Zondervan; Grand Rapids, MI. Page 365.