As I continue listening to the lecture series The Conservative Tradition1 by Professor Allitt, I’m struck by the varieties of political belief as history has unfolded, which he considers conservative. In the previous post, I mentioned Professor Allitt’s distinction of state’s rights conservatives, who believe in small, decentralized government, and stability, or security, or strong government conservatives, who believe that a strong government is necessary to preserve security. In subsequent lectures, he has mentioned the agrarian, virtue conservatives both in Britain and America who believe that life on the land enhances virtue. Thomas Jefferson is an example, who waxed rhapsodic on the virtues of the yeoman and the agrarian life. These conservatives resisted the commercialization of society that was coming with the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, Alexander Hamilton, promoting a strong government and support for commerce, is also a conservative; likewise Adam Smith. Professor Allitt describes the Civil War as being fought by two camps of conservatives, the Southerners who emphasized the land and virtue, specifically the importance of honor; and the Northerners, who emphasized preserving the union, because what could be more politically conservative than that. Abraham Lincoln is described as a conservative for his beliefs and efforts in preserving the nation. Further, through his speeches, Lincoln made belief in democracy a traditional, and thus a conservative value, whereas previously other conservatives, for example Edmund Burke, were distrustful of democracy and equality and held that a trained ruling class was needed for good governing.
As I was considering the varieties of conservatism, I came across and read with interest the article Are religious Americans always conservative?2The author, Dr. Ariel Malka, explores the connection between religiosity and political conservatism, and concludes that the connection between the two is not very strong. The interesting point he makes is that those who are religious and are politically-engaged tend to be politically conservative, but that those who are religious but not that interested in politics are no more likely to hold politically conservative views than the non-religious on many political issues. He lists gun control, racial policy, and the death penalty as examples. It has been noted that we choose our group, then adopt that group’s beliefs; Dr. Malka’s studies seem to reinforce that view. As he notes, “Exposure to messages that point to a bond between religiosity and conservatism seems to be necessary to translate one’s religiosity into conservative positions on most issues.”
There are several points of interest in Professor Allitt’s and Dr. Malka’s insights into the varieties of conservatism. Views on particular issues which might define conservative belief vary by time and place. Issues which might define conservatism in America don’t necessarily define it in Britain; issues which might have defined conservatism in the past don’t define it in the present. Beyond issues, even what passes for a conservative outlook varies; in some outlooks, conservatism is about preserving and instilling virtue, in others it is about individual rights, or economic freedom, and the two outlooks do not necessarily lead to a similar set of beliefs on political issues. Dr. Malka makes the point that, “Perhaps there is no enduring feature of human psychological makeup that favors a link between religiosity and political conservatism.” Extending this notion means that it may be difficult to find an enduring feature of human psychological makeup that favors conservative or liberal belief. Since the point of my investigations in The Political Mind is precisely to identify what makes an individual hold conservative or liberal beliefs, based on history, psychology, and anthropology, the investigation, it seems, just got harder.