What does it mean to be a Conservative?

I find myself admiring Pope Francis more and more with each passing week. He is an exemplar of the kind of leader needed in our divisive times. He exhorts us all (whether Catholic, Christian or not) to focus our moral imaginations on the consequences of our actions.

American reactionaries hate him because he has shifted attention from culture war issues to economics. But, what does it mean to be a conservative, if you turn a blind eye to one of the most relentlessly destructive and disruptive forces in modern life: capitalism? Francis is not calling capitalism evil, I think he recognizes its necessity and creativity. He is simply calling us to be mindful of the consequences of unfettered capitalism trampling what is decent and yes, holy - the things that bind us together and provide the space for the liberation of our creativity and our spirits. Any true conservative would do the same.

Here is a thoughtful reflection on the topic from John Stoehr via The American Conservative.


Institutional Christianity has always been concerned about poverty and other faceless forces of dehumanization. In a sense, by making the distinction between Marxism and Catholic social doctrine, the pope is challenging American conservatives (as represented by Limbaugh & Co.) to expand their moral horizons. If they can’t, then their conservatism, however much it aims to provoke moral outrage, is exposed as being merely good for business.

Stressing the church’s social doctrine provides a vocabulary by which conservatives can talk about the socioeconomic causes of evil without slipping into secularism. Evil isn’t only a spiritual phenomenon, the pope writes. It begins as a social one. The solution is reform of the system. “The toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.” Moreover, “an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future.”

Limbaugh wasn’t entirely wrong: while there are hints of Marx in “The Joy of the Gospel” (the English translation of the title of Francis’s exhortation), it isn’t because Francis is a Marxist. It’s because Marx himself exhibited conservative proclivities, if by “conservative” we mean, as he and Friedrich Engels did in The Communist Manifesto, being aware of the inexorable erosion of communities, families, values, and traditions by economic forces beyond our control. To be a capitalist society is to be in a constant state of revolution, they wrote, leading to “everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” so that “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”