What Conservatism Teaches About Theological Anthropology

People commonly associate conservatism with politics. It indeed has implications for politics. More fundamentally, though, conservatism is a theological and philosophical disposition of the heart, including one’s beliefs about the nature of man and his place in society. Who is man? Where does he come from? What is he like? What is he for? This presentation will seek to answer such questions by (a) analyzing the subject of theological anthropology in representative literature of conservatism and (b) arguing that conservative sensibilities about anthropology should characterize the Christian’s personal, social, and political ethic.

The presentation will accomplish this goal, first, by defining conservatism, liberalism, and progressivism, each of which boast a different anthropology. The presentation will then examine the reflections of an important twentieth-century leader of conservatism, Russell Kirk (1918–1994), who, through his career, articulated various conservative canons, including canons relating to anthropology, in books like The Conservative Mind (1953), The Portable Conservative Reader (1983) and The Politics of Prudence (1993).

For example, Kirk promoted “belief in the principle of variety,” which describes his belief that God has made all people differently. He affirmed that people are innately distinct and resisted the “levelling” efforts of governing authorities that would treat everyone as (e.g., socioeconomically) equal without sufficient reference to their natural differences and individual choices. Additionally, Kirk held to the “principle of imperfectability”; people are not perfectible—at least in this life. Christian theology has articulated this sentiment in terms of original sin and total depravity. Because people are imperfect, liable to tyranny and corruption, no one person or group should hold too much power. Therefore, conservatism cuts against big institutions—Big Business, Big Government, Big Tech—because they have greater potential for harm than for good.

These two examples demonstrate the logical connection between one’s anthropology and public theology. The anthropology of conservatism finds greater consistency with God’s revealed Word than the anthropological visions of either liberalism or progressivism, which affirms man’s basic goodness, promote nationalism or globalism over localism, and/or seek to impose a socioeconomic equality on the members of a given society.

Finally, this presentation will analyze contemporary expressions of conservatism and examine how they have developed these motifs. Representative publications include Roger Scruton’s Conservatism (2017), George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility (2019), Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism (2022), and Andrew Walker’s (editor) Conservatism for the Social Good (2023). Each of these authors engage—some directly, some indirectly—the topic of anthropology from a conservative perspective, but, significantly, do not always agree with one another. Whereas Scruton promotes an anthropology informed by theistic belief, Will promotes one that is based on atheism, leading to a different anthropology than that of Scruton. (This presentation will support the former vision over the latter one.)

Having introduced competing visions, having established the Kirkean base, and having analyzed contemporary expressions of conservatism, the presentation will conclude by observing that Christian orthodoxy finds more commonality with the anthropology of conservatism than that of either liberalism or progressivism.

5 thoughts on “What Conservatism Teaches About Theological Anthropology”

  1. Very solid, but necessarily original.
    This may deserve five stars. My only qualm is that some of this is not particularly new material for those who are familiar with conservative political philosophies.

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  2. Strong submission
    What it lacks in originality, the content is excellent and, likely, new material for many who might attend such a session. At the very least it could be instructive for attendees to hear that conservatism is more of a disposition than politic from an academic presentation.

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  3. Ambitious
    My concern would be that the argument that orthodoxy finds more commonality with conservatism won’t receive the development that it might merit, given that it comes at the very end.

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  4. Overly ambitious
    This proposal seeks to do too much, I fear. The title is a bit misleading; the point is to unpack how conservatism is grounded in theological anthropology or how a proper theological anthropology informs and produces conservatism. Still, it could be a very strong presentation. It should seriously be considered for the program, if it is not in the Christian Ethics open session.

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