Acton Institute Powerblog

How Community Can Save Conservatism

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

The right’s rhetoric is all about individual liberty, says Michael R. Strain, but love of fellow humans is essential to a functioning society — or policy.

Many on the right correctly emphasize individual liberty, but they do not emphasize what conservatism knows to be true: It is in community that people learn how to be free.

Ryan argued that “the federal government has a role to play” with respect to community, but that “it’s a supporting role, not the leading one.” This is generally true. Government should distance itself enough from the individual that civil society — which exists in the space between government and citizen — can flourish. Speaking generally, government should help support these institutions, but it should not do their work for them.

But this is not to say that a communitarian ethic should be absent from politics and public policy — quite the opposite. Proceeding with a spirit of community would help conservatives formulate and support better policies. Let’s discuss a few.

Read more . . .

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Curt Day

    Why does conservatism need to be saved? There are certain aspects of it that are helpful for sure. But conservatism has become a cult and as such it does not help us think and find the solution to today’s problems. Rather, it invites more and more people to engage in tribalism and that breeds conflict.

    • Marc Vander Maas

      Generally, Curt, if you’re going to make sweeping assertions, it’s helpful for you to explain your thinking.

      • Curt Day

        Think of the conservative label itself. There is a difference between theological conservatism and political conservatism, but from many of the fellow Christians, they see an attack on political conservatism as an attack on their faith. Likewise, they are just as defensive when there is an attack on political conservatives.

        I wouldn’t blame all conservatives for this confusion because I know some who can make the distinction between political and theological conservatism. But to many people, their loyalty to the label makes conservatism a cult to be followed.

        Hope that helps

        • Marc Vander Maas

          No, it’s not really all that helpful. Of course there are some conservatives who inappropriately conflate their theological and political beliefs and associate their Christianity too closely with the Republican party or whatever. Yes, that happens. But it’s not exclusive to the right, and I think if you’re honest you might admit that there are those on the left end of the spectrum who are committed enough to their particular liberal causes that they’re willing to bend their theological principles to fit with their political positions. That’s a danger that everyone needs to be aware of.

          But that’s not a reason to abandon conservatism in general, either theologically or politically.

          Perhaps it would be helpful if you would define what you mean by “cult.” That’s a word that often comes with negative connotations.

          Additionally, I wonder what you mean when you claim that conservatism encourages people to engage in “tribalism.” It would seem to me that a more modern political expression of tribalism would be the practice of identity politics, in which leaders identify various groups within a society and try to placate their various needs in order to gain votes. Again, this is not a phenomenon unique to the one side or the other in the world of politics, but it seems to me that this practice is much more at home on the left side of the spectrum than the right.

          • Curt Day

            It might very well be true for the left but it is not my experience to say that it is there let alone as prevalent among the left. There is a mild bias against conservative theology but people on the left are happy when they see me protesting with them.

            I agree that it is not a reason to abandon conservatism amongst individual spheres but each sphere must be taken on a case by case basis.

            With conservatism comes a stronger senses of patriotism and nationalism–that cuts across national boundaries from what I have studied. Patriotism itself is a form of tribalism because it puts a higher priority on partisanship and association than on principle and universality.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            In the interests of precision and keeping this conversation on track, I have to say I’m not sure exactly what you’re responding to in your first paragraph. I want to make sure I understand you before responding, because I want to be fair to you.

            When you say “it might very well be true for the left but it is not my experience to say that it is there…,” what exactly is the “it”? Tribalism, or a conflation of religious belief and political ideology?

            As regards your contention that the left has a “mild” bias against conservative theology, I’d simply counter by noting that even within my own protestant denomination, we’re rapidly approaching a point where conservative theology is pretty much openly considered bigotry. If you’re out protesting with leftists who have a “mild” bias against conservative theology, you’ve either found some pretty tolerant leftists or your idea of “conservative theology” differs quite a bit from mine.

            I’d also note that neither patriotism or nationalism are necessarily bad things. And I certainly don’t think that your mention of them provides any serious support for the idea that conservatism isn’t worth saving. And don’t forget to define what you mean by “cult.” I think that will help to move the discussion forward.

  • Marc Vander Maas

    I just spent a good chunk of my evening writing out a rather lengthy, three-part response to you here, Curt. But as I think about it, I worry that this whole discussion might end up off in the weeds and the original point will be lost. I saved what I wrote, just in case it becomes worthwhile to broaden things out later, but I want to focus on something that concerned me originally about your initial response, which is your characterization of conservatism as a “cult” that encourages “tribalism.” I remain curious as to what you mean when you use the term “cult.” As I said before, it’s generally used as a pejorative. Can you expand on that a little bit?

    • Curt Day

      For you 3 part response, why not leave it on my blog ( Since the comments are moderated, the response won’t show unless I publish it and so I can read your response and no one else has to.

      By cult I mean a mindless following of orders. People hear or read a conservative authority figure and the believe everything they hear without question simply because the speaker or writer bears the conservative label. You may not see it but being in a conservative church, I see it.

      • Marc Vander Maas

        The same could be said about many on the left, Curt. I realize that, being from the left yourself, you will tend to want to give more credit to your side and minimize its faults. But the argument that the left is some sort of deep well of pure intellect while conservatives are all drones who follow orders just won’t fly.

        • Curt Day

          I know you want to assume that I make minimizations of what the left does, but that is an assumption. What I see on the left is a greater diversification with regard to religion. The fact that religious conservative avoid the left like a plague also adds to that.

          It is not that there are no sins on the left, far be it. We are no longer the students of Martin Luther King that we use to be. In addition, some political leftist leaders and heros are flocking to Russia simply because it is somewhat of an antagonist to the American empire. Both are grave errors.

          There is no purity on either side and the fatal flaw of any movement is to pray the prayer of the pharisee from Jesus’s parable of the two men praying. It is, however, my experience that the conservative church has indoctrinated many of its members to associate conservative Christianity with American political conservatism.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Hm. That’s not my experience, at least not in the church I grew up in or the church I attend now. You’re entitled to speak from your experience, but I think that the idea that the conservative church has deliberated indoctrinated its flock is a wildly simplistic way of understanding the phenomenon of the interaction between the religious and political right in America.

            Regardless, still not a reason to abandon conservatism.

          • Curt Day

            I am speaking not just from a few conservative churches, but from friends and from attending ORU, a conservative Christian University. I am also speaking from my reading of the internet and here I am referring to the writings of professors and not just local ministers.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Great. That’s fine. We’ll differ on this. And still, not a reason to abandon conservatism.

          • Curt Day

            I like what Chris Rock said about this. He said that anybody who is conservative about everything or liberal about everything adheres to a gang. I have some conservative views such as pro-life and for the death penalty though I also don’t think that the latter is necessary. But I no longer have the authoritarian bend that conservatives do. As a socialist, I believe in extended democracy and the international because I find the latter to be more Biblical while the former disperses power.

          • And the Russian Gulag, at one time Europe’s largest employer, was built by … authoritarian conservatives?

            A partial list of non-authoritarian, freedom-loving socialist/communist leaders of 20th Century: Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-II, Ho Chi Minh, Erich Honecker, Nikita Khruschev, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, Nicolae Ceausescu, Wojciech Jaruzelski, etc.

            According to the Black Book of Communism, ” … Communist regimes … turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government.” Death toll: 94 million.

            The breakdown:

            65 million in the People’s Republic of China
            20 million in the Soviet Union
            2 million in Cambodia
            2 million in North Korea
            1.7 million in Africa
            1.5 million in Afghanistan
            1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe
            1 million in Vietnam
            150,000 in Latin America (mainly Cuba)
            10,000 deaths “resulting from actions of the international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power.”

            Black Book editor Stephane Courtois claims that Communist regimes are responsible for a greater number of deaths than any other political ideal or movement, including Nazism. The statistics of victims includes executions, famine, deaths resulting from deportations, physical confinement, or through forced labor.

            “War cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and Socialism is created.” — Lenin, Socialism and War (1915)

          • Marc Vander Maas

            What you’re forgetting, John, is that all of those guys weren’t socialists, and none of that bad stuff that happened could be attributed to socialism, because that’s all the result of a corrupted form of the socialist ideal where the elites dominated. If Curt has said that once, he’s said it a thousand times.

          • I forgot. Curt is back with his Non-Falsifiable Non-Monolithic Theory of Socialism. But socialism/communism did have concrete manifestations that can’t be dreamily wished away. Like the Berlin Wall, which fell. And when it fell, hordes of people fled West, leaving the catastrophe of socialism behind.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            “Here is a tasty paradox: The ferocity of the Marxist legions redoubled in the very same year when history had finally put paid to the object of their sacred cult. Marx’s disciples, betraying their master’s analysis, refused to bow down before the criterion of praxis, choosing instead to retreat into the impregnable fortress of the ideal. As long as they had been obliged to drag around the ball and chain of actually existing socialism, they could not avoid facing up to criticism. Their solution to the imperfections of socialism in practice had always been to tout the infinite perfectibility of the as yet unachieved revolution. But once the Soviet system had disappeared, the mirage of a reformable Communism vanished along with the object to be reformed, and so too did the painful servitude of having to argue the cause in terms of tangible successes and failures. Released from importune reality-which they would henceforth blithely dismiss as inconsequential-the faithful could return to the roots of their fanaticism. They felt free at last to restore socialism to its primordial state: Utopia.

            After all, socialism incarnate was always vulnerable to criticism. Utopia, on the other hand, lies by definition beyond criticism. Hence the rage of Utopia’s haughty champions could again become boundless, since there was no longer, anywhere, any embodiment of their vision.”

            -Jean-François Revel, Last Exit to Utopia