It means coming to realize that both wings of the movement stand on one ancient principle
The most irksome problem facing the conservative movement in both United States and Canada is the conflict between what are often referred to as the “Fiscal Conservatives” and the “Social Conservatives.” It is at present particularly acute in my own province of Alberta where the controversy has split the political Right severely enough to break it in two, resulting in the unthinkable phenomenon of a socialist government in a terrain renowned for its conservative traditions.
Since then the split has been at least superficially healed with the creation of what is calling itself the “United Conservative Party.” The man who united it and became its first leader is an individual with a distinguished record as a senior cabinet minister in the federal government. He is Jason Kenney, a Catholic, well known as an unremitting Social Conservative.1
The leftist New Democratic Party [NDP] government, which he must now oust from office, is given in the early polls very little likelihood of surviving. But it has one chance. If it can somehow paint Kenney as a dangerous religious bigot, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-everything, and secretly intent on making Alberta into a sort of theocracy, then it just might narrowly win. But this is not easily accomplished. Kenney has held political office for more than 20 years and has never lost an election. Moreover, the NDP stalwart designated to bring him down is the education minister David Eggen. His clumsy efforts to bait Kenney by ever more preposterous pronouncements against Catholics, parents, chastity and all forms of sexual propriety are far more likely to bring down his own government instead.
Kenney’s strategy so far has been to let the province’s four super-active and skilfully led parents’ organizations answer for him. Meanwhile, he speaks boldly on behalf of parental rights and depicts the NDP as running the first government in history to actually oppose parenthood. Which, of course, is unfair. The government is wholly prepared to tolerate parents, provided they do not interfere with the state’s responsibility to raise and indoctrinate their children.
However, the Fiscal vs. Social is far from settled and simmers on within the “united” party. If you examine the issue carefully it seems to come down to a conflict over the meaning of a single word. That word is “morality.” It has a dictionary meaning and a popular meaning. The Fiscals tend to give it the popular meaning, the Socials the other one.
To the Fiscals, what matters in a government is its fulfilling obligations to govern within the funds available, without going into debt to meet current expenses. If the funds are not there, you cut back on the expenses. This is simple prudence. If you borrow to meet current expenses, you are in fact using the money of future generations to pay for your expenses. This is an injustice, akin to theft. Moral issues, like the sexual proclivities of the citizenry, should be none of the government’s business, say the Fiscals.
Morality, in other words, has to do with sex and nothing else in the eyes of the Fiscals. That is certainly the popular meaning of the word. I’ve heard this parodied: “It’s true that Smith tells lies. And yes, he cheats, and fails to keep promises. He’s admittedly arrogant at times, and has very little respect for anyone else. But he’s always been sexually faithful to his wife, I’m told. So you could hardly call him immoral.” Similarly, the Christian apologist Dorothy L. Sayers titled one of her essays: “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” She felt no need to discuss “Lust.” It was being discussed everywhere. So she’d deal with Gluttony, Wrath, Greed, Envy, Sloth and Pride.
But the Fiscals go farther than this. Their opposition to the Socials usually arises over movements to fundamentally change the ancient laws against what are now delicately called “sexual minorities” and used to be called “sexual perversions.” Times are changing, they say. So why lose votes by defending principles that don’t apply any more. In other words, human beings make up the rules. The religious have always held that they came about as we and the rest of nature came about. They are known, therefore, to philosophy as “natural law,” and we cannot amend it. The Fiscals disagree on that.
Or do they? If you examine the Fiscal case carefully, you’ll notice that it too is founded on natural law. Prudence is one of the Seven Virtues. Stealing violates one of the Ten Commandments and injustice violates one of the Seven Virtues. Paying debts, spending frugally, keeping promises – all these fall under natural law. One might also notice that the Fiscals themselves are appalled at the ease with which current societies allow themselves to plunge unheeding into deeper and debt. They are just as chagrined to see this, as the Socials are to see those same societies plunging into acceptance of deeper and deeper depravity.
There is, in short, a fundamental commonality between the two positions. Both are taking their stand on natural law, and one thing both are beginning to realize is that if we break that law in any regard, it will soon break us. The Fiscals look on with horror as a heedless society votes into office governments that will assuredly lead us into fiscal ruin, while the Socials shudder as governments wildly pass laws that will just as assuredly lead us into social disintegration.
If conservative movements are in fact conservative, what they are supposed to be conserving is respect for natural law, be it fiscal or social. And that should be the declared basis of their unity.
* Canadians of my generation knew his grandfather far better than they know Jason Kenney. “Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen” were Canada’s foremost dance band throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Mart died in 2006, a month short of his 96th birthday.
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.