What does it mean to be a conservative? No one seems to be able to agree on what the term conservatism means anymore, which is why in modern America there are almost as many brands of conservatism as there are conservatives. There are neo-cons and paleo-cons, theo-cons and crunchy cons. There are social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, conservatives who aim for National Greatness and others who strive to be Compassionate. There are brands of conservatism that are oxymoronic (progressive conservatives) and some that are simply subversive (e.g., those who attempt to claim same-sex marriage is compatible with conservatism).

Unless you are already familiar with the political taxonomy, such labels aren’t particularly useful. To truly understand what a conservative believes, it is often more instructive to simply ask what it is they want to conserve.

My own answer to that question would be the one proffered by my intellectual hero, the late, great Russell Kirk: The institution most essential to conserve is the family.

I believe that while ultimate sovereignty belongs to God alone, he delegates authority throughout society to various institutional structures (churches, businesses, the state, etc.). Naturally, these institutions are not immune to the effects of sin or human depravity, but they still retain the legitimate authority given to them by our Creator. Although each of these institutions is important, the most essential and primary is the family.

My political philosophy could be called “family-first conservatism” for I believe in our current period within Western history, the institution of the family should be given pride of place in decisions about public policy and the creation of social norms.

While family-first conservatism is rather limited in scope—merely an emphasis within conservatism rather than a distinct branch—I believe it is robust enough to generate a core set of principles and policy prescriptions. In a future article I’ll outline what those policy prescriptions should entail. For now, here are the core principles, which I have gleaned from the writings of better thinkers than myself, and which I believe could serve as a tentative manifesto of family-first conservatism:

1. We believe the family is the basic unit of society. Defending the family from internal and external threats is therefore one of the crucial tasks of all other societal institutions.

2. We believe that from birth we are initiated into the community structure of the family. We are not thrust into a state of radical individualism but rather into the most basic form of community. We are created to be both individuated persons and members of a community; neither can be reduced into the other.

3. We believe the heart of the family is the pre-political institution of marriage, a “one-flesh union” of one male and one female, sexually complementary spouses who cleave to each other in permanent commitment, loyalty and fidelity. We believe this communion is naturally ordered to the good of spousal unity, to procreation, to the nurturing of children, and to the good of all society.

4. We believe that economic liberty has proven essential to the material enrichment needed for families to flourish. Economic policies should therefore encourage and create conditions—such as social mobility, respect for private property, family-friendly taxation, freer access to labor markets—that both encourage self-sufficiency and strengthen the natural bonds of the family.

5. We believe in protecting the intrinsic dignity of all members of the human family, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., and believe that they must be treated in a manner commensurate with this moral status.

6. We believe the interaction between people in community has led naturally to the formation of various, distinct institutions and social structures. Families interact with other families to create distinct communities such as the neighborhood, the city and the state, and that the various tasks and requirements for living has led to the formation of churches, schools, businesses, civic unions and other associations. We believe one of the key roles of each of these institutions is to support and serve families.

7. We believe religious liberty starts in the home and that the right of conscience and the right to practice faith according to personal beliefs are not merely sacred individual rights but inalienable rights of the family. While no right is absolute, we believe the right to religious freedom should not be infringed or denied unless it absolutely necessary for the protection of society.

8. We believe parents should have the primary authority and influence over their own children. We also believe parents bear responsibility for the upbringing of their children, and this role should not be usurped by other institutions unless necessary to prevent incontrovertible physical or emotional harm of the child.

9. We believe that while parental authority is primary, other institutions have an interest and a duty in protecting the welfare of children and should do what they can to create and preserve a moral ecology that is conducive to creating virtuous citizens, even when it requires limitations of some expressions of their own liberty.

10. We believe that while many other social structures are equal in dignity and value, the family should nevertheless be considered “first among equals” and given special consideration in making decisions about public policy.


Joe Carter
Joe Carter serves as a communication specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. You can follow him on Twitter at @joecarter.