Family-First Conservatism: A Tentative Manifesto

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.


About the Author

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


  1. John Lofton Reply

    FORGET, PLEASE, modern “conservatism.” It has been a failure because it has been, operationally, de facto, Godless. In the political/civil government realm it has ignored Christ and what Scripture says about the role and purpose of civil government. Thus, it failed. Such secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    ”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.


“American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    In any event, “politics,” for the most part today, is whoring after false gods. It will not save us. Our country is turning into Hell because the church in America has forgotten God (Psalm 9:17) and refuses to kiss His Son (Psalm 2.) See, please, 2 Chronicles 7:14ff for the way to get our land healed.

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Dir., The God And Government Project
    Active Facebook Wall

  2. Michael Bauman Reply

    Community is what needs to be preserved and encouraged. While the family is quite important it is not the community to which God calls us. The community of faith in Jesus Christ, His incarnational reality and the Holy Trinity is that to which we are called. This community has been under attack since it was formed and the various schisms from the 5th century on have weakened our witness and our ability to be strong and vibrant beyond the most local basis. The great Fathers of the Church in the 4th century refused to divide over one of the greatest heresies the Church has ever faced: Arianism. They didn’t run off and start up their own version of the Church for they knew the Church is one. Yet we divide over the slightest thing, or so it seems. May our Lord forgive us. We are all prodigals.

    It is within this community that real healing takes place and the foundation of the family rests not in any theory of political-economy. Placing the family at the center of things, especially the nuclear family is just one more way to follow the fracturing of the modern world, it is one more type of individualism.

  3. I’m glad in 3) you recognize that marriage is more than just about being male and female but also about them being a one flesh union that is sexually (and procreationally) complementary and procreates offspring together.

    You don’t address things like sperm donation which undermines family even when it is practiced by a married couple with an infertile husband. There is no right to do that, it is adultery, even though it is legal and lots of married couples are pushed to do it because everyone wants the couple to have children.

    Also there is the future possibility of sperm from women’s stem cells, and transgendered people with transplanted wombs and ovaries or whatever they might dream up. We should not allow children to be conceived except by a natural man and a natural woman joining their natural gametes. If we allow same-sex couples to produce genetic offspring together using stem cell derived gametes, two women would only be able to produce daughters, and two men would require a surrogate or artificial womb, and it would be expensive and dangerous, but it would also imply we should allow them to marry each other. We conservatives should get Congress to enact a Natural Marriage and Reproduction Act that would void all same-sex marriages in every state and preserve natural reproduction and the basis of equality and the family.

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