“Edmund Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is—to use a large word he wouldn’t—metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.
What makes conservatives conservative are the implications they have drawn from Burke’s view of society. Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights. Conservatives have also been inclined to assume, along with Burke, that this inheritance is best passed on implicitly through slow changes in custom and tradition, not through explicit political action. Conservatives loyal to Burke are not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that do violence to preexisting opinions and institutions, and open the door to despotism. This was the deepest basis of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution; it was not simply a defense of privilege.
Though philosophical liberalism traces its roots back to the Wars of Religion, the term “liberal” was not used as a partisan label until the Spanish constitutionalists took it over in the early nineteenth century. And it was only later, in its confrontation with conservatism, that liberalism achieved ideological clarity. Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action. This assumption, more than any other, shapes the liberal temperament. It is what makes liberals suspicious of appeals to custom or tradition, given that they have so often been used to justify privilege and injustice. Liberals, like conservatives, recognize the need for constraints, but believe they must come from principles that transcend particular societies and customs. Principles are the only legitimate constraints on our freedom.
The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a quarrel over the nature of human beings and their relation to society.”
1.) Because of their belief in Covenant Theology Reformed people have always inclined towards being Conservative. Covenant theology teaches us that all of God’s people through time are one organic people. We see this in our Baptism services when the Generations assemble at the Baptismal font in order that a member of their family may be ratified in their place in the covenant of grace. This covenant into which they are being announced is a covenant in which their forebears were placed through the centuries and it is a place where Baptized’s generations to follow will also be announced. Also, the very nature of Federal Theology with its idea of Federal Headship pushes Reformed people in a conservative direction. The teaching of Scripture where we find man created as incomplete apart from woman suggests that the individual is not the primary building block of society but rather the community is apriori to the individual. Likewise the idea of the fifth commandment pushes Christians towards being conservative in their disposition. Family is to be honored. Even the very idea of the God as Triune having Eternal community pushes the Biblical Christian towards conservative commitments. The Reformed have always believed that change comes incrementally and organically as is seen by their watch words of doing things, “Decent and in order.”
It is not as if, however, there are not understandings of proper individualism in the Reformed mindset and ethos. The Reformed emphasis on personal and individual responsibility in sanctification bespeaks a proper individualism. The Reformed understanding of justification by faith alone puts the individual as individual before God alone.
However, the Reformed faith favors a conservative dynamic as the individual finds his identity in a community of communities which are prior to him and will long outlive him. Yes, it is true that there will come times when, for the good of the community, the individual flavor will have to exercise itself (as when a community is together going over a cliff) but on the whole the Reformed instinct is conservative because the Bible teaches us this conservative disposition.
2.) On the other hand it has always been variant flavors of Anabaptist “Christianity” which has given us the Liberal Christian. The Anabaptist, like the Liberal, sees the sovereign self abstracted from any context as being the central integer in all that God does. Even when Anabaptist communities arise they are communities that are created by a shared conviction of the priority of the individual over the community. When we look at the Anabaptist doctrine of Baptism which emphasizes the choice of the individual we see the Liberal spirit coming to the fore. When we we see the Anabaptist doctrine (implicit or explicit) of justification by works we see the individual cast upon himself.
Ironically, in contradiction to the quote above Liberals do appeal to a long standing custom and tradition and that is the the time honored custom and tradition that we ought to ignore custom and tradition. Whenever we find a person seeking to overthrow the past whole sale only on the whim that we are sovereign enough to do that we find the Liberal. We have seen massive doses of Liberalism since the Enlightenment. Everything from the breakdown of the community and family through the creation of government schools to separate children from their family, to the giving of women the vote, to the attack on the family with the advent of abortion. All of these changes have come to us from those who believe that society can be reorganized according to the sovereign individual self who is prior to community. Any place you see people working to instantaneously overthrow long set community patterns you find the liberal.
And of course, being a conservative, I would note that Satan was the Liberal par excellent. Satan himself arose to defy the Almighty. Satan, as the Liberal individualist tempted or first parents to seize the Liberal position of the sovereign self in order to overthrow the community order that God has established. Satan, in the temptation of Jesus tempted Jesus to become the Liberal individual by seizing for Himself self aggrandizement.