Social and political theory is widely and, quite often, grossly misunderstood. What we call conservatism today, at least in several very important ways, was once called federalism, or classical liberalism. A central idea of this federalism was that the state should be built from below, not from above. Numerous orthodox Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, have explained and defended classical liberalism over the course of the past two or three centuries. Acton Institute’s marvelous Web site regularly demonstrates this via its wonderful home page located at www.acton.org. (I borrow several of the quotes I use below from this source.)

It is in this sense that Pope Benedict XVI is also a classical liberal, as was the Dutch giant Abraham Kuyper, when it comes to the philosophy of the state (See also my March 31 blog on Deus Caritas Est).

One of the leading twentieth-century Protestant defenders of classical liberalism was Emil Brunner (1889–1966), the Swiss Reformed theologian. Drawn to religious socialism as a young man, Emil Brunner had a profound change of mind after seeing the damage of World War I. In his book Justice and the Social Order he argued that the modern state—with its totalitarian, atheistic and collectivist tendencies—should be opposed by a rigorous social ethic that grows out of Reformed, biblical and personalistic commitments. To hear Brunner’s arguments now makes him sound like an intellectual proponent of major portions of the modern conservative movement, at least on the academic side.

Brunner further argued that “the state [must be] built up from below." And since God has ordained certain “orders of creation” these orders are part of his preserving (common) grace for organizing human life. Acton’s site further notes that Brunner wrote: “[that] these orders include human communities in the ‘economic, technical, purely social, and intellectual spheres.’” Brunner further argued that community does not equal state, an argument routinely advanced today by modern liberal Democrats like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton. Brunner believed community existed apart from the state. As a noteworthy example, he argued that the family was the “primal community” whose “rights take absolute precedence” over every other institution. And between the family and the state, Brunner reasoned, there must be a number of “intermediate links” that God ordained for varying purposes. The state has two primary responsibilities to these “links.” First, it should never usurp them. Second, it should positively preserve and protect them. This approach severely limits the state’s legitimate authority. This, then, is why modern conservatives are actually closer to classical liberalism than are modern liberals, who promote the state as the primary means for solving social problems.

Next time you want to start after-dinner conversations about politics tell your guests that you have decided to become a “classical liberal.” Then watch what happens. Maybe everyone would learn something valuable if we actually considered the real meaning of some very old, and very noble, terms that we assume we understand.