I’ve heard the word “conservative” for most of my professional career. It serves as a shorthand identifier for a set of views about our rights as citizens and the role of government. These days, the term seems to have lost the common meaning that made it useful.

Routinely used political words like “conservative” leave room for misleading mischief if we’re not on the same page. As the great Aaron Tippin sang, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.”

Conservatism originates from the idea that we have certain rights that don’t come from politics and power. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness aren’t government rewards. We don’t exercise those rights in a vacuum either.

Somewhere along the line, we morphed legitimate concerns about excessive government dependence into the idea that all government is evil. Doing so rendered protection of our rights into a brand of rugged individualism.

Not all conservatives romanticize the idea of living alone in a heavily armed cabin “off the grid.” In fact, some conservatives might find that terrifying. The rest of us call it deer season. Either way, it reflects personal choice. It’s in respecting the personal choices of individuals in our communities that our nation thrives.

The allure of government power is strong; that’s why it is so often abused. To whatever measure we’re willing to use government force against our fellow citizens, we create a weapon able to strike against us as well.

If we want to protect religious liberty, we shouldn’t ban or attack religious exercises of other faiths. If we want to protect our right to speak, we shouldn’t seek to restrict speech with which we disagree.

Conservatism requires tolerance because it holds liberty in such high esteem. Many claiming the conservative mantle have sold that birthright for a bowl of soup by valuing government-imposed conformity over liberty so long as their views win out.

To limit the abuse of government power, conservatives must demand that our political leaders provide a strong, constitutionally permissible, justification for laws and regulations. Consent of the governed is as critical today as it was when our nation was founded.

When it comes to government spending and programs, assuming an anti-government posture isn’t conservative either.

Conservatives wax poetic about their love of the Constitution while mainlining disdain for the government it created. Yes, the Constitution contemplated a more limited government than we have today, but we’ve added 37 states and around 320 million people since it was ratified.

Government spending will be significant even if we balance the federal budget. The problem isn’t government itself, it’s our unwillingness to pay for each program or eliminate those we don’t wish to fund.

Our political leaders–including many self-proclaimed conservatives–have simply refused to operate within available revenues. Even as Republicans push through a significant tax reduction, they’ll spend billions in excess of the tax dollars already coming through the door. Conservatives should be able to make tough fiscal choices based on limited taxpayer resources.

We must also uphold the rule of law and our political processes. Conservatives have criticized our liberal brethren for caring more about winning policy battles than adhering to the processes and constitutional parameters that safeguard our republic. Now, with political power on our side, many so-called conservatives have jettisoned those concerns because they aren’t politically expedient. If federal efficiency were our constitutional objective, we’d have a monarch. We don’t.

Finally, conservatives seek to carry successful traditions from the past into the future. Civility is one of them. We can disagree over politics, but we must be Americans first. We can’t expect for our nation to succeed if we’re willing to villainize half of the country. Refuse to engage in a reasonable discussion over ideas and policies, indicates we either don’t understand or value conservative principles in the first place.

Conservatism isn’t an empty label for me, but the value of maintaining the moniker isn’t worth doing violence to the underlying principles that give it meaning. My hope is that we’ll preserve a republic that holds life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as its highest virtues. Frankly, I don’t care what you call me as long as you’re willing to help move our nation in that direction.

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