It should be noted at the outset that the terms "Conservative" and "Republican" are not synonymous. The Republican party tends to run right of center, but can at times be less-than-conservative in its politics. Within the Republican Party, you will find many conservatives, many centrists and more than a handful who are more aptly described as liberal.
An Overview of Conservatism
Conservatism is anything but a monolithic movement. Rather, the movement houses a rich diversity of opinion on many subjects. What binds conservatives together is an adherence to core principles and a conviction that history has proven time and again that government based on these principles create the greatest society. While we may dispute the finer points and how these principles should be implemented, conservatives embrace these principles as the best way to maximize freedom, opportunity, and happiness in American Society.
If conservatism were defined by hot button issues, the list of hot buttons might look like this:
Preservation of the Founding Documents and Principles
Defining Principles of Conservatism
In more academic terms, most conservatives believe in following principles in varying degrees.
Belief in natural law: Conservatives believe in a higher order. That higher power, not humans, defines morality. Likewise, rights are not conferred by governments, but by this higher power. Concepts such as good and evil, justice and injustice, rights and responsibilities are permanently established, not negotiable but discoverable. Conservatives believe that we are primarily subject to these laws before the law of the land. It may be said that virtue is the very foundation of conservatism.
Belief in established institutions: At the head of the list of these institutions sit religion (for the majority) and family. Also figuring prominently are the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, viewed as works of inspired genius which established the best government in history.
Preference for liberty over equality: Liberty and equality are on opposing sides of the political continuum. The more liberty a society enjoys, the less equality. The converse is also true. Given our differing skills, abilities, passions, and drives, the only way to achieve equality is to limit (deprive the freedom of) those who possess more of these qualities. Understanding this, conservatives lean toward liberty, even if this means that the noble desire for equality is not fully achieved.
Suspicion of power--and of human nature: Conservatives are, at a minimum, wary of big government and, more often, very opposed to it. Speaking to this point in his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?" Despite this, conservatives do make a limited concession for a strong government, understanding that without it the good are often at the mercy of the evil.
Belief in exceptionalism: Conservatives realize that some people inevitably have superior abilities, intelligence, and talents, and they believe that those people have a fundamental right to use and profit from their natural gifts. These exceptional people exist to lift us up, to improve our lives, and to give us hope. As such, John Stuart Mill insisted that "it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe in an atmosphere of freedom."
Belief in the individual: Barry Goldwater explains, "Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings."
The Flavors of Conservatism
While most conservatives adhere to these principles to one degree or another, variations do exist.
Social Conservatives are more heavily influenced by their religious beliefs and the founding documents. They tend to see that freedom necessarily includes the opportunity to make bad, even evil choices. Looking to limit the worst of these choices, social conservatives can be prone to impose some limits on freedom to maximize virtue in society.
Fiscal Conservatives (also called fiscally conservative and socially liberal) emphasize personal and economic freedom. They are particularly doubtful about attempts to "equalize", seeing such as weakening freedom, impeding progress, and actually harming the less fortunate.
The Libertarian-Conservatives have an especially strong antipathy for government, maintaining it is not the government's role to save people from themselves. Given this preference, a Libertarian-Conservative may find himself at odds with his conservative brothers on many social issues. For instance, he may find drug use very bad and destructive, but cannot support laws prohibiting its use.
Common Hallmarks of Conservatism
A strong national defense
The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, as long as such possession does not threaten national security
Generally opposed to the United Nations
Respect for our military, both past and present
Low taxes for all, including the wealthy
Less power for the federal government and more for local and state governments
Allowing prayer and other religious observances in school
Stronger law enforcement and anti-crime laws, including the death penalty
Parents, rather than school teachers, educating children about sex
Choice in education
Private medical care and retirement plans
Weakening or cancellation of failed social support programs
Prohibition of abortion
Opposition to same-sex marriage licenses and homosexuals
Support of laws against pornography
Support enforcement of current laws regarding immigration
Support tightening of border security
Opening foreign markets to U.S. products
Slowing changes to tradition