Conserve: to conserve, restrain, hold back, maintain, preserve, hold fast to, etc.
Liberally: profusely; Liberate: to loosen, set free, relinquish control over, etc.
From what I remember, the Founders made a distinction between the concepts of "freedom" and "liberty." The short summary is this: total individual freedom, a 'state of nature,' is not true freedom at all because it's unstable. The strong eventually conquer the weak and impose their own rules. By contrast, liberty is freedom with some minimal, reasonable restrictions on the individual, that makes society safe for individuals to exercise their freedom, enabling them to be more free than they would be otherwise, without those restrictions.
Back on topic: Conservatives wish to conserve something, but Liberals wish to relax, or be free from those things. But what is that thing?
This is where I wish to make an important point. Conservatism and Liberalism mean different things in different countries, because their different histories by definition mean that that which would be conserved varies based on the established historical culture of those places.
That's why, in Iran, conservatism means Shia Islam. In Saudi Arabia, it's Wahhabi Islam. In Spain and Italy, it's Roman Catholicism. In the UK and US, it's Protestant Christianity. In Russia, it's Communism, and in China, it's a mixture of that and, religiously, ancestor-worship is the traditional spiritual belief. So on and so forth.
The US differs from the UK, however. While they have a similar theological history, their political culture is very distinct. The UK was a Constitutional Monarchy since the good old days when King John signed the Magna Carta. It still is, but the monarchy is much weakened in its power. The US, on the other hand, has never had a king. It has always been a mixture of a Republic (leaders decide the laws on behalf of the people) and a Democracy (the leaders are chosen by the people). The democratic aspect of this is deeply embedded in American society because of generations of asserting the ideal of individualism. In America, the political unit is the individual. This is in turn supported by the theological teachings of Christianity, which says that all people are made in God's image and are responsible for themselves.
American Conservatism, then, is extremely unique because no other country has over a hundred years of history at its foundation that supports the political position that says that every individual has the right and responsibility to make their own decisions, provided they are not immoral, without any other person interfering with their ability and prerogative to do so.
That's why Conservatism in the US can be boiled down to a single phrase, as far as it concerns the relationship between the individual and his government: personal responsibility.
To be more specific, however, American Conservatism, understood historically, means the maintaining of Biblical Christian principles in all areas of public and private life.
That's my working definition.
The liberal view would be, rather than maintaining those principles, loosening and/or abandoning those principles.
Now that we have a basic definition of conservatism as it regards America, I need to address the obvious fact that people are not either totally conservative, or totally opposed to conservatism. As a result, I set about determining what broad categories of policy exist under which a person can adopt either a conservative or a liberal view.
Here are the categories I've found that individuals' views differ under:
Foreign Policy Conservative
And consequently, this is why there's division inside the Republican Party base. Not everyone is conservative in the same way. Libertarians who are not Christians tend to be fiscally conservative, constitutionally conservative, governmentally and legally conservative. But their views diverge when it comes to social issues and military issues.
Note: conservatism is NOT to be understood as simply wanting a small government. The government has several important functions, defined in the Constitution, and these include, for example, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare. When libertarians argue for isolationism in our military and foreign policy and want to remove all social safety nets, bar-none, then they are not arguing for conservative principles, but more properly are arguing for reductionist principles--namely, they are trying to get there to be as little government as possible.
If there is one issue in the 12 that I highlighted above, that libertarians value the most, to the exclusion of the others, it would be governmental conservatism -- limiting the size of government. Contrary to conservatives, libertarians have no point at which they would stop, seeing fit to remove government completely if they could. And if there is one issue in the 12 above that conservatives emphasize the most it would be theological conservatism, because a proper Biblical understanding is what guides the individual's actions in all other areas and it is from that belief that all the other policy positions are derived.
I'll briefly define the different categories I brought up and I'll call that the end of this article. :)
Fiscal conservatism concerns itself with how the government spends money. When the government spends $385,000 to study variations in duck penis length, that is a fiscally liberal policy.
Economic conservatism concerns itself with how best to maintain a healthy economy and how the government should be involved in it. Conservatives would be mostly libertarian on this issue, wanting government to be as little involved in manipulating the economy as possible. The only valid reasons for government intervention are to ensure that everybody plays by the same rules. You know, no fake currency, no false advertising, no price gouging -- and this is one that needs to be tread carefully around, since determining what's too high is very subjective -- and a few other minimal involvements. Economic conservatives may or may not believe that a gold standard is best, for example. Seeing as that changed 150 years ago, an argument could be made for either position being conservative, under the definition I've supplied.
Military conservatism concerns itself with the size of our military and how it is used. Opposing women in active combat roles would be a conservative position. Being opposed to the president waging de facto war without consent of congress would be a conservative position -- that would also happen to overlap with constitutional conservatism.
Foreign policy conservatism isn't strictly to do with the military, but concerns itself with America's interaction with other countries. Wanting to support Israel would be a conservative position. Disagreeing with Obama's plan to send billions of dollars to the terrorist organization currently in charge of Egypt, which has called for Israel's destruction, would also be a conservative foreign policy position. An argument for limiting the number of bases we have around the world would fall either under military or foreign policy conservatism, and it could be argued either way. The only positions which are not conservative are extreme isolationism and having America play "world police." America has a stake in world affairs but it has no duty to micromanage other nations when it is having trouble at home. The question comes to where you draw the line on how much 'intervention' is too much.
Constitutional conservatism is simple: conserve the Constitution. And in terms of how to interpret the Constitution, the method of Textual Originalism is the way to go. The Constitution does not get reinterpreted or disregarded according to the changing times.
Social Conservatism is well known. It concerns the "hot-button" topics like abortion, gay 'marriage,' civil rights, affirmative action, entitlements, feminism, etc.
Cultural conservatism rarely affects national policy these days. I'm just including it to make a distinction between it and social conservatism. Social conservatism may have to do with whether you agree with the birth control mandate in the ACA, whereas Cultural conservatism may have to do with whether you buy your 12-year old daughter thongs and let your kids watch 8 hours of television every day. It's more of a personal application of your beliefs, and hence it doesn't really have much to do with national politics, because few if any people want to push their culturally conservative beliefs on others. One other way of seeing it is as if cultural conservatism is the graded area between theological and social conservatism.
Theological conservatism -- you believe the Bible is God's inerrant word, and you go from there. You naturally result in believing that salvation can't be earned by doing good works but is a free gift made possible by Jesus Christ taking your place and bearing the punishment you deserve for your wickedness. This is the essence of Christianity; you consequently view anything that denies this as unchristian, and rightly so. All of your beliefs are ultimately able to be supported by verses of Scripture.
Legal conservatism is slightly different from constitutional conservatism. While the latter has to do with honoring the Constitution, the former has to do with being very limited in the amount of laws passed, and ensuring that the laws that do get passed honor the Constitution and do not increase corruption or open the door for government tyranny.
Government conservatism has to do with the size of government. Should there be millions of people across the country holding administrative jobs that are paid for by tax dollars? Conservatives will always lean towards less government but unlike their radical libertarian counterparts, they do at least see a purpose for government, and want to strike a balance so that the government that does exist does its job and doesn't simply waste money and increase corruption.
The last two are somewhat unique because they play a big part in government but it isn't obvious that these would be inherent categories. As it turns out, they are.
Environmental conservatism differs from unrestricted capitalism in that it does believe man has a duty to responsibly maintain the environment, but it differs from radical environmentalism in that it does not see animals as equal to people, or as nature being something to worship. Instead, it sees man as a God-ordained steward of creation, with responsibility for the earth, but as having more value than the earth, and human lives as worth sacrificing a section of forest for. Sustainability is definitely conservative, but be careful what this means. Sometimes 'sustainability' is code for "zero sum game," and that's not a conservative position.
Educational conservatism is my grab-bag. It does have to do with how we see schools but even broader than that, it has to do with the question of developing people from a young age until they are mature, and even in educating older people. Primarily, the raising of children is the job of parents, uplifting the poor is the duty of the Church, and the government has no right nor responsibility to require people to submit to a legal training academy of any sort. The fact that such a state of affairs currently exists raises additional questions of how best to replace the obviously-flawed system with a better one without causing chaos in the interim.
Maybe you agree, maybe you disagree, with all the things I've said here. But maybe it makes sense. I hope so. The reason why there are intraparty debates and struggles over which direction to go is because the words 'conservative' and 'liberal' are too simplistic to describe the reality of the varying beliefs of the individuals that make up America. We are not a monolith. We have always been stronger when we recognized that we had differences, and were able to work together because of them. In contrast to denying that we have differences, and struggling to treat everyone exactly the same in spite of them.
For an interesting essay about the divide within the Republican Party, see here:
A Tale of Two Republican Parties
~ Rak Chazak