6 Myths About Conservatism: Introduction
In his sequel to The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis tells the story of young Prince Caspian. By birth, he’s a Telmarine, a “new Narnian”. He’s part of a “modern” generation that denies the existence of old Narnians and fears the woods and the sea. But in his heart, he’s an “old Narnian”. He delights in the stories of centaurs, fauns, the Four Kings and Queens, Talking Beasts, and most of all, the great Lion Aslan. In the end, this new Narnian takes up his sword to restore Old Narnia.
More and more, I find myself in sympathy with Caspian. I am a Millennial, part of a postmodern generation with a worldview very particular to our time and space. We value innovation and crave that which is new (and therefore better, right?). My generation helped create a culture in the church that has catered to that worldview.
Yet, I find that I am lost in my own time. I cannot accept the presuppositions of this age and find myself instead delighting in doctrines and philosophies that seem as strange as centaurs and fauns to contemporary Christians.
This approach to Christianity can properly be called conservatism. As I’ve had the opportunity to discuss these matters with other Christians, I find that I am working against a set of assumptions about what conservative Christianity is and isn’t. In this series, I hope to shed light on some basic myths about conservatism in the church.
But before we can even get that far, we must first figure out what conservatism is.
What is conservatism?
Quite simply, a conservative is someone who is conserving something. My wife and I like to walk. In doing so, we often run into “conservation areas”. There’s a park near us that has a “wetland conservatory” on it. What this means is that there was once a wetland in that area but this wetland was either in danger of disappearance or has disappeared entirely. Now “wetland conservatives” are trying to reverse the damage and bring the wetland back.
Conservatives believe that there was once something good. Let’s call that good something Situation Α. A conservative is someone who defends Situation A when it comes under attack. If the conservatives lose (this tends to happen quite often) and Situation B becomes the new normal, then a conservative is someone who wants to drive back or completely replace Situation B with Situation A.
Before we can even begin to answer the question of whether conservatism is good or bad we must first ask what it is we’re conserving. In other words, is Situation A worth being conserved? There are many different kinds of conservatives all trying to conserve something different.
Political conservatives are trying to preserve a certain political system. At different times in Europe, a conservative was someone who defended the monarchy against “liberal” republican ideals. In the United States, a political conservative is someone who tries to conserve the principles of America’s founding.
A social conservative tries to conserve a particular social structure or culture. In America, that means supporting heterosexual monogamy, the sanctity of life, and Judaeo-Christian ethics. In Saudi Arabia, that means supporting polygamy, sharia law, and Muslim ethics.
I could go on, but my point is simply to illustrate that a conservative is only as good as the thing he’s conserving. Sometimes Situation A is wrong and needs to be replaced. Other times Situation A is correct and needs to be defended.
In this series, I will be advocating a very particular kind of conservatism – Christian conservatism. Even this can mean a variety of different things to different people. To some it means conserving a 16th Century liturgy, or Southern-style ministry emphasis, or denominational distinctives. Here’s what being a Christian conservative means for me:
- Conserving Christian doctrine. Conservative Christians believe that truth is a thing. Weird, right? More than that, we believe that there is objective, absolute, knowable truth. This truth has been revealed in the Scriptures. Conservatives want to defend and promote Christian doctrine against heresy and compromise.
- Conserving Christian practice. But this doctrine does not stay in our heads. It moves to our hands and feet. Conservatives believe that Christians are responsible to follow a certain biblical ethic that works its way into practical, everyday life.
- Conserving Christian worship. We exist to worship God. Historically, Christians have taken that very seriously. The two groups that arose out of the Reformation – Luther and the normative principle crowd and Zwingli and the regulative principle crowd – both took a conservative approach to worship. Though they disagreed on some application, they agreed that worship was nothing to mess with. The modern “effective principle of worship” has taken a pragmatic and progressive approach that tends to steer people away from reverent, sober worship.
- Conserving Christian affections. This might be the most important. Conservatives believe that we should love what God loves and hate what God hates. Ultimately, everything else is useless without true love for the Lord our God. Conservatives attempt to restore ordinate Christian affections through meditation on truth and the promotion of beauty.
Each of these bullet points deserve to have whole books written about them (pretty sure someone has done that). But for now, I hope that is enough to give a rough idea of what I mean by “Christian conservatism”. For the Christian conservative, the Bible – its precepts, patterns, and principles – is “Situation A”. “Situation B” is false doctrine, unholy living, irreverent worship, and inordinate affections. A Christian conservative is trying to defend and restore a biblical view of truth, living, worship, and love.
What is progressivism?
Perhaps we can illustrate what conservatism is by exploring its opposite. Conservatives attempt to protect and restore something that has been attacked or lost. Progressivism is the opposite. It attempts to replace the status quo with something else.
As a philosophy, progressivism teaches that history has its own motor, causing perpetual change and innovation. Morality is defined as being on “the right side of history”. It is built upon the scientific theories of Darwin and the philosophical theories of Rousseau.
Just as conservatives are only as good as the thing they’re conserving, so progressive are only as good as what they are progressing toward. The problem is that progressivism, in attacking authority, has eliminated any objective standard for what “progress” might be. Thus, the point becomes simply to change for the sake of changing.
This can be illustrated by the “post-everything” culture we are now living in. We’re postmodern, post-Christian, post-Western, post-industrial, post-conservative, post-evangelical, post-Puritian, post-patriarchal, post-colonial, and so on and so forth. No one is quite sure where they’re going, but we’re very proud of what we’ve left.
But, by its very nature, progressivism cannot become established. The moment it replaces Situation A with Situation B, Situation B becomes the new status quo and must then be replaced with Situation C, and then D, and then E, and then F, and so on until the sun cools and our race perishes. The revolution cannot succeed. Because the moment it does, it becomes the establishment that must be overthrown.
In progressive philosophy, history is a sort of runaway train. There is no driver. No one is quite sure where it is going but it is going there with great speed. You had better get on board or be run over.
Progress as a necessary means to an end is a fine thing. Progress as a worldview, a philosophy of life, and a theory of history, is sheer madness. Ironically, it’s only because I am a conservative that I’m able to progress. C.S. Lewis noted, “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
The progressive is unable to define his desired destination. He doesn’t actually know where he’s going. He just knows he must keep moving. But as a conservative, I have a desired destination. But I think we already passed it. We’ve missed our exit. The train should have stopped in the First Century and stationed itself in the teachings of a Jewish carpenter and the apostles whom He chose. Now that we’ve missed our exit, conservatives are trying to turn the train around, inch by inch, until we reach the point we foolishly passed two millennia ago.
What is “contemporarism”?
As I’ve thought through these issues, I’ve realized that there might actually be a third option, unique from both conservatism and progressivism. It is this view that most modern Christians find themselves in. I couldn’t find a better term, so I’m going to call this view “contemporarism”.
Conservatives believe that the Christian worldview should be allowed to sink into every area of life, altering it from its natural state and making it better conform to biblical principles. This includes humdrum parts of life like music, apparel, beverage choices, marriage, parenting, church polity, entertainment choices, sexuality, vocation, and art. We are to approach each of these topics with a renewed mind (Romans 12:2) that applies biblical principles to the situation.
Our contemporarist brothers and sisters believe instead that culture is an empty, shapeless vessel that we can simply pour Christianity into without it affecting our faith. In other words, they assume that culture is amoral and that a godly Christian can adopt what the culture says about music, apparel, beverage choices, marriage, parenting, church polity, entertainment choices, sexuality, vocation, and art, provided there isn’t some clear prohibition against it.
This really all comes down to a question of Bible interpretation. Conservatives hold to something called the “encompassing view of Scripture”. This view teaches the Bible gives us principles that can be applied to every area of life and that Christians have a responsibility to do the hard work of discerning how those principles should be applied. Our contemporarist brethren hold to the “encyclopedic view of Scripture”. This view looks at the Bible as neat list of dos and don’ts. If something is not explicitly addressed in that list, then we are free to make whatever choice we want. For the contemporarist, it doesn’t matter where the train is going, so long as you love Jesus while you’re riding it.
As a conservative, I hold to the encompassing view. I do so because I believe that the Bible itself presumes that Christians should apply its principles to areas not specifically addressed in the text. Take for example, Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NKJV)
Notice first of all that Paul says that these works of the flesh are “evident” (v. 19). In other words, the Galatian Christians could have figured out that these actions were immoral without having to have them listed in the Scriptures. He ends his list by saying “and the like” (v. 21). This list is not exhaustive. Paul gave some examples of flesh-works and then fully expected his readers to use Spirit-enabled discernment to identify other works of the flesh not explicitly mentioned in the text.
Look also at Hebrews 5:12-14:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
On these verses, John Makujina says,
Indeed, the mature advance beyond the basic teachings of the Christians faith – both doctrinal and moral – and are able to use them to make comparisons, weigh evidence, detect similarities, identify and apply principles, discern intentions, navigate through the complexities of culture-specific activities, and draw more sophisticated conclusions on the appropriateness of various behaviors and customs. But the immature are restricted to the basic teachings of right and wrong available in special revelation.
The biblical authors themselves seem to employ the encompassing method. Scott Aniol notes,
For instance, the reason homosexuality is considered sin in Romans 1:26-27 is that it is “unnatural”. In other words, an explicit prohibition against homosexuality would not be necessary if one would simply compare the act with natural principles set forth in the creation narrative. Another similar example may be found in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, where Paul reveals the principle behind his instructions regarding man’s headship over women: “For man is not from the woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.”
None other than Jesus opted to use an encompassing method rather than an encyclopedic one. When asked about divorce in Matthew 19:3, he did not say, “Is there a rule about that? No? Okay, do whatever.” Instead, He quoted Genesis 1:27 and 2:23-24, not because it laid down a law about divorce (a subject that doesn’t come up anywhere in those verses) but because it taught a principle about God’s intentions for marriage. He then applied that principle to the current cultural situation (Matthew 19:4-6).
In summary, conservative assume that the contemporary culture may or may not adequately portray Christian ideals. As such, they are willing to examine cultural manifestations (music, clothing, etc.) against scriptural principles. If they find inconsistencies, conservatives feel it is necessary to conform the culture to what the Bible teaches.
I am a conservative. I believe that God has revealed all we need for life and godliness. I believe that mankind has moved away from God’s revelation and gone his own way. Now, we must participate in the long journey backward – “the pilgrim’s regress” – to the place we never should have left. That’s my understanding of conservatism.
Now that we’ve defined our terms, I want to explore six common myths about conservative Christianity.