Myth: Conservatism blindly follows tradition
I enjoy Charles Schultz’s PEANUTS comic strips. There’s one particular series in which the bird Woodstock decides he should fly south for the winter so as not to mess up the ecosystem. But he’s afraid of getting mugged so he convinces Snoopy to come with him. For several weeks, the pair has many adventures and misadventures in their journey south. Just as they think they’ve nearly arrived at their destination, they see Charlie Brown. Suddenly, they realize that they’ve spent several weeks circling their block. Though they are slightly embarrassed by the whole ordeal, they also feel a sense of relief that their long journey landed them, not in an exotic, foreign locale, but back home.
This has been my experience with conservatism. I grew up in conservative, fundamental churches. I was raised on expository preaching from the King James Bible. I was homeschooled. I’ve worn a tie almost every Sunday of my life. My family is well respected in Regular Baptist circles. On the one hand, conservatism was my clan.
On the other hand, I grew up with a little disgust and more than a little distrust for conservatism. One of my chief complaints was the subject of our article. I felt that conservatism was blindly following tradition without actually giving any real thought to what they believed. I liked to think that I was a bit more free thinking than that. In my teenage years, I questioned everything about conservatism – from music to modesty. In short, I tried to run away from home.
I spent the night at Mr. and Mrs. Ecumenical’s house. I played in the Neo-evangelicals’ backyard. I borrowed toys from Mark Driscoll. I climbed around on the contemporarist’s playground. All the while, I thought I was freely developing my own set of convictions and beliefs. In time, I grew weary of my new playmates and began wandering the block for something more real. It was just when I was beginning to think that I had stumbled upon something truly innovative and original that I realized I had, much like Snoopy and Woodstock, circled back home. To my great surprise, I realized that I had become a conservative.
What’s the point of this little anecdote? I use it to illustrate that I have a rather unique perspective on conservatism. On the one hand, I have the up close and personal perspective of an insider. On the other hand, I have a bit of the objectivity and realism of someone who has been on the outside.
I’ve previously defined a conservative as someone who, well, conserves something. Conservatives differ based on what they are conserving. A Christian conservative is someone who conserves biblical Christian doctrine, practice, worship, and affections. This is in contrast to a progressive who believes that history runs on its own motor toward an undefinable ideal of Possibility. But it’s also in contrast to something I’ve been calling “contemporarism” because I don’t know what else to call it. This is a view represented by much of modern American Christianity. This viewpoint sees culture as a shapeless vessel that Christianity can simply be poured into without it affecting the form of our faith. Conservatives find this approach to culture too simplistic and unbiblical.
My background has helped me realize that there are two kinds of conservatives. And understanding these two types is important to answering the charge that conservatism is a blindfolded fool cluelessly following the previous generations tugging at this hand.
First, there’s the “just ‘cause” conservatives. These conservatives tend to have a loud bark that is bigger than their theological bite. Though often very passionate and forceful about their convictions, they seem to offer very few reasons for why they believe what they believe. These people truly do seem to be blindly following certain standards. Perhaps these standards just “feel right” to them. Maybe it’s what they’re used to. Maybe they’ve been told their whole life that they’re really, really important but have never been told why. Whatever the case, there are certainly conservatives who seem to blindly follow tradition.
But there is also another kind of conservative Christian. These are principled conservatives. They’ve thought through their positions. They’ve examined the Bible and the culture around them and have come up with standards and positions that they believe best fit God’s revelation.
To many of our contemporarist brethren, it seems almost impossible for a godly, intelligent Christian to think through the issues and come to conservatives positions. But there are many who have. Whether one agrees with their positions or not, no one could read a document like A Conservative Christian Declaration and honestly conclude that its authors were blindly following traditions without thinking through the issues.
But let us turn the tables for a moment, and ask our contemporarist brothers and sisters to judge themselves by the standards they judge others (Matthew 7:2). Do all contemporarists act upon principle? It seems to me that just as there are two kinds of conservatives there are also two kind of contemporarists. I’m happy to admit that there are several principled contemporarists. I once read an article on music by a prominent metro pastor. I disagreed with nearly everything he said, but I would never accuse him of failing to think through the issue.
Unfortunately, this has been a fairly rare experience as I’ve dialogued with contemporarists. When pressed on why they hold certain standards, the most common reason I’ve received is some version of “why not?”. And “why not?” is another way of saying “just ‘cause”. If it’s wrong to blindly do something because it is traditional than it must also be wrong to blindly follow something because it is trendy. The traditionalist blindly follows the patterns set by Christians who are now dead. The “trendist” follows the patterns set by Christians who happen to be alive.
And if the only two choices are traditionalism and trendism, then I’m afraid I must side with tradition. G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” If we’re going to trust the opinions of men at all, then I would far rather trust the practices that Christians have been doing for centuries then practices that were invented, in some cases, in my lifetime (and I’m not very old).
But, of course, those aren’t the only two options. Ultimately, we are to be under the authority of God’s Word. Christians are called to apply biblical principles to present situations and attempt to discover how to best love God in the situation they’re in. Conservative Christians aren’t beyond listening to their spiritual forefathers to gain insight into God’s Word and cultural situations.
There is a double standard often imposed upon conservative Christians. Our standards are guilty until proven innocent. We must defend why we believe in dressing this way, and not watching that, and listening to only this, and doing church this way. But contemporarist standards are innocent until proven guilty. Rarely have I ever heard a contemporarist explain why listening to ACDC, wearing jeans on Sunday and short shorts on Monday, watching Game of Thrones, using disco lights for corporate worship, and having a beer better glorifies God and serves man.
This is because contemporarists assume that culture is amoral and we can simply clothe Christianity in whatever the culture is doing at the time. I won’t take the time to have that debate right now. But I will say this: considering that the majority of Christians throughout history have believed that cultural manifestations matter, our contemporarist brethren cannot afford to simply assume that this is not the case. The burden is on them to prove it.
Though there are exceptions in both directions, my personal experience has been that conservatives generally have thought through their positions more critically than non-conservatives. Because our standards are so counter-cultural, we’re constantly getting pushback and pressure to change. This forces us to constantly reevaluate why we believe what we believe. Because contemporarists often just mimic what the world is doing, they are rarely put in a position of actually having to explain why they believe what they believe.
It’s easy for all of us to get stuck into patterns of thought and actions without ever evaluating whether or not those thoughts and actions are biblical. This is a problem for both conservatives and non-conservatives. It is not a problem that is especially unique to conservative Christianity. In fact, my personal experience has been that I’ve run across more principled conservatives than principled contemporarists.
I would like to call all Christians to stop blindly following traditions and trends. But to instead, use Spirit-enabled discernment to bring every thought, affection, and action under the rule of God.