Myth: Conservatives Never Change Or Innovate
“Why are you so old fashioned?”
“Won’t you get with the times?”
“Come on! This is 2020!”
These are the sort of comments many conservatives hear from time to time. Many people believe that conservatives just don’t like change. They get comfortable in their neat little routines and don’t want to rock the boat with any “newfangled” ideas. Indeed, that kind of conservative exists. But that’s not the only kind of conservative. In fact, I want to argue that true conservatives are some of the most innovative revolutionaries out there.
This might seem like a very weird thing to say. We’ve stated earlier that a conservative is trying to, well, conserve something. I’ve illustrated it by saying that a conservative is trying to defend Situation A as others seek to replace it with Situation B. Doesn’t this sound like the opposite of innovation?
But conservatives have something of a losing streak. Often, the progressives win and establish Situation B. In fact, progressives, being what they are, have since replaced Situation B with Situation C, D, and E.
Under that scenario, a conservative is someone living under the rule of Situation E but still believes that Situation A would be better. The problem is that people have now become so accustomed to Situation E that Situation D now seems rather conservative, Situation C is “far right”, and Situation B is just insane. Because of this, the more conservative you are the more radical the change you are advocating for.
This has been seen before in history. Some of the most radical revolutionaries saw themselves as conservatives. Historian Thomas Woods has argued that the American Founding Fathers were not revolutionaries at all, but conservatives trying to protect traditional British law from parliamentary innovations. He says,
Colonial spokesmen possessed a breathtaking command of British history and law. They used the word ‘innovation’ pejoratively, as in John Adams’s Braintree Instruction. They were well aware of the celebrated British documents to which they could appeal in their defense, particularly the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), and the Bill of Rights (1689).
He contrasts the American War of Independence with the French Revolution, a truly progressive revolt.
The Americans defended their traditional rights. The French revolutionaries despised French traditions and sought to make everything anew: new government structures, new provincial boundaries, a new ‘religion’, a new calendar – and the guillotine awaited those who objected. The British statesman Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism and a man who did understand the issues at stake in both events, considered himself perfectly consistent in his sympathy for the Americans of the 1770s and his condemnation of the French revolutionaries of 1789.
He goes so far as to say,
In a certain sense, there was no American Revolution at all. There was, instead, an American War for Independence in which Americans threw off British authority in order to retain their liberties and self-government.
The Founding Fathers weren’t trying to start a revolution. They simply wanted to maintain “Situation A” (in this case, “their liberties and self-government”). It just so happened that the only way to hang onto Situation A was to reject imperial rule and establish a new Union. Revolution wasn’t the goal. It was a means to an end.
What is true of literal, political revolutions is also true of spiritual, theological revolutions. Martin Luther was denounced as a divergent heretic for “innovating” Catholic doctrine. But, in his mind, he was a conservative. He believed that the Roman Church, not him, had abandoned the theology that apostles laid down 1,500 years earlier. Rome had innovated so much that in order to conserve the biblical doctrines contained in the Five Solas, Luther had to turn Western civilization on its head.
Another Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, began discipling some men in his church using the Greek New Testament. In studying the Scriptures, these men came to the conclusion that infant baptism was not biblical, but an innovation of men. This was the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. In their lifetime these people were called Radicals. But in their minds, they were just trying to conserve biblical doctrine and practice. They appealed to the church fathers to defend their views of religious freedom and appealed to the apostles to defend their views on church polity. They were so conservative that they were radically innovative.
As Christian conservatives, we are trying to conserve all that the Bible teaches about doctrine, practice, worship, and affections. We believe that the Bible, not merely culture, should determine how we think, live, and love. Because our culture has strayed so far from many biblical principles, it will take something of a revolution to restore the rule of God’s Word.
One revivalist has noted that revival presupposes declension. In other words, if we need a revival then it must be that we’ve lost something. All the revivals in Church history have, in fact, been conservation movements. They restored something that had been lost.
Rather than being opposed to all change, conservatives are some of the biggest advocates for change. G.K. Chesterton used the illustration of a white fence post. If you want the post to change colors (that is, if you’re a “fence progressive”) then all you have to do is leave it alone. Time and thermal dynamics will naturally cause paint to chip, grime to appear, and mud to cover the once white fence. But if you want the fence post to stay white (if you’re a “fence conservative”) then you must constantly be painting the fence white. Progressives can afford to be lazy. Conservatives must be constantly mounting a revolution.
This is part of the reason that conservatives are often disdained. The world and most of the church has settled into a nice routine. They’re comfortable in how they do church, how they raise their kids, what they watch and read, and what they wear. Conservatives, quite annoyingly, scratch their chin and ask, “I wonder if there’s a better way?”
Understanding this relationship between conservation and innovation has helped me understand the paradox that I’ve experienced at my church. Most people coming in on a Sunday morning would consider us to be conservative. The pastor wears a tie and preaches expositionally. He might even mention sin (!). The music is traditional, with hymns from all ephods of Church history being sung.
And yet, this is not a church trying to relive 1952. It’s trying to relive A.D. 52. It’s goal is not to hang onto the comfortable traditions of its founding. Rather, it seeks to conform everything it does to the will of God revealed in the Scripture.
Because of this, it is one of the most innovative churches I’ve ever been a part of. Almost nothing is left to simply “happen”. Everything is compared to the New Testament to see if there’s a better, more biblical way to do it. Because it’s trying to conserve something that has been lost for so long, the church comes across as rather radical.
What conservatism does is free us from changing for change’s sake. When conservatives change they’re not just trying to keep up with the latest trends and fads. They have a reason for changing. They’re trying to conform to something higher than themselves. They’re attempting to reclaim treasures that have been buried for centuries.
By basing their changes on principle, the conservative gives meaning to innovation. Change stops being an end and becomes a means to something higher. Conservatism frees us from the tyrannical rollercoaster (or is it a merry-go-round?) of trendiness and contemporarism. We are no longer obligated to do things just because they’re popular. We are free to search for the best possible way to please God in a given situation.
On the one hand, conservatism is all about keeping things the way they are. Or perhaps, the way they were. On the other hand, when their conservation efforts fail, they must begin the harder work of changing the new system. This journey backwards requires – what seems to be – a great deal of change and innovation.
So conservatives do believe in change. But this change has a purpose higher than itself. This change is tethered to the superior goal of glorifying God in every area of life.