I got a personal message on Facebook a while back from a friend — a friend I rarely communicate with, and one I haven’t seen in years (but what do you want me to call him? an acquaintance? perish the thought!) — that goes something like this:
Facebook shows me lots of what you post. I guess because it thinks I find it interesting (or more likely it thinks I agree). I’m just curious, are you politically, economically (and even generally socially) liberal, but a conservative Christian?
THIS I really find interesting.
I mulled over this one for a while before finally responding to it, mainly because the question posed in the third sentence left me feeling a lot like the man for whom this site is (obliquely) named, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy: “Short answer ‘yes’ with an ‘if,’ long answer ‘no’ with a ‘but.'”
On the one hand I’m not a huge fan of being labeled as “liberal” — and not because, like the left-leaning politicians of my day, I stand to gain anything by applying a euphemism like “progressive” to myself. I don’t care to be labeled as “liberal” because I don’t particularly care to be labeled as anything. Political philosophies are the philosophies of men, and therefore broken by sin to begin with. I’m not so naive as to think that any one school of thought — be it liberal, conservative, or anything else — is our hope for fixing the universe, or even the neighborhood. I have, of course, various opinions on various issues, but I’m not particularly interested in aligning them along an imaginary right-left continuum, and I’m certainly not interested in toeing a party line. My goal is always to shape my opinions based on what problems are manifest, and what solutions are likely to work. And if and when I learn I was wrong, I want to have the space to change my mind.
I guess that makes me a pragmatist. A progressive pragmatist.
A prog prag, if you will.
Please, no one ever call me that. What an awful nickname.
I say all that not from a spirit of arrogance. I have nothing against people who are firmly committed to a certain political philosophy, and to be completely honest, those people tend to be a lot more interesting than I could ever hope to be. Some of my best friends are cultural conservatives, or socialists, or libertarians, and they’re all a lot more engaging to talk to than wishy-washy postmodernist types like me. And yes, I would like to be a more interesting person, but I am what I am because I can be no other: a guy who believes that, in eternity, politics don’t matter; who thinks all schools of human thought are irreparably broken; and who checked “Democrat” on his voter registration forms because that particular party strikes him as slightly less disastrous than the alternative.
The real problem I had with my friend’s question, though, is the phrase “conservative Christian.” What, in God’s name, is a “conservative Christian”?
I can think of no term so offensive as “conservative Christian,” both because of what it implies and the sort of pseudo-ontological rabbit trails it leads people down.
Let’s start with that first one, though: what the term implies. I understand why and how people can hold “conservative” and “liberal” views in the political arena, because politics deal with ever-shifting social ground and an ever-changing slate of issues. Obviously, in this field, some would be drawn to new ideas while some would prefer to hold onto what was tested and true (or at least tested, anyway). Politics is the realm of opinion. You don’t know which ideas were “right” until long after the fact, and sometimes not even then.
Religion is nothing like that. At all. People hold religious opinions, of course, but religious opinions aren’t opinions in the same sense that political opinions are. If I say the minimum wage is too low and you say it’s too high, neither one of us is “right” (though one of us may be better informed); we just have different points of view. But if I say God is an eternal being that exists apart from space and time, and you say God is a moldy potato in your sock drawer, at most one of us can be right.
There’s no room for “opinion” in religion; there’s what’s true and there’s everything else.
In other words, theology is not a choice between “conservative” and “liberal,” and it never has been. It’s a choice between orthodoxy and everything else. The Christian religion has certain beliefs and practices that can be traced back to the Apostles, and innovating away from them isn’t “progressive” or even “liberal”; it’s just wrong. Similarly, there are (for example) dispensationalist Baptists out there who might describe themselves as “conservative Christians” (and could very well be, since they’re hanging onto ideas noticeably older than themselves), but could hardly be called orthodox, since their theology and practice both represent significant departures from the historic Church.
All this is why I would greatly prefer to be called orthodox rather than conservative, and it brings me to the point I alluded to earlier: the very idea of “conservative Christianity” seems to lead people down narrow ideological tunnels from which there is (usually) no escape. After all, one can be “conservative” about many things. One can be conservative theologically (though I bristle at the term); one can be conservative politically; one can be conservative in manners, or dress, or taste in food. Some of these things are good; some are (from my perspective) bad; most are innocuous and don’t really matter much at all.
The problem, of course, comes when someone describes herself as “conservative” and you have no idea what she’s talking about. She dresses modestly? She’s committed to “traditional” religious beliefs? She voted for Reagan? Maybe all of these things; and I certainly have nothing against people who see themselves as “conservative” in every possible sense of the word, so long as those are their earnest convictions. But it becomes a problem when people start telling you that if you are conservative in one area (theology) you must be conservative in others (say, politics).
The problem with conservatism is that it rarely has anything to do with orthodoxy. Ideas like laissez-faire capitalism, rigid gender roles, and American nationalism are recent inventions — mere blips on the 2,000-year radar of the Church — and have little if any precedent in Scripture or Church history. That’s not to say that current “liberal” ideas are necessarily more biblical, either; in fact, our whole system of representative democracy has no precedent to speak of in Scripture. Scripture more-or-less assumes monarchy as a system of government, and even its prescriptions for that (see Deut. 17) are clear messianic prophecies. There’s no commandment in the Bible to vote, let alone to vote a certain way.
There are, of course, certain sides of issues that you can build a biblical case for. I imagine that it’s difficult (though admittedly not impossible) to be an orthodox Christian and be pro-choice, for instance. Similarly, I have no idea how Christians can be in favor of our current, heavily regressive tax policy. But all of this is incredibly minor stuff compared to the eternal kingdom that was won on the Cross and continues to be built through (and despite) the hands of Christ’s unshakeable Church. Christ and his Church are what’s real; the Church and her Orthodoxy are eternal.
“Conservatism” can’t hold a candle to that.