I’m orthodox, not conservative.

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.

21 thoughts on “I’m orthodox, not conservative.

  1. Yeah… At work we got a call the other day from a parent saying he wanted to find his daughter’s history teacher and “slit the man’s throat” because he’d never seen someone so anti-biblical, anti-military, and anti-American. But then again, “what can you expect from those Canadians?” (The teacher in question does happen to be Canadian).

    I’ve a sneaking suspicion this parent never learned the difference between “anti-biblical” and “anti-American.”

    Point is, if there were more people like you, the world would be a better place.

    • Well, yeah…obviously. 🙂

      What’s particularly interesting to me is that this parent managed to find all the pro-American jingoism hidden in Scripture but missed the part about how murder is wrong.

      Of course, people like that are why it used to be a controversial idea to let the masses read and interperet the Bible.

  2. Very wise, Mr Harrington. Posts like this are why your blog is in my feed reader.

    I too am wary of the term “conservative,” even though I willingly called myself a political conservative through most of my life (no longer, but that is another story). I think “orthodox” is a better and clearer word for what I (and you, I suspect) am trying to say about my Christian faith. But I prefer to describe my theological opinions and convictions as “traditional” rather than “orthodox.”

    The difficulty with “orthodox” is that it raises the question “orthodox according to which standard of orthodoxy?”. One can be an orthodox Catholic, and orthodox Presbyterian, an orthodox Baptist, or an Eastern Orthodox. In fact, one could be an orthodox Mormon, Jew, or Muslim. “Orthodox” by itself means only “correct according to the official standards of one’s particular faith or sect.”

    You wrote in your post:

    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.

    And that is the idea that I am trying to highlight by labeling myself as a “traditional Christian” rather than an “orthodox Christian.” I happen to be an LCMS Lutheran (and not, by the official standards of the LCMS, a particularly “orthodox” one (again, another story)), but I see Lutheranism as being among the heirs and guardians of the “beliefs and practices that can be traced back to the Apostles,” and I lay claim to that heritage. A good Southern Baptist or Seventh-Day Adventist can’t make that claim (and wouldn’t want to), even though he or she might be perfectly “orthodox” by the standards of his or her denomination.

    • Thanks, Chris. It’s always great to hear your thoughts.

      I agree that the word “orthodox” has problems of its own, but I use it primarily because it has a distinctly theological connotation. One can be “conservative” about many things, and one can be “liberal” about many things, but “orthodox” is only correctly applied to theology, even if certain people have disagreements over what orthodoxy is.

      The problem with the word “traditional,” from my perspective, is that it could too easily get tied up in the tired “traditional vs. contemporary” worship debate.

      But then, every word has its problems. I was raised in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and theirs is a name that has confused absolutely everyone who’s ever crossed paths with the denomination.

      • The problem with the word “traditional,” from my perspective, is that it could too easily get tied up in the tired “traditional vs. contemporary” worship debate.

        That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

        That is to say, that any perceived negativity on my part towards “contemporary worship” is intentional. I’m a “lex orandi lex est credendi” sort of guy.

        I’m not opposed in principle to contemporary music or contemporary language in worship, and it is certainly possible to have worship that is both contemporary and conformant to the historic Church’s rule of prayer. But I haven’t seen it done, or even seriously attempted.

        But then, I’m a guy whose idea of “modern” is “anything newer than Venantius Fortunatus or St Romanos the Melodist”; so take it with a grain of salt.

      • I can definitely sympathize with the preference for older worship styles, Chris. The problem for me, though, is that the question of worship style is essentially a cultural preference — and, as with politics, culture isn’t a hill I’m ready to die on. At least, not in the same way theology is.

      • At the risk of sidetracking the discussion, I feel constrained to say that it is not a question of style or culture, and certainly not of “preference”, but a question of the structure and essential function of the Church’s worship. The structure and essential function of worship, though not the specific texts of any particular liturgy, are absolutely part of the Apostolic deposit of faith (“certain beliefs and practices that can be traced back to the Apostles” as you put it in the original post).

        The “contemporary worship” that I am familiar with does not respect that structure and essential function of the liturgy. If it did, the “style” of the worship would not bother me a bit.

      • Oh, I don’t disagree. But as (I think) we’ve demonstrated here, worship structure is tied up with all sorts of things — some of which are minor cultural matters, and some of which are directly tied to theology and historical practice. That’s all I’m saying, really, when I say that every word has its problems.

    • Indeed. I tried to fit the following quote from Chesterton into my post, but I couldn’t find a place for it (so I guess posting it here is as good an idea as any):

      “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.”

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  5. Luke, you’re my new favourite writer on the internet. I feel a real kinship with almost all you express above, though in the spirit of the piece I’ll just share a short quote by Hans Litten I came across only the other day: “Two people would be one too many for my party.” (This from a man who really knew a thing or two about parties, or at least one party.) By the way, it was your Cracked article that sent me here, in case you wondered.

  6. I find it a little strange how you can be so pragmatic and realistic when it comes to politics and opinion, but not at all with religion. For instance, I believe that “God” is everywhere, everything, and is every microscopic particle in the universe. I believe that God cannot be personified as human, and that we are small beings to think we can paint a picture of God as human. For me, God is the power and driving force behind all life and all creation, I see it and feel it in every silent moment of beauty and every blade of grass. But I don’t subscribe to any religion. I don’t believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah. Do you believe that I am wrong?

    I have a deep respect for spirituality and when that spirituality leads people to an ethical and moral life. I don’t have anything against religious people. It is just not right for me in my life. I take with me the knowledge that I could be wrong about anything and everything. I believe that organized religion is divisive, both politically, socially, and spiritually, but this is my opinion. I accept that I could be dead wrong and that maybe Catholics, or maybe Muslims, are actually correct. Religion and spirituality are both about taking things on faith, but faith does not supersede the intrinsic ability of all living things to make mistakes. Your hypothetical “god is a potato” friend is not wrong beyond a doubt. That is your opinion. There are no absolutes in the realm of spirituality.

    The church is real only in the sense that human beings built that particular empire. The scripture is only real in the sense that humans wrote down the words of a story. Human beings have also changed that same story countless times throughout history to suit their own needs. I challenge you to show me any religious fact, with solid, tangible, irrefutable proof. It’s impossible. The entire basis for every religion is faith. Faith is not fact. You take your religion on faith, and your convictions mean something strong and deeply personal to you because it is taken entirely on faith, without proof. There are no facts, because scripture specifically tells you to take it on faith. Every religion does. How can you prove that yours is right? Or real?

    It is opinion. I am no more wrong or right than you are. The world turns and you will most likely dismiss my words. Reality is based upon perception. We can only see the world through this tiny tunnel of vision and our senses are notoriously faulty. But still, we continue walking, breathing, living and dying, and being these beautiful and utterly flawed beings that we are. Living beings make mistakes. Nearly everything that we say and do and the stories we tell, are creative expression, all tied up in personal opinion. You can be wrong about your god, and this is what makes it all the more meaningful that you choose to believe.

    • Vigilante, it sounds to me like you might appreciate the ancient Hindu legend of the Blind Men and the Elephant. If you haven’t heard it before, here’s the Cliffs Notes version:

      Three blind men come across an elephant. One feels the trunk and says “An elephant is like a snake”; one feels the side and says, “An elephant is like a wall”; the third feels the tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope.” So clearly, if blind men can’t agree on what an elephant is like, truth is a matter of perception. Or something.

      Now here’s my problem with the legend: it’s not that the blind men were all *right*; it’s that they were all *wrong.* There was still only one truth, and that was that the elephant was exactly like an elephant. That the blind men had different *opinions* about what the truth was is irrelevant (irrelephant? anyone?); there was still only one truth about the thing. If two people disagree about reality, at least one of them has to be wrong.

      Yeah, I believe in the claims of orthodox Christianity, for the same reason I believe in gravity, and germ theory, and global warming: they all have the preponderance of evidence on their side. I can’t prove Christianity to you in a scientific way, because its claims are historical, not scientific; however, the more history and ancient literature I read, the more convinced I become that the Christ genuinely rose from the dead, and that he genuinely commissioned the Apostles to build his Church. The evidence is there if you’re willing to do a little research. Saying “there is no real truth” might feel nice and emotionally satisfying, but it’s hard for me to see it as anything other than an intellectual surrender.

      As to how I can be pragmatic about politics but not about religion, the answer is a very simple one. Religion deals with the question, “What is true?” while politics deals with the question “What ought we to do?” Truth is exclusive; if one fact is true, then all the facts that contradict it must be false. On the other hand, what must be done is exclusively the realm of opinion, inasmuch as it depends upon what we wish to accomplish and how best to accomplish it.

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