My purpose in this post is to assert that Christians should be conservatives. Or, to say it another way: that Christians who are not (political, social, cultural) conservatives are not living out the full implications of their religious principles. This essay, therefore, is sure to draw the ire of those Christians who would consider themselves “progressives.”
So, if I may call for a truce at the outset: I don’t intend this essay as a screed or a manifesto or a rant. Rather, I wish to make a sober, reasoned, and principled case for the thesis that convictional Christianity and conservatism go together – a case that welcomes critique, feedback, and disagreement of the civil and congenial sort. In the age of social media tirades, I realize this will be a tall order. But let’s try to rise above the fray together, shall we?
The question of whether we should be conservatives ultimately comes down to what we are seeking to conserve. Many young Christians fancy themselves “progressives” because they are seeking to move on from things which should, in fact, be left behind. For instance, I know a young woman who grew up in a fundamentalist church with a creepy hierarchical authority structure, a latent sexism, and a dark undercurrent of sexual sin – all of which was branded as “conservative Christianity.” When that whole mess has been labeled “conservative,” who wouldn’t want to be a progressive?
Hence, these matters are complex. The terms “conservative” and “progressive” are fraught with misunderstanding. So let’s think more deeply about these words and what they signify.
The word conservative looks backward. It envisions something which now exists, or has existed in the past, which we are seeking to conserve and protect. The word progressive necessarily looks forward. It envisions some end toward which we are progressing.
And therein lies the problem. Toward what are we progressing? Broadly speaking, modern progressives have no answer to that question. Or perhaps to be more precise: they have a thousand different and contradictory answers to that question, united only by the vague ideal of “progress.” As G.K. Chesterton wryly observed almost 100 years ago: “The word ‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative… For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.”
Chesterton puts his finger on our modern confusion: “[In past ages], men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree.” (from Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World)
To parse Chesterton’s observations another way: modern progressives agree on the verb (progress) but not on the noun (progress toward what?). And therein lies the major problem for Christians who wish to identify as “progressive.” Because the vague notion of “progress” is the only point of agreement, Christian progressives get co-opted into a whole universe of causes with which they cannot in good conscience agree. You wanted to champion and affirm women; but the Women’s March you attended also endorsed abortion on demand. You wanted to support government programs that help the poor; but your Bernie Sanders bumper sticker now has you aligned with a progressive whose vision of “progress” includes barring Christians from public office.
“But wait,” you object. “Just because I identify myself as a progressive doesn’t mean I share the viewpoints and opinions of the most radical progressives.” Well, of course you don’t, personally. But socially, you do. And to understand why, you must understand the impact of the French Revolution. (Sorry to go all history-geek on you, but this matters.)
In a recent issue of First Things (June/July 2017), former Creighton University professor R.R. Reno explains: “The French Revolution, which eventually implicated the entire West, exaggerated the importance of the political realm, deifying the modern nation-state… [and creating] an ideological atmosphere that subordinates everything to political and economic ideology.” In other words: modern progressivism exalts the nation-state. Since the French Revolution, ardent progressives have seen the state as the key agent of social change – and they’ve often seen the family and church as obstacles to a new social order.
Reno explains his own movement away from progressivism: “Although I started on the left, over time I came to see that progressivism, even the moderate progressivism of American liberalism, invariably seeks to increase the power of the state. The cultural wars of my lifetime – the war on racism, the war on sexual inequality, and the war on poverty – fell into the same pattern. The state needs to be empowered to make the world anew.”
Why is this a problem? Because the state is only one of three “necessary societies” instituted by God. The other two are the family and the church. “Now there are three necessary societies, distinct from one another and yet harmoniously combined by God, into which man is born: two, namely the family and civil society, belong to the natural order; the third, the Church, to the supernatural order” (Pope Pius XI, as quoted by Russell Hittinger in First Things, June/July 2017, p. 20).
Which brings us back to the crux of our question: why must Christians be conservative? Because Christians are duty-bound to preserve and protect the authority of the family and the church. We are called by God to “conserve” these two societies against the ever-encroaching power of the state. It’s no accident that in the book of Revelation, “the beast” symbolizes political and economic power. The nation-state is good; but the nation-state is corrupt. And left unchecked, it will always encroach upon the authority of church and family.
Some have seen the modern movements to redefine marriage, sexuality, and gender as movements toward a more just and fair society. But in reality, they are movements to enhance the power of the nation-state over the church and the family. We are “progressing” toward a society in which the nation-state is all-powerful. We are failing to conserve appropriately the power of the family and the church. And when Christians fail to conserve those God-given institutions, we fail to obey the Lord.
Therefore, Christians must be conservatives… in the broad sense. We don’t all need to agree on the marginal tax rate, or on the precise approach to health care, or on the best candidates for political office. But we must agree on the God-given authority of the family and the church – and the responsibility we have before God to respect and conserve that authority.
To put it another way: it’s an issue of the Lordship of Christ vs. the Lordship of Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, we submit to the authorities he has instituted (family, church, and state, in their right and proper proportions). If Caesar is Lord, then we bow the knee to the power of Rome.
It’s not that Christians could never be progressives. If we lived in a cultural moment marked by broad agreement on the goal and purpose of human life (progress the noun), we could champion progress the verb. In fact, Christianity itself is a kind of progressivism: because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we know the entire cosmos is progressing toward the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
But in the here and now, we dwell in a cultural moment fraught with confusion on the most basic questions: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be male and female? What is freedom? What is virtue? And in such a moment, Christians must be (the right kind of) conservatives.