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.
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I appreciate the push not to deify the nation-state. I think far too often the church finds itself pulled into a syncretism that combines patriotism and Christianity in unhealthy ways.
But I struggle with the idea that we must seek first to “conserve” what we have rather than actively seek to change larger social ills for the better. This sort of tactical, defensive retreat strikes me as a position that comes from a place of comfort and privilege. Only those who already enjoy the necessities of life can argue that the most important thing is now to conserve them.
I agree that we should not embrace every new position of the “progressive” movement. But that doesn’t mean there is not necessary social change to champion.
Even Chesterton, in the same “What’s Wrong With the World,” specifically cited the French Revolution in calling for the redistribution of wealth, a distinctly “progressive” idea that he felt needed to happen to save families and eradicate poverty:
“the thing to be done is nothing more nor less than the distribution of the great fortunes and the great estates. We can now only avoid Socialism by a change as vast as Socialism. If we are to save property, we must distribute property, almost as sternly and sweepingly as did the French Revolution. If we are to preserve the family we must revolutionize the nation.”
If the church and family were capable of effecting that change, it would be understandable to lean more heavily on them.
But the church is not stepping up to pay for the surgery of my child on Medicaid. It’s struggling to react to the racial divide of which we see continued evidence. The three necessary societies must lean on each other.
I agree, we lean too much at times on the government leg of the triad. The family and church must and should step up more than they have or the three-legged stool will tip over. But I’d argue that instead of shrinking the nation-state through backward-looking conservatism to match the sadly-weakened family and church, the answer instead is to build up the other two legs.
I agree with Dan’s comments, and provide an additional challenge to your post.
It’s easy to look back, pluck the best theories from thousands of years of recorded history, and construct a “logical” argument that holds up these cherry-picked ideals of family and church as the foundation by which we should all live. But that’s revisionist history and ivory tower theology of the worst sort: no dirty hands, no broken hearts, no daily battles in the trenches of poverty and suffering in which Jesus lived and died. The conservative perspective conveniently ignores the fact that without strong, state-sanctioned support of their basic individual human rights, the institutions of family and church failed and exploited women, children, and people of color who were dependent on, in America, white men in power with a vested interest in protecting their positions. That fact is evident throughout history, and is the most fundamental reason why we need the state, with all its flaws. Given the repeated failures of both family and church, until proven otherwise the state is a necessary mechanism to prevent and rectify individual and systemic abuses of power, a non-white-male’s best hope of the fair distribution of security, wealth, and dignity to all human beings Jesus dreamed of, turned over tables in the temples for, and ultimately died for.
Conservatism lacks of imagination, something Jesus didn’t lack. You say that progress lacks structure and definition, but Jesus definitely didn’t prioritize those things over love, compassion, and revolution. Progress, by definition, cannot provide the clarity conservatism demands. Progress offers hope, that messiest, most dream-like of emotions. Your argument asks progressives to reassure you that the way forward is actually circular, returning the world to the a way of life that provides safety and security for a few, the two things that women, people of color, and those living in poverty have never in the history of the human race enjoyed.
Progressive Christians engage the gospel at its most foundational level, that of God’s promise to call us forward, into new life (~new~, not the safe old life), but that call is profoundly unknown and uncertain. Progressives live with discomfort, vulnerability, and hope, the hope that our efforts continue Jesus’s work to transform the world into one where all people, not just well-off white males who believe the right things, are ensured opportunities and rights to be more than their physical bodies, to discern for themselves what how God calls them to live the fullest, God-given expression of themselves.
Jesus never demanded conservative certainty from God, or from the people he encountered. His body was broken and his blood poured out because he was willing to live in the terrifying uncertainty of revolt. He spoke against power in all its forms – the family, the temple hierarchy, the Roman Empire. Given this example, why do you strive for certainty, which is fundamentally about your own comfort? How do you live as Jesus did? What does the church do to nurture children born into systemic poverty and generational hopelessness? What does the church do to protect, support, and care for women not fortunate enough to have found and married a man with a well-paying job who wants to provide and lead his family from a place of faith and gentleness? What does the church do to open doors for men of color or men living in poverty to opportunities to provide for their families? How does Coram Deo, as a body and as individuals, live the gospel in this broken world in concrete ways to love your neighbors as yourselves, in ways that cost you, break you, humble you greatly rather than reinforce your position and comfort? You spread the gospel in a twenty-first century form of the 613 laws clarifying the Ten Commandments, but Jesus didn’t live in that ivory tower of theological, individual purity; he tore down that tower, and died for it. Are you risking the same by demanding greater love and compassion in families, the church, and the state, or, like the priests, Levites, and Pharisees, are you content to live in the security of knowing you’re “righteous”, “saved”?
To my eyes, the Acts 29 doctrines and beliefs throttle Jesus’s message in his throat. That representation of faith is unforgiving, nostalgic, and hopeless, ignoring the brutal reality of the world Jesus lived in, or the one we now live in. Then, as now, there is no creed, doctrine, or set of laws strong enough to make women of any race or socioeconomic class, or men of color or born into a lower socioeconomic class, accept that unnatural position, or to coerce them into a subservience or purity capable of assuring those in power they’re safe, and “everything will be all right”. Then, as now, the messy, complicated, and beautiful God-breathed world will always bring forth a Jesus, preaching a new life of liberation, inclusion, dignity and self-governance, love and compassion, and God’s bounty poured out for all. Join women and minorities in the precariousness of a faith in a progressively revealing God more powerful than any human institution – family, church, or state – calling us into a world of justice and dignity for all.
I’d like to address a couple of things you said, and I hope to do so in a spirit of good will and robust discussion among brothers. I have a lot of respect for you, so my philosophical disagreement comes from a disposition of deference.
You said that holding a position of conservatism strikes you as “coming from a place of comfort and privilege.” While a proposition doesn’t stand or fall based on the socioeconomic standing of its proponents, I’d argue that there’s nothing inherently privileged about believing that government should remain in its proper place and in proper proportion. As counterexamples, many influential conservatives like Russell Kirk grew up poor and disadvantaged, while the wealthiest parts of this country – northern Virginia, Silicon Valley, Hawaii – are some of the most liberal. Anecdotal, sure, and really irrelevant, but still true.
You also point out that the institutions of church and family are anemic, and rightly so. But why are they? It’s owing if not completely then in significant part to governmental creep into areas it ought not exist. While the government/family/church setup isn’t strictly a zero-sum power struggle, it is difficult and awkward for them to exist in the same places. There really isn’t a place in modern American life that government doesn’t have some influence: the cars we drive, the food we eat, the way our children are educated, all the way down to the gas cans we use to fill our lawn mowers and how much water our toilets can flush are all influenced by federal law or regulation. The necessary effect of this expansion is that families and churches abdicate our responsibility to care for the poor, help one another, and make the best decisions we can for our families, instead outsourcing those obligations to bureaucratic agencies.
My point is this: At this moment, the only possible way to bolster family and church is to restrain and shrink government.
Finally, and this is getting a bit far afield from Bob’s original post and while it will probably be the most controversial thing I’ll say, it’s also the easiest to verify: Government policies designed to help the poor or even out inequity in wealth or income never actually work, ever. Aside from not accomplishing their desired outcomes due largely to a wrong understanding of human nature, the second and third order effects of those policies are usually devastatingly counterproductive. Rent control policies drive inexpensive apartments out of the housing market. Minimum wage laws price entry level earners out of the job market. Government attempts to make higher education and healthcare more accessible end up making them more expensive by having a higher number of dollars competing for the same number of college seats and healthcare provider man-hours. War on Poverty policies incentivize the breakup of nuclear families, which directly perpetuates poverty, and the list goes on. For more on this, I’d commend to you Thomas Sowell’s “Basic Economics.”
Alright it’s time for me to wrap this up. I think we agree on two foundational things: The state isn’t our savior, and churches and families need to do more than they are in a lot of areas. I hope this discussion can help us both think more correctly about some of the practical ramifications.
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