The (Im)Possibility of “Christian Conservatism”

The terms “Christian” and “conservative” have almost become synonymous to most people, especially in America. It’s hard for most people to picture Christianity in our context without having a certain, “conservative” image in their head—and vice versa. Not only are many Christians considered conservative, but most conservatives are in fact Christians.

This is taken to be the norm for Christianity. But what if, in fact, the idea of “Christian Conservatism” is antithetical to the very nature of Christianity?

First of all, let us define “conservatism”. To be “conservative” is, as the word suggests, to want to conserve something—for something to remain as it has been. Usually, this has to do with a number of things: politics, morality, method, ideology, etc. Thus, you have people who choose to be conservative, as opposed to being progressive—those who want to “progress” forward, rather than retain something that has been.

So, why is this harmful for Christianity? I’ll give three main ways:

1) Christianity is inherently eschatological. 

This means that Christianity is a religion that is headed somewhere. Where is that? Ultimately, to the consummation of all things when, as the ancient creeds say, Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We look forward to what Revelation 21-22 describes as the “new heaven and new earth”—the earth renewed to the glory that God had originally intended and more.

The problem with being “conservative” is that it denies the eschatological aspect of Christianity. Our goal is not to retain something that was established in the past. Our goal is to look forward to the future and move toward that. When we focus too much on what was and fight to maintain that, we lose our passion for the glorious future has for us.

Conservatism too often idealizes the past, in spite of all of its imperfections. It will usually characterize the past as some sort of “Golden Age” and fight to get the current order to conform to this idealized state. An example is American Christians wanting to make America a “Christian nation” again—as if there were ever a time when America was more Christian than it is now.

We look not to the past, like conservatism; Christianity looks to the future.

2) Christianity is inherently contextual.

We live in the 21st century. I live in America, specifically the American south east. Consequently, the biblical writers did not. The Old Testament writers lived in various times and in various places and the NT writers all lived during the first century in the Roman Empire. These are two completely different worlds.

And that’s okay.

But, to claim that the litmus test of true Christianity is whether the person fits the mold of 20th-21st century American version of an expression of this faith is a bit ridiculous. This isn’t to downplay that particular expression in that particular place and time. But it was just that: an expression.

Christianity, to be true to what it is, always has to be finding new ways to communicate and express old truths. The core truth isn’t changing, but the way we are understanding them constantly is. So issues like politics, morality, sexuality, ecclesiology, and much more have to be re-examined every generation. If not, we’ll be speaking in ways that no longer even apply to those to whom we are speaking.

Being “conservative” strips Christianity of its power to speak to a generation where they are.

3) Christianity is inherently prophetic.

If anyone was anti-conservative, it was Jesus.

Jesus was constantly critiquing both his own Jewish faith and the state of the current political atmosphere. He acted as a prophet to his generation, as demonstrated by his radical “non-conservative” actions of caring for the poor, associating with the socially marginalized, his humanizing treatment of women, and the list could go on.

Every generation is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of Spirit-filled prophetic critique of the current order. Conservatism tries to “conserve” the current way of doing things, but Jesus calls us to constantly keep it in check and change it when necessary.

When we allow Christianity to become nothing more than conservatism, we deny the true prophetic nature of this radical faith.

Now, to be clear there are things that we need to retain within Christianity. Christianity is obviously a historical faith and ignoring that history is extremely dangerous and naive. However, there is a difference between being “conservative” (in our context) and narrational.

Christianity is a grand narrative with a past, a present, and a future—we are characters of that play. To try and return to Act II while in Act III not only does disrespect to the second act (as good as it might have been in its particular place), but it ignores the purpose of the play in the first place. We are headed toward the final act, and we cannot forget that.

So let Christianity abandon this notion of “conservatism”. Indeed, by the Spirit, let us move forward toward the consummation of the kingdom, while living in our contexts and being the prophets we were called to be.

__________________

Originally posted on my blog, “Pentecostal Spirituality”.

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