The Evangelical Outpost, authored I believe by Joe Carter, has a couple of articles on how to “save” conservatism. It got me to thinking, and this is an expansion of a comment I left there. Mr Carter has a number of suggestions to rejuvinate the conservative movement. I think, however, he misses out on the most important point. His definition of conservatism is so narrow that if he insists on it, he will exclude most people, even those who are naturally conservative.
Mr Carter is a social conservative, so his primary focus is on changing American culture to better reflect Evangelical Christianity. He pretties is up a great deal, but primarily, his view of conservatism is essentially theocratic. He sounds a lot like Huckabee, in the sense that a “conservative” is nothing more or less than somone who wants to encode evangelical Christianity into law. You can see that in many of the conservative Christian pundits, particularly Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — they pay passing homage to the idea of limited government, and then blithely discard it when such limitations include limits on social control. As such, they are *not* the traditional conservatives that they pretend they are. As far as I can see, for instance, there would be little or no difference between a Huckabee administration and what we suffered through in the Carter administration. Carter attempted to run the country (and still runs his life) according to specific conservative Christian ideals. And if you look at those ideals, and their proposed implementation, there is little difference between “liberal” Jimmy Carter and “conservative” Mike Huckabee.
I’ll maintain that “real” conservatism has actually been poisoned by religious social conservatism. That doesn’t mean that I think that religious social conservatism is bad — I am one after all — but that it is fundamentally necessary to separate what should be matters of social persuasion from those of social control. Paul did not, for instance, say that the first generation Christians should agitate for the disestablishment of slavery. No. He believed that the fundamental changes were *individual* and that once *individuals* were persuaded to act in a Christian manner, then the social constructs within which they express that action became essentially irrelevant. Thus, when he returned the slave Onesimus to his master Philemon, he did not say that slavery should be abolished, but instead said that since they were equal in Christ, he expected their relationship in Christ to make the master-slave relationship irrelevant. He writes to Philemon:
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
Does that mean that Paul thought slavery was a good idea? Of course not. I think he believed two things. First, I think that he believed that Christ would return so soon that social activism was irrelevant. More important, however, I think he believed that if enough people became Christians that the social issues would naturally evolve — that slavery would wither on its own.
But it seems that the social conservatives, particularly the evangelical Christian conservatives, have actually lost their fatih. They no longer believe that the force of their Christianity is enough to convince others that their values are superior, but instead must impose those values on the unwilling by force of law. They have abandoned persuasion for coercion. That is antithetical to Christianity, as far as I am concerned. One symptom of this is the need to create exhaustive lists of purity tests to determine who is and who is not a “real” conservative. It reminds me of a story I once read about two church leaders in ancient Rome who had been arrested for preaching the gospel and were awaiting execution in the arena. Each leader headed a large faction, and the followers of each leader surrounded the entrance to the prison they were in to stop the followers of the opposing elder from bringing any food, clothing, or other support. Thus, both church leaders ended up spending their last few weeks in dismal conditions because their fellow “Christians” could not agree to support each other, even at the time of martyrdom. They were so worried about trivial differences that they could not see the real issues.
In fact, there are very few criteria necessary to call someone a brother or sister in Christ — the belief in the message of Christ, the acceptance of his substitutional atonement, and a belief in the resurrection of Christ and of the saints. And that’s about it.
But of course, that’s never enough. Instead, dogmatists create long lists of minutiae to quiz people on to see whether or not they are “real” Christians. It’s not as bad now that there are real threats to Christian belief in society — now folk recognize that the overt threat to criminalize Christian expression as “hate speech” and ban expression of Christian thought in the public square mean that there has to be some solidarity. But I can remember where people believed that only Baptists, or Methodists, or Church of Christers, or Catholics would get into heaven and that nobody else was a “real” Christian.
The modern threats to faith have caused many, if not most, Christians to see beyond petty denominationalism. However, the conservative purists have not had that epiphany yet. Conservative denominationalism is destroying the movement. The conservative right needs to return to the few fundamental princples that held it together, and stop making huge laundry lists of specific conclusions derived from those principles into purity tests.
Those principles are very simple; they embody the corresponding basic Christian ideals. That’s what is so sad about the ocial conservatives abandonment of them. Just as Christ died for us individually and God intercedes for us individually, so are our rights given by God to us individually. Just as the transformation of God in our lives is individual, and the actions we thus engage in reflect that transformation, thus it is best for societal change to come through individual decisions and from the bottom up, rather than be imposed from the top down. Just as the Holy Spirit can lead different people in different ways, and yet they are all still in the body of Christ, so is it possible for people to have real conservative convictions yet come to different conclusions about individual issues.
Are there pro-choice conservatives? Yes, of course. In fact, there are good theological reasons for a Christian, even a conservative evangelical Christian, to be pro-choice.
Are there non-Christian conservatives? Yes, of course. In fact there are stridenly antiChristian conservatives.
Is it possible to be a conservative and believe that draconian immigration laws are not the best way to achieve security? Yes, of course.
Is it possible to be a conservative and believe that the principle of free speech trumps the idea that we should protect everybody from sinful images and speech? Yes, of course.
Is it possible to be a conservative and believe that capital punishment is an abomination before God? Yes, of course.
Yet the conservative pundits would not allow such liberty of thought — a liberty that is the very core of conservatism. When the “real” conservative pundits create these purity tests, they should not be surprised that the number of “real” conservatives is very small. They have redefined conservatism in such exclusionary terms that *their* conservatism is doomed to meaningless minority status. And the McCain victory is the rest of us telling them that’s where they are headed. The conservative movement *can* regain ascendency, as Mr Carter writes, but only if it becomes the kind of conservatism that it once was. Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, et al. claim the Reagan mantle, but they don’t have it at all. They have merely fashioned a rather shoddy straightjacket and planted his image on the collar.