The two things people love talking about most are politics and religion—we’ve talked politics, so let’s move on.
We’re gonna spend the remainder of May discussing Christian conservatives and liberals, two broad categories to cover all those following Christ. Most of us have a fair idea what those labels convey and probably which one applies to us. However, properly defining these groups can be tricky.
Take for instance our subject for this week, conservatives. A simple criterion might be to equate conservative Christianity with the modern movement of Evangelicalism (and I do just that for much of the data detailed below), but it needs to be pointed out that this is not without its problems. While Evangelical Christianity has absorbed fundamentalism and come to be more synonymous with conservatism at large, it is also primarily associated with Protestantism and thus not representative of the large conservative strands of Catholicism or any of the other Christian movements. Another way for delineating conservatism would be to organize them by their political leanings, identifying Christian Republicans as Christian conservatives. Yet, since nearly half of Evangelical Protestants don’t identify as Republican, this method seems suspect at best. In truth, conservatives can be Catholic or Protestant, attend high or low church, vote Republican or Democrat—there is no foolproof method for distinguishing them. Still, I think there are some elements that we can discuss.
For starters, there’s demographics. Though none of the following traits are exhaustive, conservatives tend to be found in the South, often in rural communities. They also tend to come from humble backgrounds, being found in older generations, often poorer and less educated. On the other hand, they are usually more active with their religion, typically praying more than the average Christian, being more faithful in studying Scripture and attending church. They also tend to be more politically active, and as evangelicals make up a quarter of the population, they hold significant sway in the public arena.
More important than demographics, though, are some of the central beliefs that set evangelicals and conservatives apart from the rest of Christendom. We can organize these into three emphases: conversion, the Bible, and the Cross.
Central to the conservative believer’s identity is the transition from sinner to saint or what is called the conversion experience. Taking their cue from the Reformers, conservatives stress the concept of grace and a theology of justification by faith. The oft-employed language of “born-again” Christian is indicative of conversion’s priority in their faith, as is the importance of mission work (as the name evangelism would imply).
My own fellowship demonstrates this emphasis in its own way by stressing the “five steps of salvation” and, more specifically, the importance of baptism. For Churches of Christ as well as all conservative Christianity, the language with which they describe the faith is of “insiders,” who are the saved, and the need to bring the “outsiders” into the fold.
Also central to conservative Christians is the Bible, that is the word of God. While the Bible is clearly important to all manifestation of the Christian faith, in conservatism it is seen as a perfect and sufficient view of the Lord—and from it, the rest of the faith flows. Moreover, the wisdom that comes from Scripture is not only useful for religion and worship but for all parts of life. (When taken in conjunction with Church Tradition, this sufficiency also applies to conservative Catholics.)
Regarding the words of the Bible, conservatives generally adopt the verbal plenary view of inspiration, that whatever the authorial influence on the content, each word of the text is chosen and ordained by God. This high view of Scripture often leads conservatives to be more skeptical of outside claims to authority.
The last foundation of evangelical theology is the death of Jesus and, to a lesser extent, his resurrection. The conservative view of this act of God on the cross is, usually, that Christ’s death is a substitutionary atonement that appeases God’s wrath, and that by this salvific event, grace is granted to all believers.
This last emphasis may seem odd to an outsider for its morbidness while appearing equally odd to the insider for its obviousness. In either case, the centrality of Jesus’s death in evangelical thought cannot be understated, nor the importance of the symbol of the cross.
As already mentioned, conservative Christianity is a powerful force in American politics. Its beliefs and emphases affect all people living in this country by way of legislation.
For that reason, it is extremely important to ask what is good and what is bad about this side of the faith. I think a lot of the merits are obvious: it takes the faith seriously, spending time in devotion, study, and prayer; it promotes personal goodness and holy living; it seeks to be an active and transforming force in the nation’s politics and culture. These are all good things, made better by possibly conservative Christianity’s greatest virtue: its humility before the face of God.
Still, conservatism can be dismissive of theological trends and guilty of propagating a simplified religion. Ignorant of Church history, some shy away from the complex development of Christian doctrine and gravitate toward easier answers. This often results in bibliolatry. Regarding ethics, while conservatives are excellent at personal care, they can sometimes lose sight of God’s people and his created world.
So, when we ask how some are to be good Christian conservatives, we know that involves maintaining personal holiness, but also accepting Christ’s call to be a light to the world—not just by setting a good example in character but by actively helping and feeding those around us, caring for creation and nature too. We also know it involves reflecting critically on Christian tradition and on one’s own theology—we have to embrace the complexity and organic nature of the faith. Being a good conservative Christian means continuing to grow.