A Realistic Look At Conservatism
Some time ago we examined a few of the potential pitfalls of both liberalism and conservatism. As these ideologies are at the very center of contemporary political dialogue—particularly for the increasingly divided evangelical Church—it may be helpful to spend a little time better understanding the strengths and weakness of each of these ideologies. In our previous piece we argued that liberalism can tend to be utopian which can thereby lead to an unrealistic outlook on the possibilities of political action. On the other end of the spectrum, conservatism can be utilitarian and therefore slide into an acceptance of things that are unjust. We now continue our discussion by looking at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative movement, specifically, the evangelical branch of conservatism.
For better or worse, evangelical conservatives have labored under the label “Religious Right” for over three decades now. The movement has tasted its share of victories and realized the agony of defeat. And through it all the various spokespeople for the movement have garnered enough attention to become the faces of Christianity in America. The apolitical witness of Billy Graham was replaced by the vociferous presence of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. Their ability to create controversial sound bites made them a favorite scapegoat for the media, but, love ‘em or hate ‘em, there was no denying the incredible amount of influence these evangelical giants wielded. True, the evangelical political movement has always had a diverse group of participants (Sider, Campolo, and Wallis have been in the political realm for at least as long as the aforementioned conservatives), but the effectiveness with which the Religious Right dominated the evangelical political climate made any dissenting voices faint and paltry.
It would be easy to turn this into a diatribe against the ill-effects created by the Religious Right, but that is too simple a narrative. Reality is always more complex than some would like. Has the Religious Right left a trail of destruction in its wake? Absolutely. But has it also done some incredible services for the Body of Christ? Again, absolutely. The tone with which evangelicals engaged the culture war not always communicated the love of Christ, but there is no denying the fact that the vast majority of these “culture warriors” are motivated by a sincere desire to honor God and influence the culture for the better.
In many cases a person or group’s biggest strengths can also be their biggest weaknesses, and this is certainly true with evangelical conservatism. Taken as a whole, conservative evangelicals are very concerned with having an orthodox theology, but this correct understanding of the Gospel does not always translate into living out that Gospel. In other words, they can be more focused on orthodoxy than orthopraxy. And while the Religious Right generally loves the Church (contra many of their liberal counterparts) they have sometimes struggled demonstrating that love to the least of these. Finally, the conservative movement of evangelicalism has done a great job of articulating the reasons why Christians need to be involved in the public square, but it is to the Body’s everlasting shame that this participation has become so syncretistic with the Republican Party that in many cases the Church and the GOP seem to be indistinguishable.
Yet, despite their many shortcomings, the Religious Right is still in a position to be used mightily for the Kingdom of God. And rather than become just another group of voices slamming the blemishes of the movement, it is time for us to hold evangelical conservatives to a higher standard, all the while demonstrating a deep commitment to the Body of Christ and love for His bride. We must encourage all Christians to love God and their neighbors, to be Gospel driven people who are foremost concerned with how our actions reflect on the call of Christ on our lives. There are many political battles that are worth fighting, but they must not be won at the expense of our public witness. It will take quite some time to undo the damage that the culture war has done to our witness, but that is a journey worth taking.
To read last month’s reflection on evangelical liberalism click here.