A Conservative Christian Declaration: Part 1, “Conservative”

Although I read A Conservative Christian Declaration a couple years ago, I recently began reading it closely as my pastor and I are teaching through it in Sunday School. I encourage anyone to read the book; it is certainly worth your time in considering the points it makes. Nonetheless, as I read through the book again, I observed three points that I think require clarification for anyone who might be reading it for the first time. I believe the authors assume the reader already understands a couple of ideas which, if not, the book might not make much sense. My goal is to try to fill in these gaps to help you as you read it. This first post defines conservative as in A Conservative Christian Declaration. The second post will look at what is meant by the term Christian, while the third will suggest questions to keep in mind while reading the articles.

The six authors of the book articulate affirmations and denials that someone who calls himself a conservative Christian will hold, like these authors do. One thing they never do, however, is to define the word conservative. Yet, I think they leave enough clues as to what they mean that we can define it in a way they would agree with. Thus, the question I want to entertain in this post is, “What do the authors mean when they use the word conservative?”

In the American Christian vernacular, conservative is usually employed in one of three conversations. The first is politics: conservatives verses democrats, (and in 2017, conservatives verses republicans). The second is social or cultural issues: conservative verses liberal. The third is theological as it pertains to the message of the gospel. A caveat: Even though I am using political and social examples to help us understand how we normally think of the term conservative, I am not putting forth any political or social opinion of the authors of the book.

Within the world of politics, conservatives are often thought of as those who prefer small government; they prefer local governments to make laws and to limit taxation and government spending. They also, generally speaking, believe the Constitution and Bill of Rights ought to be interpreted and applied as their authors originally intended them. Democrats, on the other hand, generally hold that the founding documents should be re-interpreted given we live at a new time and in new circumstances. Conservatives, then, are trying to hold certain ideals and principles to be true regardless of time and place. This is what makes them conservative.

Within the realm of politics, a word should be said about neo-conservatives. Neo-cons, as they are often called in the media, differ from conservatives in one important respect. They often find a particular time in history–a “golden era” if you will, that they want to return to (usually the Reagan administration). Neo-conservatives have certain criteria by which they judge the best golden era, but these criteria may differ from one to another because their is no overarching principle that governs their decision making. Conservatives understand this problem. Not to make this post all about politics, but this lack of timeless principle has given rise to the Tea Party conservative movement. That being said, though there are parallels between political conservatives and conservative Christians, the two should not be equated.

The second conversation in which the term conservative appears is society or culture. The distinctive sides of the debate are often called conservative and liberal. A conservative in this sense holds to an older moral standard and believes the older standard is relevant to today. Liberal takes its original Latin meaning as “free from” such traditions. For example, a social conservative defines marriage as between one man and one woman, a liberal between any two consenting adults. A conservative is against selling alcohol on Sundays; liberals are in favor. Conservatives are against abortion; liberals argue that women should be free to choose. I will state the caveat again here. I am not speaking of the authors’ stances on those issues. Nonetheless, I think we might glean something from the usage of conservative in these contexts.

The third conversation where conservative is employed is theology. This usage might not come to every reader’s mind, but I am sure it will come to some who are pastors or theologians. Theological liberalism, springing up in America in the late 1800s, has a form of Christianity, but it is not Christianity. It uses the same terms as Christianity; it calls itself Christian, and yet it has redefined the gospel in such ways that it no longer espouses or teaches the same gospel that the Bible teaches. The opposite of theological liberalism is theological conservatism. The authors argue that a conservative Christian must be a theological conservative. The converse is not necessary true: not every theological conservative is a conservative Christian.

Having reviewed three ideas as to how we commonly use conservative in our everyday conversations, I now want to clarify how I think the authors of A Conservative Christian Declaration are using it. Like the political conservative, the authors believe certain ideas and principles pertain to every time and place. In the introduction and preamble, they call these ideas transcendentals. Also like political conservatives, they disagree with neo-conservatives, in that they reject the idea of picking a “golden age of Christianity” and trying to conserve it. Moreover, like the social conservative, they look to learn from the past. We might call this tradition with a lower case ‘t’. In other words, godly men and women have wrestled with these same ideas and principles, and these authors believe that we can learn from them, either from their example or from their mistakes.

An illustration may help tie these ideas together. My wife’s grandfather, working in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, learned how to farm trees. The idea was to take a section of the forest that already existed and make sure that it remained healthy. At risk of oversimplification, it seems to me that it involved planting new trees, pruning existing trees, and at times cutting down defective trees. The idea of conservative in this sense is more like our English word preserve. In fact, we often speak of forest preserves. The idea is to accept what has been handed to you, preserve it, and pass it along to the next generation who will then repeat these steps.

This idea of conservation leads nicely to this conclusion: A conservative seeks to preserve and to perpetuate a certain set of ideas, principles, and practices. In this particular case, that set of principles and practices is Christianity. In the next post, I will answer the question, “What do these authors mean by the term Christian?

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