Explaining what a Conservative is is even more difficult than explaining what an Evangelical is. If you read conservative media, you’ll notice that they are constantly arguing over the definition of their movement. There are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and national defense conservatives. Then there are the so-called Neo-conservatives. They all argue over whether or how much Libertarians are conservative. In the Age of Trump, some conservatives are comfortable with populist and nationalist versions of conservatism, and others are not. To make matters even muddier, in most of the rest of the world, what we call conservatism in America is called liberalism, or “classical liberalism.” If you study history, you’ll find that both Whigs and Tories (once fiercely opposed to each other) went into the making of today’s British Conservative Party. And we haven’t even broached the issue of religion.
To make a little sense of all this, let’s turn to Thomas Sowell. In his book, A Conflict of Visions, he describes two points of view, two competing visions, that underlie most of the socio-political arguments of our age. The first is the Constrained Vision, associated particularly with Edmund Burke. In this view, we have to take people as we find them – and where we find them is already in communities made up of overlapping institutions (both formal and informal), with a history that has shaped them. To make their world better, people have to reckon with the limitations of human nature, and with the conditions that the past has imposed on them. There are some things that are impossible to achieve, at least all at once. Change should be incremental, and constantly tested against all that has gone before.
Over against this, we have the Unconstrained Vision of revolutionaries like Thomas Paine. In Paine’s words, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Change should be based upon clear notions of justice. It should be fundamental. It owes nothing to the past. And nobody should be allowed to get in its way. The Unconstrained View is always sure of the path forward, and it is always in a hurry. Progressivism, in both its religious and political forms, is a prime example of the Unconstrained Vision.
Most forms of conservatism center on the Constrained View. We value tradition. We value order. We aren’t opposed to new things, but we don’t want to sacrifice old and trusted things easily. We note how revolutionaries, despite their noble goals, often do more harm than good in the long run. And we distrust leaders who are always in a hurry. The person who wants you to sign the paper without carefully reading it, the one who says you don’t have to give up anything you really care about in order to make room for what someone else wants, we’ve all met this person before. Whether a political demagogue or a Methodist bishop (but I repeat myself), this guy is selling you something. This is the guy Faithful was describing in Pilgrim’s Progress, when he said, “Then it came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said, and however he flattered, when he got me home to his House, he would sell me for a slave.”
Conservatives have a vision of the Good which overlaps religious definitions of the Good. They articulate this from tradition and from natural theology. Not all conservatives agree among themselves on what is good in every case; for instance, many conservatives (especially non-religious ones with a Libertarian bent) supported gay marriage when it was being argued about. Those who opposed gay marriage did so from tradition and natural theology, and made a very good case for themselves. When the proponents of gay marriage tried to say that all arguments against it were solely religious in nature, and which therefore should not count in a secular political order, Conservatives were quick to say, Not so. All this was cut short by the mystical jurisprudence of Anthony Kennedy and his riff on the meaning of life in Obergefell vs. Hodges. But it remains so that one need not be a biblical scholar to have notions of comity and fairness and goodness to promote and be loyal to. They, too, are part of what our families and church have handed on to us.
Religious conservatism takes many forms. In Catholicism, for instance, it is often associated with the Latin mass. In many Protestant churches, it sometimes takes the form of grumbling about music or vestments or other things. Opponents tend to see all conservatism as backward-looking or merely obstructive (we just want things to be the way they used to be). Perhaps there is some of that in many of us, even those who hold progressive views on certain other questions. But whether completely thought out or merely inchoate, conservatives are always looking for the best things from the past to keep. Doctrine is one of those things, and so is moral teaching. Perhaps we should remember that Jesus said that every scribe of the kingdom brings out of his treasury things both old and new. We need spiritual discernment to know what is worth keeping, but let us not doubt that some things are indeed worth it.
Many Evangelicals are also Conservatives; indeed, many refer to themselves as “Conservative-Evangelicals.” However, there are some Evangelicals who are not (politically or socially) conservative. And there many conservatives who are not evangelical – or even religious at all.
Within The UMC are some people who do not particularly identify as Evangelicals. They don’t culturally fit in with that group, maybe even feel the Evangelicals are wound a little too tight. They believe the Bible should be the final word on things, but they are not really into bible study. They value the religious instruction they received from the church, and they actually believe it. They are open to considering all kinds of new situations in society – including what to do about gay or transgender people – but they want to affirm the Good they know, and they certainly don’t want to buy into a definition of the Good that overrules the Good as they have known it. The first bar for a new idea to clear is, does it affirm the goodness of the past, of goodness as we have known and experienced it? Does it allow for the truth we have known, or just want to overturn everything with some new truth? And they know a flim-flam man when they see one, and are very sure that he has got more up his sleeve than he’s telling you.
So you find them capable of including gay people in all kinds of ways. They treat them fairly, they speak to them in church, they recognize them in their family reunions. But no matter how they try to make the pieces fit, they can’t wrap their heads around officially approving same sex marriage. They want their clergy to live on the up-and-up. And even if they’re not into doctrinal minutiae, they can see that the kind of God proclaimed by the promoters of the new theology isn’t the kind of God they were told about when they made their profession of faith.
The chief advocacy group for religious conservatism is the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD). Founded by Fred Barnes, previously of the Weekly Standard, it is an online exercise in advocacy journalism intended to renew American society by going upstream of politics and engaging the culture, especially through religion. Progressives think this is somehow proof that religious conservatives and/or evangelicals are all a gigantic plot by shadowy politicos (ignoring the fact of their own overlapping religious and political movements). Mark Tooley, a UM layperson, is the Executive Director. The main man on the United Methodist beat for IRD is John Lomperis, who is also a General Conference lay delegate from Indiana.
Next: the Orthodox