• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

When Is a Conservative (Evangelical) Not a Conservative?

(I know I just wrote I have to sign off until the New Year, but I just can’t help myself this morning…)

Over the last several decades, many North American evangelicals have had to fight hard to be understood as not necessarily politically conservative just because they were theologically conservative. I remember a prominent Canadian evangelical leader telling reporters that evangelicals were aligning with right-wing politics because they were “conservative.” But that was to connect two quite different categories: There is no logical connection between conservative Christian faith and conservative contemporary politics.

A couple of American presidential elections ago, journalists were shocked—shocked!—to find some evangelicals who were voting Democratic. Jim Wallis had a brief moment in the sun as Exhibit A, although if journalists had paid attention to black evangelicals, they wouldn’t have been so surprised at evangelicals aligning with Democratic politics.

The “conservative/liberal” labeling is more complicated still, however.

For one thing, what is nowadays called “conservative” political and economic policy is what used to be called “classical liberalism.” Literally what was “liberal” a century ago is “conservative” today.

For another thing, evangelicalism is not “conservative”—that is, not in some comprehensive way. Indeed, some of us have been arguing with prominent observers such as Reginald Bibby (a friend) for years that “conservative” is not a synonym for evangelical.

The late, great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce refused to call himself a “conservative evangelical,” because he wanted to follow the Bible wherever it led, whether it confirmed “conservative” opinion or not. And evangelicals frequently have departed from what other Christians would call tradition, whether in disagreeing with medieval Catholic doctrine and developing distinctive theologies (the first “evangelicals,” such as Luther and Calvin), in disagreeing with church authority and developing new church structures (the “classical” evangelicals, such as the Wesleys and Whitefield), and in disagreeing with denominational domination and fostering a wide range of new types of Christian organizations (the “new” evangelicals of the latter half of the twentieth century, such as Billy Graham and the founders of World Vision, InterVarsity, independent universities, and many more). How “conservative” is the typical evangelical church service nowadays, with its six-piece rock band and preacher without even a tie? (The mind reels.)

Finally, when it comes to politics, evangelicals not only vote for various parties, rather than just the “conservative one.” Evangelicals can support the “conservative” option on some matters while supporting the “liberal” option on others. Despite the convenient categorization of North American societies into “left” and “right” (or “red” and “blue”—colours exactly reversed, depending on where you are in North America!), evangelicals and other Christians don’t necessarily and neatly fit into those categories.

Even The New York Times gets it now. The same Christians can support a radically conservative pro-life position and plead for a welcoming policy for immigrants. Indeed, the same Christian recently did that: the Pope. Rick Warren of California’s big Saddleback Church and of his even bigger bestseller, The Purpose-Driven Life, can support environmental causes while preaching an old-time gospel. And the National Association of Evangelicals’ Richard Cizik can be open to the political prospect of civil unions for homosexual couples while maintaining traditional evangelical concerns.

—Except apparently many evangelicals aren’t ready for Cizik to do that. They want evangelicals lined up all together with their own views. So Cizik has had to resign, and James Dobson & Co. are crowing over a “victory” for their side.

It would be good if Dr. Dobson could catch up with the NYT on what it means to be an evangelical (or any other person of faith) when it comes to deciding about political positions.