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.

0 Responses to “When Is a Conservative (Evangelical) Not a Conservative?”

  1. Norvel Turner

    I knew Fred Bruce.

    Fred Bruce was a friend of mine.

    Richard Cizik, you’re no F. F. Bruce.

  2. Martin LaBar

    Thank you. One of the first things to do, when discussing a controversial subject, is to define terms. “Conservative” is poorly defined, or, rather, means too many things to too many people.

  3. Alan

    Rather than define terms, I think we need to dump some of them. “Conservative” and “liberal” are singularly unhelpful labels, so I avoid using them whenever I can. More often than not, they are shorthand for “people we don’t like” and “people who are like us,” much like the way lazy journalists talk about “left-wing” and “right-wing” positions or people. I gave up when I came across news articles referring to “right-wing communists.”

    Back to John’s point, though. Christians do the gospel a disservice when they lock it into alignment with any particular suite of political options. Couldn’t agree more — a lot of Canadian Christians must be waking up to the realization that their support for the federal Conservative party is not going to take them where they want to go. (Nor would unqualified support for any political party.)

  4. dopderbeck

    I’d like to push even harder and ask what we mean by “theologically conservative”. I think if you scratch most theologically conservative evangelicals — as we define what theologically conservative means within evangelicalism — you’ll find that they are politically conservative. And if you scratch most theologically moderate or liberal evangelicals, you’ll find they are politically moderate or liberal. Conservative evangelical theology — the hallmark of which is a very strong emphasis on detailed inerrancy — leads to a defensive, culture war mentality, which leads to the kind of libertarian politics we in North America call “conservative.”

    Of course, most theologically moderate-to-liberal evangelicals are considered “conservative” if not “fundamentalist” in the broader world of theology, but that’s another labeling problem.

  5. mac

    Indeed, a key reason that gay marriage opposition succeeded in 3 states was due to the high African American turnout in the Nov 4 elections. Even though the African American electorate is consistently 90% liberal in their voting, most Black Christian voters in America are staunch social conservatives.

  6. Allie

    You’re very right, Alan. More to the point, trying to align the Gospel with any particular political agenda (regardless of what stripe) runs the risk of missing the entire point of the Gospel!

    Thanks for this, Professor. I’ve often wondered but what I’m not a political/theological mutt: conservative on some issues, liberal on others, moderate on still others, and as often, felt just a little alone. Thanks for illuminating the faces of others like me.


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