DOCTRINE SLOT 3: Conservatism

Third in series
In Part 1 we saw that liberals, those seeking freedom for the individual, were admirable for opposing tyranny… but that they were wrong if thinking that freedom lies in treating all choices as equally ‘right’ or in trying to escape good authority – like the authority of God’s good rules. Seeking to go one’s own way is not freedom – but leads to slavery.
In Part 2 we saw that socialists perhaps had something to teach us in their heart for the poor and oppressed. But that we should consider carefully the wisdom of investing too much power in the hands of the secular state – or in assuming the wealthy are evil or that God desires total equality. The sovereign Lord entrusts different amounts to different people – it’s what we do with it that counts.
And so to conservatism. It is perhaps seen as the ‘natural home’ for many evangelicals. However, I recognise that frustrates some of the younger among us.
What is conservatism?
In a way, conservatism is an anti-ideology. An ideology is a visionary body of ideas with which one believes they can change things for the better. Conservatives, on the other hand, are naturally suspicious of change and of new ideas. They fear that sudden change leads to uncertainty and disorder. They have put great stock in tradition, in existing institutions and hierarchies and in what has been proven to work. This might mean family values, the Church of England, the City of London or even certain well established schools. Conservatives also tend to be patriotic – fearful of rapid immigration or a loss of power to the EU.
What does it look like?
It is easy to assume that conservatism is the same as what is endorsed by the Conservative party here in the UK. That has more been the case in the past. Tories have traditionally avoided major changes and have been seen as protecting the class system, the monarchy, private property and even the British Empire against the forces of revolution. And whilst the party did accept the creation of the welfare state after 1945, this is perhaps an example of them sticking with what seems to work and not being too ideological about it.
However, Conservatives have increasingly come to represent business interests and have showed themselves willing to make changes for their benefit. This was particularly the case under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Whilst socially conservative, she made wholesale radical changes to the country in order to bring about free market capitalism. She was unusually strong in her ideological opinions – seeing socialism as a deadly enemy and aggressively cutting back the state.
In America too Republicans, traditionally the most conservative party, are no longer willing to sit back and let things happen gradually. Rather they are fiercely in favour of business and the military and are aggressive in standing against abortion or gay marriage.
What’s right about it?
Well it’s not co-incidence that Bible believing Christians have often seemed to support conservative parties above others. Where liberalism exists to grant individual freedom from rulers, conservatism upholds law and order – taking a more biblically correct view of human nature as flawed and in need of boundaries. Where socialists have urged the working classes to rise up in anger against the rich, conservatives have traditionally counselled respect and charity between the two.
Even nowadays, it is hard to see beyond the fact that it is most likely to be Conservative MPs who speak in favour of Christianity, of marriage, for pro-life issues. The Christian Institute keeps a record of how every MP has voted on issues it perceives as moral – recording their response by simple ticks and crosses. There is no getting away from the fact that, in most instances, Tory MPs have more ticks than non-Tory MPs. Yes there are Christian MPs in all three main parties but, for example, 12 newly elected MPs in 2010 were members of the Christian Conservative Fellowship, a Bible-believing Tory organisation including a member of the Cabinet, the Deputy Party Leader and the Attorney General. This proud Christian influence does not exist to anything like the same extent in the other parties.
Because conservatism is not a real ideology, it is hard to compare its core values against the Bible as I have done in my last two talks. However, in case we need reminding, Jesus, in Matthew 19, does preach the sanctity of heterosexual marriage:
at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
The Bible does lead us to oppose abortion, as God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”
And, where the world wants to change, water down or disregard our teaching, Paul writes that ‘Scripture is God-breathed’, Luke that ‘you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’.
Therefore, if conservatism looks, even to some extent, to uphold these things where others want to move on from them; that is indeed a good thing.
What’s wrong about it?
However, we shouldn’t equate conservatism with good. The Pharisees were highly conservative, morally and politically. They wanted things done as they always had been and, in their eyes, Jesus was a dangerous radical – threatening to upset the balance of power and ferment an uprising. Therefore they wanted him gone by any means necessary.
In the same way, the High Church, whether Catholic or Anglican has generally placed too high a premium on the way things have always been done – considering the biblical demands of Christ as an inconvenient imposition and sometimes preferring to focus on the sanctity of old buildings and sacraments. We should not be too conservative to be able to stomach Christ’s New Wine.
And, in practice, neither should we spare conservative politicians the same scrutiny we would afford to others. For a start, many are not Christians. Moreover, here, and particularly in the USA, they may be keen to be seen going to church but it may not keep them from indulging in sharp business practise or in extra-marital infidelities.
Indeed we may have significant questions for conservatives if they lack compassion, or if they favour the wealthy or privileged, reminding them of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus promised blessings to the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted. And where the right wing of conservatism tends towards xenophobia in its patriotism, we should remember the likes of Galatians 3, teaching that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’.
What should we do about it?
Well if one among us is TOO conservative, they may need a kick up the bum. If something can be done better and more profitably for the sake of the gospel – then we should be radical enough to change it! In truth, if we were bindingly conservative then we probably wouldn’t be here – in a church plant meeting in a school! Our very existence as a congregation is fairly radical in the eyes of some Anglicans.
Our danger is perhaps that sometimes we’re not respectful enough of our heritage, of elders, of hymns or prayers that have served us well and aren’t easily improved upon.
It’s important that the temptation in a young congregation to be seen as liberal, trendy and interesting by the world doesn’t tempt us against defending Christianity, morality or the sanctity of life – however old-fashioned or illiberally conservative those causes may seem.
The truth is, as this series ends, our ideology should be Bible-centred Christianity. That won’t chime exactly with any of the world’s ideas, so we shouldn’t ultimately be locked into or compromised by, any of them. We should endorse the good in all great ideas, but must never let ideals, parties or politicians become our idols.


1 comment so far

  1. Julian Thomas on

    This is an excellent piece

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