This is a question that has been nagging at me for some time, so I thought I would put down my thoughts on the topic and more clearly articulate some of my personal positions as well. Let me begin by noting that there are two major difficulties of defining the term. First, there are so many contexts of the word “conservative” that it has almost lost its meaning. A quick survey of “Conservatism” on Wikipedia will demonstrate that there are millions of people who all think they are politically conservative, but most of them agree on very few things. Secondly, there are many contexts for the word; therefore, one must be incredibly clear as to what context they are discussing conservatism in. For example, many times religious conservatism is equated with political conservatism because many religious conservatives have accepted the political speeches about socially conservative topics within political conservatism and have adopted the party of political conservatism as their own. In this sense, the politicians have simply made a mockery of Christian religious conservatism by holding out a carrot of social conservatism in order to earn votes. I could rant about the dangers of being misled and inbreeding religion and politics, but I suppose that I could address that topic more fully at another time.
For now, I want to focus in on a particular facet of Christian religious moral and social conservatism (not to be confused with theological conservatism) that is prevalent in the more Fundamentalist branch of modern Christianity. It is the sense of conservatism that is used to demarcate boundaries on interaction with modern culture and whatnot. I’ll offer a few examples to frame what I’m talking about.
Sally and her friend were talking about modesty one day and her friend suggested that Sally should go to Macy’s because there was a sale on shorts going on that weekend. Sally replied that she holds to a conservative standard of dress and that she most certainly would not be buying such immodest clothing.
Jason wrote a blog post about his conservative standards of music, which kept him from using “sensual music” with a “rock beat.” He explained that these conservative standards were designed to keep him pure and holy before God.
Brad likes to tell his friends that he doesn’t go to movie theatres because he is very conservative in his approach to movies. Although he has never attended a movie theatre, he is confident that their use by the pornography industry is more than enough reason to avoid them. Brad is an avid promoter of Netflix as an alternative to movie attendance.
These three examples of conservatism within Christianity are identical in numerous respects.
First, conservatism for Sally, Jason, and Brad means adding moral standards on top of Scripture. There is room for a helpful discussion of where creation of personal standards ends and legalism begins, but that is not my point for this article. My point is that their idea of what is conservative and what is not is based, not on what the Bible says, but on their ideas.
Second, all of these standards gain their relative sense of value from other people, not from God, His Word, or the Gospel. When someone says that they are conservative, they are comparing themselves to someone else who is less “conservative” or “liberal.” Inherently, the idea of conservatism when used in such contexts is inherently man-centered.
Third, the notion of “conservative” in moral and ethical situations is almost often able to be substituted for “right” or “best.” Not only does it imply a man-centered approach, as indicated above, but it also implies that it should be the norm for other Christians too.
Fourth, conservatism, when defined in such a manner, is often based on a misunderstanding of Scripture, culture, or both. What does the Bible mean by “modest”? Do “conservative” alternatives to shorts really always demonstrate “modesty”? What do we mean by “rock beat”? Is music, apart from the lyrics, really able to make people think sensual thoughts? Is the modern movie theatre truly a place of pornography and sleaze? All of these questions and more could be posed in order to question the veracity of the way Sally, Jason, and Brad are using Scripture or understand culture.
Lastly, all three of these views are based on a flawed view of cultural interaction and what it means to be “holy” in contemporary culture. Whether or not they are aware of it or not, these three individuals are basing their idea of how to interact with culture by simply trying to fight against it. My question here would be: is this truly the paradigm for engaging culture taught throughout the Scriptures? In other words, we all believe that caving in to culture is a big problem; however, simply rejecting culture in toto is also a big problem. It results in an Amish-like approach to all things modern and reduces our effectiveness in reaching our culture. Christians who don’t understand pop culture, music, entertainment, and dress do not match up to their first-century predecessors like the Apostle Paul who cited the popular secular, pantheistic, Zeus-worshipping poets like Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) and attended popular entertainment venues which were filled with the Hellenistic emphasis on the “cult of the body” (1 Corinthians 9:26; Galatians 5:7; Philippians 3:14; 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7). If given the choice between popular fundamentalist conservatism and the Apostle Paul, I would choose the latter any day of the week.
So, to conclude, I think we have allowed Christians who add their preferences to Scripture, misunderstand Scripture and culture, and fail to take a biblical approach to culture to define terms such as “conservative” in the moral and social contexts of the day. This is a rather unfortunate occurrence. Conservatism should be inherently biblical. Just as subtracting from biblical ethics in order to merge with our culture is wrong, so adding to biblical ethics in order to fight against our culture is equally wrong. Attempting to claim a standard of conservatism that is higher than Jesus or Paul, in my mind, is not only ludicrous and legalistic, but borderline blasphemous. We ought not to allow individuals to call us to a “conservatism” that is anti-biblical, and we should return to defining these terms in light of a proper understanding of Scripture and culture. Based on the authority of the Holy Spirit, Who spoke through the Apostle Paul, we should not allow ourselves to be taken captive by the manmade philosophy of “conservatism” when used in such a fashion (Colossians 2:8, 20, 23). When we depart from Scripture in order to seek this kind of “conservative” ethical approach to life, we actually demonstrate a low or liberal view of Scripture. Isn’t it time that we define conservatism by the Bible and not visa versa?