Before we get into today’s topic, some exciting news. Learn the Gospel (part one of the new Two ways to live training framework) has finally arrived, and is available for purchase. (In Australia, that is. It will be a few more weeks before the books find their way through the US ports and land in our American warehouse.)
I know many of you have been wondering and waiting for it to be available, and are keen to think how this resource could be used to teach the fundamentals of the gospel in your churches.
To this end, Matthias Media is encouraging churches to run a pilot program in Term 4 (say in two or three small groups) to see how Learn the Gospel fits and works in your context—and offering a friendly bulk price to help you have a go at this. If you’re in Australia, and would like to participate in this pilot, and test the waters for how your church could utilize Learn the Gospel, send an email to Gavin Shume (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(This is an invitation only pilot—just for Payneful Truth subscribers and a few other churches we’re asking.)
But onto this week’s subject …
Who wants to be a conservative?
I’ve lost count how many times over the course of my life that ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ have fought over different issues in my (Anglican) denomination.
Through the fog of time, different figures and controversies rise up and recede in my memory. I see Archbishop Peter Carnley (at that time the Primate of Australia), arguing that the resurrection was a spiritual experience rather than a physical event, and that Christ was not the only path to salvation—and then the godly, gracious Archbishop of Sydney, Harry Goodhew, copping a pounding in the secular press for daring to object (that was in around 2000 I think). I see the radically revisionist Bishop John Spong emerging from the mist, visiting Australia not long afterwards at the invitation of Carnley and the ‘Progressive Christian Network’. And once again the nasty ‘conservatives’ were the ones who criticised Spong’s denial of pretty much every tenet of orthodox Christian doctrine.
Then I think of the long-running skirmishes (starting back in the 80s) over multiple issues—women’s ordination, gay ordination, the blessing of same-sex unions, and more. In each case, the ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’ sought to change or update the doctrine and morality of Christianity, and in the opposing corner were the ‘conservatives’. And given that on all these issues I found myself barracking for the conservatives, I guess that makes me one. And you too, quite possibly.
So how do you feel about being a ‘conservative’?
I can’t say that the label thrills me to the core.
What’s a ‘conservative’ after all? When we think ‘conservative’, we think of a stick in the mud; a reactionary; a stuffy, buttoned-down member of the establishment who wants things to stay the same. Conservatives are risk averse, change averse, and very likely excitement averse. They wear cream blazers over blue chinos. With their thin, cold and (invariably) white hands, they cling to the dogmas and traditions of the past, in a desperate and doomed attempt to forestall the new and better future that everyone else is longing for.
Just what I always wanted to be—a conservative.
Of course, like many such words in our culture, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ are dependent on their predicate (or should be). It’s like being ‘narrow’ as opposed to ‘broad’. It entirely depends what you’re talking about. I would prefer my waist to be more narrow and my shoulders more broad. I’d like my fridge to be conservative of the food inside it, and my five-irons very progressive and if possible in the right direction.
It all depends on what you’re conserving.
Interestingly, this is also true in politics.
British and European political ‘conservatism’ is quite different from American ‘conservatism’, because they seek to conserve different things. I’ve recently been reading George F. Will’s book, The Conservative Sensibility, and he describes the difference like this:
[The European tradition of throne-and-altar conservatism] has generally sought to conserve institutions and practices, such as social hierarchies and established churches, that were produced by the slow working of historical processes spanning many centuries. American conservatism seeks, as Alexander Hamilton did in the Republic’s infancy, to conserve or establish institutions and practices conducive to a social dynamism that dissolves impediments to social mobility and fluency. So American conservatism is not only different from, it is at bottom antagonistic to British and continental European conservatism. The latter emphasizes the traditional and dutiful, with duties defined by obligations to a settled collectivity, the community. Because American conservatism is about individual liberty, it cultivates spontaneous social order and hence encourages novelty.
American political conservatism wants to preserve the norms and principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—which are documents largely designed to protect the freedom of the individual from the tyranny of a monarchical government. European conservatism (on the other hand) is much happier for the king to remain in place and to benevolently rule his subjects for their good, according to the ancient traditions. One of the ironies of history is that today, the enemies of American conservatism are not British monarchs but political progressives, whose ambition is to have the government exercise a greater more monarchical power over the individual and society.
(As for where Australian political conservatism fits into this schema, I’m not sure I can say. It hardly exists as an intellectual force. There’s no throne-and-altar tradition to protect, nor is there a libertarian Constitution to conserve. I suspect Australian political conservatism ends up being a more cautious and practical progressivism. Australians seem increasingly to believe that the government is the most important actor in society, that it is largely to blame for our problems and could solve them if only it had more power and money to spend. The ‘conservative’ side of Australian politics seems content to largely go along with these assumptions, offering an alternative that is supposed to be more cautious and sensible than the other guys.)
But I digress.
The point is: it all depends on what you’re conserving. And on the other side, what is it that you want to change or ‘progress’?
To come back to Christian debates, Anglican ‘progressives’ generally want to improve our doctrine to make it more attractive to the world, while keeping and conserving many of the cultural practices and traditions of historic Anglicanism. And so we have the strange spectacle of modernist Anglican Bishops, spouting ultra-progressive theology, while still clothed in the robes, liturgical practices and church buildings of a centuries-old tradition. Progressive content, conservative style.
The Anglican ‘conservatives’, at least in my part of the world, are the opposite. They have long since ditched robes, ancient liturgies, archaic language and ‘churchy’ architecture, while arguing vigorously for the unchanging, ancient truths of the Bible. Progressive style, conservative content.
To put it another way, Anglican progressives want to change the church’s doctrine to be more like the world. True Anglican conservatives want to change the world.
That’s why ‘conservative’ is never enough for me, as a label. It’s a bit like the American Constitution. It seeks to secure the rights of the citizenry for ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’; and so to ‘conserve’ this Constitution is to promote the personal freedom to experiment and change. As George Will argues, American conservatism encourages novelty.
In a similar way, the biblical truth I want to conserve and pass on to the next generation is a charter for transformation. It proclaims a truth that is revolutionary; that transforms lives and cultures, and that is not bound by times or places or traditions. The ancient, unchanging biblical gospel speaks to every culture and language and tradition, because it speaks of the Christ who is Lord of every person and time and culture, and who calls on all people, everywhere, to turn back to him. It looks forward to the time that John saw in his vision, when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev 11:7).
This is why true theological conservatives should be methodological and cultural progressives. The unchanging biblical truth we preserve and proclaim drives us constantly to change—to change our lives, to change our practices—because we want to change the world through the preaching of the gospel in the power of God’s Spirit. We want to see lives transformed through Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. We want to see our churches transformed, and to grow in love and faith and urgency for gospel mission.
So I guess I’m willing to be a conservative—just not in gospel ambition. Let’s not, for example, conserve ministry traditions and practices that are no longer fit for purpose, simply because we’ve always done them. If the trellis needs changing, let’s get to work with hammer and nail so that the vine has room to flourish. Let’s be constantly progressive in the way we proclaim the unchanging gospel truth that we conserve.
Maybe I’m not an unvarnished, unmodified conservative after all.
Perhaps I’m a conservative revolutionary.
Who wants to join me?
George Will’s book is fascinating. If you’re interested in politics and political history (and especially US politics) it’s worth a read, even (or perhaps especially) if your political leanings are more progressive. For me, one of the more fascinating aspects of his argument was his attempt to find a rational basis for ‘natural rights’ that did not rely on their God-given nature. He argues (pretty persuasively) that the US Constitution is about securing and promoting existing natural rights—rights that we self-evidently have by virtue of simply being human. As the Declaration of Independence puts it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, Will wants to argue that belief in the God who created all men equal and endowed them with these rights is entirely optional. If God is there, well and good; he also created us with the rational capacity to figure out what our natural rights are using our reason. But if God is not there (as Will himself believes), then we can still derive our self-evident natural rights purely from reason, using a version of what Will calls ‘rule utilitarianism’.
It’s all pretty tortuous and unconvincing (especially if you know anything about utilitarianism and its question-begging approach to the ‘good’). And sadly (for Will’s hopes at least) I think it explains why American conservatism as an intellectual movement is in decline, why its political influence is unlikely to grow, and why classical American republicanism is in real trouble. Our postmodern secular world has moved on from the Enlightenment confidence that we could establish morality and rights purely on the basis of reason. Nothing is self-evident any more in a society that does not share in basic Christian assumptions. The capital from a previously more Christian culture has been spent, and the (most Christian) moral virtues and assumptions that undergird American conservatism (individual responsibility, self-restraint, an acceptance of the hardness and unpredictability of life, and so on) are in major decline. And so the system is showing real cracks. The Congress has mostly given up writing laws. The Presidency is gathering more power to itself. There is genuine disagreement over the basic function of the Supreme Court. Both sides are increasingly declaring the other side illegitimate and evil. Populism is on the rise.
When you erode the foundations, eventually the structure starts to crumble.
Interestingly, the American figures today who are arguing for a return to Constitution-based freedom-loving conservatism (or ‘classical liberalism’) are nearly all Christians or Jews of some stripe or other, or at least fellow-travellers with those traditions. I suspect they are fighting a losing battle.
The Centre for Christian Living event on ‘Deception’ is coming up fast on August 24. Here’s a little video of me explaining what’s it about.
 George F. Will, The Conservative Sensibility (New York: Hachete, 2019), xxvii-xxix.