From childhood, conservative Christian was a term that I had always associated with as part of my identity. It was something I was taught to take pride in and to live up to in my daily actions. I never quite understood what the difference between a Christian and a conservative Christian was. I just knew I was a conservative Christian.
I often correlated this label with being the type of person who traded SpongeBob for VeggieTales, Destiny’s Child for Out of Eden, and modest clothing for whatever was fashionable. Certainly, there were many other key indicators of living a conservative Christian lifestyle. But in my childhood mind, these were really the things it boiled down to.
Nevertheless, identifying as a conservative Christian might not be the most helpful language to use in our world today, in part because it has many meanings. My understanding of what it meant to be a conservative Christian as a child wasn’t tied to any political vision or deeply entrenched in a theological camp but was more about upholding social traditions.
When we say we are conservative Christians, what are we really saying?
For some, to describe themselves as a conservative Christian is to make a statement about their theology. Back in the 1920s and 30s, a major schism in the American church necessitated some to clarify where they stood on the authority of scripture, as well as the death, resurrection, and atoning sacrifice of Jesus. This fundamentalist-modernist controversy really centered around whether or not the bible is true in all that it affirms.
This called into question the historical events and miracles. Some theologians were questioning whether or not Jesus literally, bodily raised from the dead or whether or not the virgin birth of Jesus was a historical fact. The “modernists” challenged the truthfulness of the bible and the “fundamentalists” continued to hold to the authority of scripture and all that it affirms.
To be socially conservative is to live with a deep conviction that Christians are to not participate in any worldly activities.
Not only would a socially conservative Christian steer clear of the explicitly defined offenses found in scripture; they would do their best to disconnect from anything the world finds pleasure in. Activities like consuming alcohol, listening to secular music, and dancing might even be prohibited for the socially conservative Christian, or even watching films or television deemed as less than family friendly.
This is the category of conservatism that most people today associate with being a conservative Christian or part of the “Christian Right.” If someone identifies as politically conservative, this means they support the Republican Party, and their vision is to conserve the moral and ethical state of the nation.
Why ‘Conservative Christian’ Isn’t Always a Helpful Term
The beliefs and convictions that drive people to live their lives in a certain manner is far more complex than the categories listed above, but it’s helpful to parse out the array of ideologies bound up in one term.
Nevertheless, the very definition of conservative seems to mean being averse to change or innovation while holding traditional views. But when we say that we are “conservative,” what exactly are we conserving?
An even more vital question to consider: Is this what Christ has really called us to do?
Has Christ called us to be adverse toward change when it comes to our theological views? I’d certainly say the authority of scripture is an issue we absolutely cannot shift on. To move away from the inerrancy, reliability, and authority of scripture is to remove our foundation. The revealed words of scripture have been given to us so that we have a guidepost to refer back to over and over again. If our beliefs, opinions, and philosophies run counter to scripture, then it’s us that need to adjust, not the word of God.
We need a true north. Apart from scripture, we don’t have one.
Has Christ called us to be averse to change when it comes to the way we engage with society? This one is far less black and white. Most who hold to a socially conservative vision for life are certainly drawing from a recurring theme in scripture. From the beginning of scripture to its end, the people of God have always been called to be set apart. This is what the word holy means. Many verses from the bible support a lifestyle of remaining socially conservative.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:12)
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
Those who have opted for a socially conservative worldview are interpreting verses like these as an instruction to be removed from the culture in favor of what they understand to be the Christian life. And to be sure, we must be mindful of the way we interact with the culture around us, whether we take pleasure and joy in the things nonbelievers do, and how we moderate the types of pleasures we allow to take root in our lives.
I can see the safety net of completely disengaging from the culture around us, with the hope being that we’d never fall into the sins of the world. The trouble is that this view of the world can become very legalistic and limit our opportunities to engage with those who don’t know Jesus.
When we wrap ourselves in an unrelatable bubble, it becomes difficult to share the light of Christ with others, something we are most certainly called to do. I believe there is a way to enjoy the gift of our culture, to partake in the joy they bring, without giving way to the sinful nature that may be wrapped within.
Even when being conservative is understood in a political sense, the term is still ambiguous and ever-changing.
Reexamining Our History
There was a point in our American history when Christians were not as active in the political space. Further, contrary to the popular understanding, it is not an accurate telling of history to think that conservative Christians as a political entity were spurred entirely by the pro-life movement following Roe v. Wade.
In fact, major Christian media organizations and even major denominations were pro choice to some degree, even in the years following Roe. It wasn’t until six years after Roe v. Wade when evangelical Christians began actively speaking against abortion.
So the formation of the conservative Christian movement in the political arena didn’t begin with the abortion issue. It actually began with a different Supreme Court case: Green v. Connally. The issue was that segregated private schools would no longer receive tax benefits because, well, they were choosing to remain segregated. Bob Jones University was one of the schools to receive a letter from the IRS asking about their enrollment restrictions, and they were in fact only allowing whites into their Christian university.
The narrative among Christian communities then became that the government was trying to interfere and regulate the operations of Christian schools. Leaders like Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell began to pave the way in Christian political activism.
The origins of the Christian conservative movement in the political sector don’t bode too well for us. I imagine many Christians were fearful in the 1970s about what kind of authority the government would have over their private schools, and I’m sure many parents and congregation members felt it was absolutely necessary to fight for their religious freedom. But on the basis of maintaining segregation? That’s anti-biblical.
Is it possible for conservative Christians to be involved and even push for conservative policies without reflecting the sin of its origin? Sure.
Unfortunately, the issue is the conservative Christians have aligned to the Republican Party so closely that the two are often indistinguishable. Though there may be some aspects of the Republican Party that align with Christian morals and ethics, not all of it does. There is no political party that should be a sole representative of the Christian way of life. Both parties have pieces of what Christians should stand for and fight for, but neither have all of it.
Politically, the term conservative Christian carries a lot of baggage—some brought in from the very beginning, and some that has been picked up along the way. I do believe there have been seasons in history when being a conservative Christian in a political sense stood for a lot of great things. But at this current juncture in time, it has become hard to decipher the beliefs of the conservative Christian from the Republican Party itself.
It has become so messy and convoluted that many simply use conservative “Christian” and “Republican” as synonyms.
Time for a Change
Overall, the term conservative Christian has taken on a lot of different meanings. It’s not clear what someone is trying to say about themselves when they identify as a conservative Christian. The term also brings a lot of assumptions from the hearer, and they may not be assumptions you want someone thinking about yourself.
Also, the term itself conveys that Christians are resistant to change. There are absolutely some aspects about the Christian faith that will never change, and we should never want them to either. But much of the Christian life is marked by radical change.
After all, is that not what Jesus came to do in our personal lives and in the world itself?
Calling ourselves conservative Christians does not bring the clarity it once may have brought and oftentimes leaves people confused about who we actually are. It may be time for us to start thinking of a new term to identify ourselves with that will truly exemplify Jesus and who he calls us to be.