Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Christianity and Conservatism - How do they stack up?

Today's National Review Online has a post by John Derbyshire on the death of conservatism.

And I thought I was a pessimist.

Whatever you think of conservatism's prognosis, he does offer a six-point encapsulated definition of conservatism, and makes a comparison between it and American conservatism, both Republican and "religious right" versions. Yet another example (and one much more thought out than Hitchen's screed) of how conservatism and christianity both overlap and oppose.

Here's my own take on the Six Points...

1. A deep suspicion of the power of the state.

This really shouldn't be limited to conservatives. Any student of 20th century history ought to be able to tell you what happens when you concentrate power in the central government - especially if that government has a nationalist or utopian agenda. And still being calvinistic, I get nervous when too much power concentrates in one area - especially government. Even if you try to wield it at first with the best intentions, power corrupts. Our fallen natures can't handle too much without becoming... changed. "I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it." (Elrond, Fellowship of the Ring.)

2. A preference for liberty over equality.

Here I am more ambivalent. Along with Pascal, I am deeply suspicious of any attempts to enforce "equality" or "social justice" from above, as that again requires concentration of power, and often substitutes one set of injustices for another (Pensees 60, 81). But again, unfettered freedom is also a problem, and the biblical witness is clear that when "everyone does what is right in his eyes", chaos ensues. I don't think that we have given enough thought to the fact that the Church transcends both democracies and dictatorships - the people of Christ have lived under both, and will continue to live in whatever societies man organizes himself into. Nations rise and fall. The Church will continue.

3. Patriotism.

Again, patriotism is a limited good at best. "Patriotism" is a relatively recent notion (at least as far as loyalty to an abstract national state overagainst loyalty to clan, race, creed, etc). I have travelled overseas a bit, and I can say I appreciate how much better (relatively) things are here in America than elsewhere, and I have no qualms defending her and my countrymen from those who would destroy us. But America is NOT the New Zion. We are a fallen sinful people just as every other is. Our record is not spotless (the treatment of Indians and slaves, abortion on demand, our wars of aggression against Mexico and Spain, etc). American Christianity has always had a peculiar problem that traces back to the original Puritan experiement of a "Christian nation". We see ourselves as "special" in God's eyes because of our Christian forebears, or because our government incorporated God-talk and some Christian principles into its structure. I think this is nostalgia and longing for a mythic past more than anything. If we are Christians, we are strangers and pilgrims (Phil 1), whose citizenship is in the city of God (Heb 11). And our culture is now nothing like what it used to be. As I have stated before, the sooner we come to realize our status as "internal missionaries" for a far Kingdom rather than "crusaders" seeking to restore a "Christian" past, we'll be much better off - and ironically, much better able to influence the culture.

4. A belief in established institutions and hierarchies.

This is the American context. We self-consciously based our nation on a rebellion against an established institution and hierarchy (the crown of England). That has had a profound effect on many aspects of the national character, conservaties included. That revolution was based on Enlightenment reason, which claimed priority over established institutions and hierarchies. But once they were gone, Reason itself was overthrown. So what remains to take the place of either? (That sound you hear is the madman Nietzsche running about with his lamp...)

Others far more capable than I (Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, George Marsden) have belabored my next point, so I will just summarize. American evangelical Christianity is about the most anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional mess you could imagine. Even I myself, who worship in an Anglican church when I'm home in DC, have some silent qualms about an authoritative hierarchy of bishops claiming their authority descends from the Apostles themselves. But whether or not you accept episcopal government, what you *do* have is the authoritative word of God, and the covenant community of the Church. We also have 2000 years (plus, couning the history of Israel) of history regarding theology, missions, martyrdom, etc. We do not live to ourselves - we have a legacy from the past, and an obligation to our brothers and sisters today, and also to the lost. And ultimately, our calling is to serve, to take the lowest place, to be slaves to all. Not very conservative, do you think?

5. Skepticism about the idea of progress.

I think that both modern conservatives and liberals have been guilty of worshiping at the idol of Progress. It may be more incorporated into the liberal philosophy, but it is (or was) the "spirit of the age" and everybody drank of it. Of course, after the pricetag of Progress comes due (nuclear waste, millions dead from "social engineering" in Russia, identity theft, pollution), it doesn't look nearly a sure thing. Again, the problem is not our technology (phyhsical and sociological) so much as our ill wisdom in using it (or in some circumstances, not using it).

Christianity is much more sanguine. I don't have any figures, but I would venture a guess that Ecclesiastes is one of the least-preached books in American churches today (apart from the forgotten uncles in the attic, the Minor Prophets). Ecclesiastes is a damning blast against any ideas of "progress", "happy materialism", or just about anything under the sun. The more years I accumulate, the more I appreciate its wisdom. Human nature cannot evolve and improve, because human nature is *fallen*. What is wrong with us, cannot be fixed by ourselves. Every Tower of Babel erected by man will be torn down and sown with confusion. For God will neither be mocked, nor will He leave His people to perish. He will both judge the pride of fallen man, and redeem fallen man to His own glory. And history will be capped off in the final analysis by the Return of Christ and the re-establishment of heavenly and earthly paradise. So there is progress in a sense - but not what most people are looking for...

6. Elitism.

Every human society has its elites - there's no getting around it. American liberalism is led by billionaires. Soviet Russia had the vlasti and the nomenklatura. High schools have the "cool kids". And any attempt to dislogde the elites simply puts another set in their place - George Orwell's Animal Farm is a telling literary parable of this. Making the "elite" the wealthy and productive is better in some sense, I suppose, than making the academic leftists the elite, but an elite is still an elite.

Of course, Christianity is about the most anti-elite religion on earth (if taken in pure form). The Pharisees were scandalized by Jesus' welcoming and forgiving tax collectors and prostitutes. The Roman noblility regarded Christians as the scum of the earth, worshiping a condemned criminal. Nietzsche's rants against Christianity's "slave mentality" are well-known. But again, if the real problem is human fallenness and human pride, where better should God manifest Himself than among those who are "at the bottom"? God chooses the weak to shame the strong, the poor to shame the rich, the powerless to shame the powerful, the foolish to shame the wise (I Cor 1-2). Insofar as our "conservatism" causes us to turn a blind eye and empty wallet to those who are not as well-off as we are, we have let our conservatism dull our witness to Christ.

Whew, that was a long one, and set me behind this morning by about an hour. But I hope it was worth it. It has certainly helped me remind myself of where I stand, and need to stand.


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