Long-Term Cultural Tasks for “Conservatives”

In the wake of Barack Obama’s reelection last month, I have been reflecting on the great dismay of many Christians who had been (over)confidently predicting a victory for the forces of conservatism.  Some critics have been arguing that these Christians have constructed for themselves a problematic understanding both of the sort of country we live in and about the relative influence of Christians in the electoral cause of conservatism.[1]  According to such critics, the reelection of Obama, whose values are, from the viewpoint of conservative Christians, not merely “un-American” or “Leftist” but flatly ungodly, demonstrates the problematic nature of the basic story conservatives have been telling themselves about who they are, what kind of world they live in, and what their prospects for cultural dominion are.  Other voices urge, however, that there are alternative ways to interpret the data, and so this defeat need only be considered short-term. [2]

My sympathies lie more with the first category of evaluation.  Although I can see the rationality of the second sort of response, I have been convinced by numerous conversations I’ve had this past election cycle that  the viability of Evangelical Christian political theology in the long term depends on us finding ways to break out of the endless repetitions, in four year cycles, of run-of-the-mill rhetoric about “Conservatism” and “Liberalism,” “Right vs. Left,” “Capitalist vs. Socialist,” and so on.  We need more for our cultural viability than a comfortable “Us vs. Them” story coupled with a theological triumphalism that relies upon tired aphorisms about the “Judaeo-Christian heritage” of America and the supposed indispensability of a “conservative” America for the forward progress of the Gospel in the world.

In truth, I believe that as Christians we need to transcend the very notion of “conservatism” as unhelpful to advancing the cause of Christ.  The word “conservative” does not necessarily denote a positive quality – it means only “resisting change.”  If a proposed change is bad, of course it is good to be “conservative.”  But what if a proposed change is good, and “conservatives” choose to resist it because, well, they’re conservatives and resisting change is what conservatives do?  This clarification shows that the moral status of being “conservative” should not be treated as a given.  There is no necessary moral virtue in being “conservative.”  There is not even necessarily anything particularly Christian in being “conservative,” since Christianity was early on described as a Faith that “turned the world upside down.”  (How’s that for resisting change?)  As people committed to a kingdom cause that transcends all earthly political schemes, I believe we Christians ought to begin to explore what politics might look like outside of the safe, intellectually-comfortable commonplaces our culture dictates to us, such as the dichotomies listed above.  We ought to ask seriously whether it is time to stop identifying the cultural cause of Christianity with the so-called “conservative” agenda and instead develop a more holistic perspective on politics and culture.

This election season, analyses from a variety of Christian pundits  relied entirely upon the basicality to American politics of the dichotomous Conservative / Liberal narrative.  In many conversations of which I was a part, pundits in the grip of this digital thinking about complex human realities refused to consider any other options.  By that I do not merely mean they refused to consider third-party candidates as legitimate options for Christians.[3]  I mean that these pundits refused to consider the possibility that the intellectual and social horizons available to Christians transcend the parochialism of the present-day two-party system, refused to consider that “politics” might be something quite different than an endless (and cyclical) process of bickering over whether Elephants or Donkeys are going to control the power mechanisms in Washington, D.C. for the next four years, refused to consider that the forward progress of Christ’s Gospel in the world might be best served by quite other sociocultural realities than those bearing the sacred imprimatur, “I’m Just The Way Things Are, and I approve this message.”

The “conservative” response to the re-election of Barack Obama has, in my view, shown that take on American politics to be an illusion that does not strengthen but actually debilitates Christian cultural engagement.  Some wag or another has said that the perceptions of Evangelical Christians about the state of the culture are always 10 years behind the actual state of the culture.  I think this election has given us prima facie evidence of the truth of this judgement.  That “We the People” could re-elect a man like Obama shows that the typical conservative melodrama about “the culture war” is not merely overwrought, but out of touch with reality.  The battles on which conservatives perpetually focus their (waning) cultural energy, battles over abortion, so-called “alternative lifestyles,” saving public education, and even “smaller government” were in fact lost years ago.  The re-election of Obama says that enough people in this country simply do not care enough about abortion, the traditional definition of marriage, what sort of scientific theories and ethics are taught in the public schools, and so forth, to make a difference acceptable to conservatives.  Victory in the culture war is, in other words, still a prospect only in the minds of Evangelicals.  In the real world we lost some time ago, and have been steaming full speed ahead in the opposite direction.[4]

If America really was the kind of country that the conservative pundits have said it is, after four eye-opening years of Obama we would have elected Mitt Romney on November 6th.  If America really was the kind of country that the conservative pundits have said it is, those same pundits would not now be falling backwards over their own feet invoking slogans about how, well, no matter who is in office Jesus is still on the throne.  Why didn’t they say this before the election?  Because they were too busy acting as if Jesus was going to fall off the throne if Obama got re-elected.

To me it is an open question whether conservative pundits – particularly theologians, who spend much of their intellectual energy mapping the early 20th century conservative / liberal dichotomy in their discipline onto the rest of culture, as if organic matters such as a whole culture can be explained in such a simplistic, digital fashion – will learn from the re-election of Obama to advocate something better, something more politically healthy, than their standard children-of-light-vs.-children-of-darkness worldview.  Whether they do or not, barring radical supernatural intervention, the culture will keep chugging along, as cultures do, developing toward its chosen telos, which is evidently not conservative in nature.  Conservatives will either accept this reality and adapt their rhetorical presentation of their ideas to it, or they will continue to tell their fantastic, self-isolating “Us vs. Them” stories and only perpetuate a cultural ghetto mentality among their followers.

To avoid the perpetuation of the ghetto mentality, I would like to offer the following list of cultural tasks that I think Christians ought to pursue for the next four years.  (In truth we need to pursue them over a much longer term than four years, but we are all geared by our system to think in terms of four year cycles, so I am appealing to that time increment for purposes of generating constructive thought.)  Over the next four years we need to commit ourselves to influencing everyone we can in our own circles to think outside the tiny intellectual boxes of the conventional wisdom of punditry.  What we need as American Christians obviously living in a post-Christian culture is an increasing number of people who can think for themselves – and think for themselves with more intellectual resources at their command than the pundits apparently have.

First, we need to work to persuade as many as possible to ditch the notion of politics as the manipulation of large-scale power mechanisms so as to force others to do what we want them to do.

Second, we need encourage as many as possible to stop viewing history through the lens of the last 236 years (or even just the last 100), and instead develop a healthy appreciation for where America actually stands in the ebbs and flows of history.

Third, we need to undermine the false notion that we as American Christians have special insight into the workings of Providence, such that we are justified in painting politically soteriological pictures about the results of mere 4-year election cycles.

Fourth, we need to foster a spirit of inquiry in those who are ordinarily content to let popular preachers and theologians do their political thinking for them.

Fifth, we need to spend less time being hypnotized by the Organized Sophistry of the activities in Washington, D.C., and turn our eyes mostly to local level work, with our neighbors, where all the real political action is.

These are large statements in need of greater explanation and defense.  Over the course of several more posts, I will labor to do so.


[2] See Brian Mattson, Election 2012: Let’s Not Be Hasty: “The overall American electorate was significantly smaller this year than in other recent elections. Barack Obama’s numbers were down a whopping 8 million in 2012 compared with 2008 (seeming to reflect a heavy movement away from Mr. Obama’s brand of liberalism), and Mitt Romney failed to retain all the voters John McCain had won four years earlier. In other words, we do not have a very reliable metric to really know what the “American electorate” thinks, since a substantial portion of that electorate (frustratingly) failed to give us any indications.”
[3] Although it was often astonishing to observe the lack of charity exhibited by many trusted Christian leaders, particularly Reformed ones, toward other believers who thought differently than GrOuPthink allows.

[4] The endless warring of Conservatives and Liberals over hot-button issues like the causes noted above have caused many intelligent Christians to think there are profound differences between the two viewpoints.  But this is false.  Both viewpoints share the same vision of the most fundamental issues, and differ with each merely on matters of practical strategies for reaching the shared goals.
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