January 21, 2021

iMonk 101: I’m Not A Conservative Christian

christian-evangelical.gifiMonk 101 features essays from the IM archives.

Well, I’ve been trying to post for over an hour. Wrote and dumped a new piece twice. Then this one went nuts. I think I’ll go to bed.

I’m Not A Conservative Christian

A good post for this political season, exploring the relationship between our political conservatism and our evangelical spirituality. This post was the beginning of the end for a kind of political phase for me. If you’ve had the feeling that your political concerns were starting to determine your definition of Christian discipleship, then this essay is for you.

READ: I’m Not A Conservative Christian.


  1. That sucks to lose writing. You can make your firefox search query open in a new tab by doing this:

    1) type “about:config” into the address bar
    2) find the “browser.search.openintab” value
    3) change it from “false” to “true” (just double click it)

    Hope that helps!

  2. amen.

  3. Amen and Amen! Great essay…

    The shift happened for me when I worked for a prominent conservative evangelical in a ministry on Capitol Hill. Before that I worked for a republican Senator and was a wide-eyed conservative bent on changing America (through imposing a conservative version of biblical worldview) 🙂 Once in the ministry I was exposed to the seedy underside of the symbiotic relationship between the (conservative evangelical) Church and State.

    Not pretty!

    The way our parent ministry defined Christian discipleship often seemed like you had to be a white middle-class republican and any group or Other that didn’t toe the conservative party line was dangerous. In fact the experience near destroyed my faith and relationship to the Church were it not for discovering the emerging/missional church conversation and seeking to deconstruct my faith before the Cross.

    Anyway, thanks for reposting this.

  4. Excellent article, I loved it.

    While my politics cannot be described as “conservative,” really, I think your points are applicable to politics in general. As Christians, if we focus on political solutions to problems it will surely lead to pessimism and seeking solutions outside of the Kingdom of God.

    I should say my politics aren’t necessarily liberal, either. I’m a mish-mash preferring small government but think the government does have a little more responsibility than typical conservative politics would acknowledge…

    By the way, Michael, are your trackbacks working? I posted a few thoughts, but I don’t see the trackback.

  5. “I still believe that liberalism is about the use of tyranny to make people behave better, which is a very bad thing>”

    I find that to be a horrible misunderstanding of liberalism. What have you done to learn about real liberalism? What liberal books have you read that would help you understand that view point? Are you letting Rush Limbaugh describe Liberalism for you? If so, how accurate do you expect that to be? Aren’t you feeding the polarization by spreading disinformation? The frustration being experienced now in Christianity is a result of poor political education, the collapse of our free liberal press, and mass propaganda to passify and domesticate Christianity.

    Taking the authentic context of Jesus’ life and teaching seriously should naturally lead to a life of change oriented, hope based, political activism (liberalism). The coming of the kingdom is a BIG CHANGE to the status quo. If we take the work of the gospel writers seriously then we must realize they had the political balls to call Jesus the son of God instead of Caesar. What could be more Christ-like than ending injustice and protesting the Empire?

    I understand your frustration. I was once conservative also, but I love Jesus. Something had to give. Maybe your frustration points directly to a disconnection between your faith and your politics. Why not consider changing political views or at a minimum lining them up with Jesus’ political views? The outcome might be a robust faith which is based on the politics of hope. Change is possible. God’s will can be done. His kingdom can come. The hope and appreciation for positive change has a label. That label is liberalism. Jesus called it the kingdom of God. Do you really want to preserve (conserve) the past state of a world without God’s will?

  6. I worked for five years in Washington and left with a very bad taste for the idol of political activism of all sorts.

    But I spent two months in Ukraine this summer on an adoption journey, and left with a renewed appreciation for my evangelical brethren, whom I have been moving away from for years.

    In the very heart of Slavic Orthodoxy, it’s mostly American conservative Christians who are getting their hands dirty reaching out to the poorest of the poor.

    My denomination (PCA) has a strong mission committment in Ukraine, as do Baptists and a wide array of mega-chuch types. I did not meet any mainline Americans, or any other Christians who don’t identify as evangelicals doing mission work.

    As D.L. Moody once quipped, “I like the way I’m doing it, better than the way you aren’t!”

  7. I love the Moody quote, even as a Catholic. Another of my favorite quotes is (allegedly) from Billy Graham who, according to the story, when asked by someone what version of the Bible they should buy, he replied “The one you’ll read.” Amen!

    When it comes to how faith translates into political commitment, this is and should always be a difficult, tense negotiation for those of called to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. It is not a matter of eschewing conservatism in favor of liberalism or vice-versa. Liberalism cannot be reduced to attempting to use government in order to coerce morality, such an understanding is indeed a caricature. I tend to agree with Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, whose recent book ‘What Is the Point of Being a Christian’ is a must read, when he rejects secular categories, like liberal/conservative, for Christians. As my former ordinary now-Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco used to joke, to ask if I am a liberal or a conservative is like selling me a car and asking if I want either a gas pedal or a brake pedal.

  8. Jim,

    “I did not meet any mainline Americans, or any other Christians who don’t identify as evangelicals doing mission work”

    I come from evangelical circles, but one of the reasons for your observation may be because mainliners are sometimes more focused on justice rather than charity (there are many exceptions). Missions often focues on charity and that is still needed, but justice is something that has lager impact. Charity is feeding needy kids. Justice would be changing the legal and education systems so the next generation is not needy. Charity is giving a hungry man a fish. Justice is teaching him how to catch fish AND allowing him to fish next to you in the same fertile part of the river.

  9. Mike L.

    Having left the PCUSA three years ago, I believe their scarcity abroad has more to do with their diminishing numbers. Many PCUSA churches are struggling to pay their pastors, let alone give financial support to any kind of mission, or any other work devoted to justice.

    Your point about justice may have been true ten years ago, but the signs I see in the PCA are encouraging. Alot of PCA churches are setting high standards for working toward justice: http://www.pca-mna.org/urban/chalmerscenter.php

  10. I agree and I have hope also. I would suggest that the method for Christians to work for justice in our modern western world is NOT the church. The church is the sounding board for pronouncing critique of the empire. It is the place to express our pains and shoulder the pains of others. It is the place for motivation, encouragement and education about jusice. You don’t need more money for that. You can do that right now with little resources. Our (potentially) wonderful democratic governments are the best places to make large dramatic shifts toward justice. There is plenty of money in that bucket. We just need justice minded leaders who will direct that toward creating justice (not charity). That is an important mental shift for Christians to make.

    Separation of church and state is wonderful, but it does not mean that Christians should stay out of the public debate. Right now, churches are not motivating and governments are not implementing justice. I think the problem and the solution is in the hands of the clergy to educate and motivate.

  11. Mike-
    Can you please tell me what you mean by liberalism? “The hope and appreciation of positive change” sounds nice, but could be used as a definition of any political program, depending on what constitutes positive change. I might also point out that no political program can be eternally against the status quo, except perhaps for anarchism, which is not really a political program. Historically, liberalism has been marked by a concern for individual rights or liberties, usually construed as against the interests of collective agents (the state, nobility, church, guilds, etc.). In this sense, nearly the entire American political spectrum falls into broadly liberal categories. The exceptions are the more extreme segments of the religious right, assorted elements on the left edge of the spectrum (anarchists, some Marxists, the ELF, and so on), and a number of small communities, such as the Mennonites, which are usually not much involved in politics.

    My beef with liberalism as an ideology is that it requires everyone to meet each other as strangers by insisting on the primacy of the individual, since I am (ostensibly) a “person” rather than a student or a Christian or a Seattlite or the son of my father. The effect is that the entire public sphere becomes the governmental or legal sphere, and anything not easily regulated (religious beliefs, sex, etc.) is relegated to the private sphere. The difference between the right and left halves of American politics is primarily in how the boundary between the private and legal spheres ought to be drawn; there doesn’t seem to be much appreciation for a public, non-legal sphere.

    That being said, what happens in politics frequently doesn’t follow the lines of ideological liberalism, and is therefore more tolerable. I suspect that Mike and I would probably agree on a number of political positions, but I have a hard time swallowing the identification with the Kingdom of God with liberalism or any other political program.

  12. To me, liberalism means free thinking, critical analysis, with the hope for some better future. It means the best is yet to come. Conservative is the view that we need to preserve some era of the past. Conservative means that we need to protect rather than share and institute strict conformity to tradition at all cost rather than allow for growth and change. To conserve is to maintain the current balance of power.

    I realize the terms are bigger than that, but I feel like they have been spun so much by the opposite sides that now they have no real coherent meaning.

  13. Great thoughts, and very challenging. Like you said, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a political mindset – if only we could apply the same passion towards enlarging the kingdom. I’m suspect our *true* Adversary enjoys the amount of time and energy we pour into resisting mere political adversaries, as it takes the focus off of resisting him…

    Unrelated, I grew up in NJ, but I’ve been in eastern kentucky for a couple years now – for a while, I actually lived a block away from the Tates Creek Presby mentioned in your bio.

  14. Mike L. –

    You appear to be utilizing either the non-political, or the nineteenth-century political, definitions of liberal and conservative. Liberals in present-day America are more about preserving the status quo of the abortion-rights welfare state, while conservatives are pushing for change. But I think the whole debate over “change” vs. “tradition” is a red herring. Neither is a good unto itself; it all depends on what one wants to change or preserve.

    For instance, liberals tend to favor sweeping court decisions that overturn centuries of precedent — except when it comes to Roe v. Wade, when suddenly stare decisis becomes a sacrosanct principle. (Of course conservatives are sometimes guilty of similar inconsistencies.)

    I’m curious about your use of the word “empire.” I don’t recall Jesus ever using that word. I’m also concerned when you write about “Jesus’ political views.” I think you fall into the same trap as do conservative Christians (pace Michael Spencer) when you attempt to attach the authority of Jesus to your political agenda.

    The problem with using the state to obtain what has come to be called “social justice” (an almost Orwellian neologism) is that the state is a blunt instrument. I don’t think Jesus ever intended us to force others to do His will at the point of a gun, which is what you do when you use state power (a police officer’s gun, after all, stands behind every law and regulation).

    Then there is the pragmatic matter of what works. I doubt that I have to repeat the whole argument here, but in sum, decades of massive social program spending have created, not paradise on Earth (something I’m not so sure God intended us to do), but higher out-of-wedlock birth rates, fragmented families, more abortions, and entire communities dependent on government handouts. Studies show that church-based charity is more effective than government-run programs, and produces greater rates of self-sufficiency. For whatever that’s worth.

    I guess I’m agreeing with the original poster that politics is not the answer to all of our prayers. One reason so many Christians are drawn to conservativism is because it generally shares that view. Liberals, on the other hand, put more of their faith in the state’s power to solve everyone’s problems.

  15. Getting “sucked into the politcal mindset” and using the word “empire” is exactly what Jesus did. The meaning of empire is the same meaning used for kingdom in his day. The new testament is a clash of two different paradigms of kingdom (empire) – the kingdom of God vs. the kingdom of Caesar – The way of love and justice vs. the way of domination and injustice.

    Where are we suppose to follow Jesus, if it is not into jerusalem to confront the impreial leaders of the day? Should we stop outside the gates of our political capital and keep this revolution private or should we follow him into the city and stand with him? Shouldn’t we carry our cross along side him all the way? Shouldn’t we die to our self serving politics and be born again into the live giving community of God?

    As a liberal (in the way Jesus was liberal), I don’t put “faith in the state’s power”. I put faith in the idea that the vision of Jesus can be a reality. The “State” is not good or evil. It is a tool that reflects of our own values. Right now it reflects our bent to consuming. We can chose to let the state carry out God’s justice or we can continue to allow it to benefit only us at the expense of others. It is our choice. It starts with the ability to imagine another way. That is what Jesus was best at doing. He imagined another way and asked us to follow.

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