For the next few weeks, I’ll be busy with finals and research papers. For the rest of this month, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of my very first posts from before I had a small, but loyal, following. If you’ve never gone digging in the archives, these may even be entirely new. Have fun!
In some ways, the stereotype that all evangelical Christians are conservative is easy to dispel. All that’s really necessary is to describe the diversity that exists within the faith community on issues such as teaching evolution in schools, abortion, feminism, and gay rights. Even the very question of how faith should influence one’s politics is a topic of debate within the Christian community.
But it’s no fun if we don’t do a little deconstruction first.Where did this stereotype come from? Why does it still have such influence over how Christians are perceived? Why did I add “evangelical” to the title this time?
As I’ve tried to demonstrate in previous posts, it’s often either language itself or preconceived notions about language that cause miscommunication. We know what we mean when we describe someone as Christian, evangelical, or conservative, but it’s likely that we mean something a little different than the person we’re talking to, even if they’re also using the words “Christian,” “evangelical”, or “conservative.” I’ve personally witnessed conversations in which people continue to talk in circles around each other because they’re using exactly the same words, but intending different meanings.
“Christian” is a broad term used to describe someone who believes that the Judeo-Christian God exists, that Jesus was His son, and that the teachings of Jesus are trustworthy. An evangelical is a subset within Christianity with a more specific set of beliefs. An evangelical will usually say that salvation requires (1) a belief that Jesus died to pay for the sins of humanity; (2) that the Bible is the ultimate authority for belief and behavior; (3) that sharing one’s faith—and therefore allowing others to be saved—is essential. (Fundamentalism is an even more distinct subset of Christianity and doesn’t have a lot to do with our discussion.)
The word “conservative” is more problematic. It can mean someone to whom the most important value in life is stability and for whom the greatest evil is change. It can also mean someone who holds to a specific set of views on social issues such as feminism, gay rights, abortion, etc.
To confuse the issue even more, conservative can also mean the philosophical belief that the individual alone is responsible to provide for and protect himself and that the purpose of government is only to preserve individual liberty, not to make sure that everyone is provided for. This type of conservative usually believes in minimal government and the free market system of economics. Pretty much the only thing that most people do agree on is that conservative is the opposite of liberal, whatever that means.
For the purpose of deconstructing the stereotype that all Christians are conservative, I will use the term social conservative to mean those who hold to traditional views on social issues. The term political conservative will be used to describe someone who believes in individual responsibility, small government, and the free market system. A person who hates any change and wants to live forever inside Leave It to Beaver is just…homesick. Hopefully, the term Republican and Christian Right are self-explanatory.
The rise of the Christian Right in the 1970s has been the subject of not a few doctoral dissertations and the philosophical underpinnings of social conservatism can be traced all the way back to the Puritan settlers. The split between mainline Protestantism and evangelicalism in the early 20th century caused many evangelicals to withdraw from the culture-at-large, but the 1973 Supreme Court Decision legalizing abortion mobilized them once more.
By the early 1980s, the Christian Right was led by men like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Unfortunately for everyone involved, what began as an earnest concern for the moral direction of the country got all mixed up with the belief that somehow the United States was God’s chosen nation. Soon faith and politics were just a big mishmash, leading to the assumption that to be considered an evangelical, a person must also be a social conservative, a political conservative, and a fan of “The Left Behind” series.
Fortunately, all that is necessary to dispel the stereotype that all evangelical Christians are social and political conservatives is to notice the many nuances that exist in both groups and individuals. There certainly are some evangelical churches that focus only on individual conversion at the expense of social conscienceness, but there are also many churches that consider social justice an essential part of living out the mandate of Christ. Yes, there are evangelical churches that advocate political platforms from the pulpit, but there are also many that purposely avoid politics so that people from all political persuasions can feel welcome.
To further complicate matters, an individual Christian can be an evangelical but not a political conservative. An evangelical can be a political conservative but not a social conservative. A social conservative does not have to be an evangelical, and there are plenty of political conservatives who are not only not evangelicals, but not even Christian.
Even more surprising, the same evangelical can hold a “conservative” view on abortion, but a “liberal” view on gay rights. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
The simple fact is that honest, sincere evangelical Christians can and do hold a variety of views on both political and social issues. While embracing the stereotype may be easy (certainly easier than trying to follow the preceding explanation), it simply does not accurately reflect the truth about how nuanced the faith of loving, committed Jesus-followers can be.