We human beings love to use labels to describe one another. On the one hand, this can be useful as a sort of short-handed snapshot to understand another person’s overall orientation. To say, for instance, that a person is politically conservative, moderate, or progressive gives you a ballpark idea of where they might be coming from on various issues. It alerts us to potentially sensitive issues, gives us an idea of where their priorities may lie, and helps us to better interpret their perspective and values.
The key word here is “ballpark”. Labels, taken too seriously, or misused, create all sorts of problems. For one thing, we each have our own particular understanding of what a certain label means, and our understandings differ from one another. Also, none of us fits neatly into labels. We’re all unique mixtures of beliefs, habits, values, etc.. It’s all too easy to make false assumptions and believe stereotypes. So while labels can be useful and are, to some extent, unavoidable, a wise person learns to use them with caution and to check their assumptions.
Enough about labels in general. I want to talk about a particular label often applied to me and to my part of the religious spectrum. In fact, I’ll slap it on myself. I’m a “Christian conservative”. What sort of picture springs into mind when you hear me describe myself that way? I’m sure that your perceptions vary widely from one another..
What I can’t do is give you one detailed, universally accepted definition of “Christian conservative” for the reason already mentioned – the limitation of labels. What I’d like to do, though, first, is clean up some inaccurate stereotypes associated with the term, at least as they relate to many of us who roughly fit into this category.
What being a “Christian conservative” does not necessarily mean
1. Being a Christian conservative doesn’t mean that I automatically endorse the Republican party and its platform
It’s true that many Christian conservative are Republican, because of key issues like abortion. But, personally, I’m not especially impressed with either main party and don’t rubber stamp anyone’s policies. Both groups have good ideas and bad ideas; people of integrity and people who lack it.
2. Being a Christian conservative doesn’t mean that I have a judgmental spirit
All of us are sinners; serious sinners. All of us make mistakes. All of us need forgiveness and patience from God and others. I’m no better than anyone else. The fact that I have a distinct set of moral values, which may disagree with others on certain points, does not mean that I have a condemning spirit toward them. I can disagree with someone and still love and respect them. That, in fact, is a biblical goal and, with God’s help I try to live that way. This leads to the next point:
3. Being a Christian conservative doesn’t mean that I’m intolerant
I’m using the old definition of tolerance here – that others should be allowed to choose their own beliefs and practices and still be treated with civility and respect. We live in a pluralistic nation, which allows for freedom of religion and belief and I honor that. Furthermore, God has given each individual freedom to make these choices for themselves. I honor that as well. It’s possible to differ with others and still be tolerant This also leads to the next point.
4. Being a conservative Christian doesn’t mean that I think we should try, through legislation, to turn this into a “Christian nation”
America is not a theocracy, nor has it ever been. I have no desire to impose Christianity upon those who resist it. On the one hand, I accept a reasonable separation of church and state (what’s “reasonable” is another whole discussion). On the other hand, everything we do is built upon our value system. Even secular humanism is based on certain presupposed values. It’s not metaphysically neutral. So I believe Christians have just as much right to bring their values into the discussion as do atheists, humanists, materialists, other religions, etc.
5. Being a conservative Christian doesn’t mean that I agree with what everything done under that banner
I disagree with some of what is done in the name of conservative Christianity. In fact, I’m embarrassed by it. It does fit the negative stereotypes and is just wrong. So we are not a monolithic group with rubber-stamped opinions. There’s actually quite a bit of debate and dialogue between us. This, of course, shows the limitation of labels.
6. Being a conservative Christian doesn’t mean that I don’t value others outside my group and want to learn from them
You don’t have to be like me for me to value you as a person. Nor do you have to fit under my label before you can teach me. I have learned a great deal from others who are not conservative Christians. Even when I don’t fully agree with another point of view, it’s often useful to hear it, in order to clarify my own thinking. Let’s move on to a second question:
How can I have a more productive relationship with conservative Christians?
I’m assuming here that you don’t consider yourself in the “conservative Christian” camp. Here are some ways for all of us to work together better.
1. I have a more productive relationship with conservative Christians by treating each as an independent individual
This is good advice for all of us, whatever label we fit under. As mentioned earlier, labels often create caricatures and stereotypes which can easily be mistaken. So take time to get to know individuals. Ask questions. Don’t automatically assume that you’ve got them pegged. Chances are, you’ll be nicely surprised by some of what you learn.
2. I have a more productive relationship with conservative Christians by being open and teachable
Again, this is good advice for everyone. We can all gain insight from one other, even if we ultimately disagree on certain points. This openness cuts down on unnecessary tension, antagonism, and misunderstanding. And you might actually gain worthwhile insights or facts.
3. I have a more productive relationship with conservative Christians by tolerating their “intolerance”
Ironically, the newest definition of “tolerance” is itself intolerant. According to the new definition, it’s intolerant to call another person’s view wrong – who are we to say what’s right or wrong? This definition is, first of all, hypocritical, since it criticizes those who set an absolute standard, by itself setting an absolute standard. It’s intolerant of intolerance. More importantly, conservative Christianity, which has been considered orthodox Christianity for most of its history, is founded on the idea of absolute truth. We believe that Jesus is only way to a saving relationship with the only true God. Like it or dislike it, this is what the Bible teaches and it’s what we believe. If we set it aside, to please the modern definition of tolerance, we’re also forced to set aside our historic foundational beliefs and reinvent Christianity to please modern standards. Is that fair?
Thanks for listening. Next time I’ll challenge conservative Christians to do their part as well.