Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is it Cultural Captivity to be Conservative Today?

It is not often that you hear of Al Mohler and Brian McLaren agreeing on something, so it deserves to be noted when it happens. Here is Mohler responding to McLaren's critique of Mohler's critique of McLaren:

Finally, McLaren agrees with me at “home plate,” though with a very different application:

Finally Dr. Mohler strides across home plate with a point I actually agree with: “At the end of the day, a secular society feels no need to attend or support secularized churches with a secularized theology.”

True enough (if by “secular” you mean “without any reference to God”), but the rub for many who identify as conservatives, I think, is that for them, secularism only comes in one flavor: liberal.

To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism - economic and political - simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.

And, in return, I must say that McLaren lands a firm punch with this statement. He is profoundly right in seeing much of presumably conservative Christianity as a sell-out to the idols of the day and a new form of Culture Christianity. He is right to challenge us to call this what it is and to root it out.

I think that Mohler is on shaky ground if he is agreeing with McLaren that much of conservative Christianity is a "sell-out to the idols of the day and a new form of Culture Christianity." Now, in Mohler's defense, he may simply be saying that conservative Christianity is selling out precisely by becoming less conservative and words in the previous line "much of presumably conservative Christianity" would seem to bear out this interpretation.

However, the general tenor of the paragraph, read quickly, seems to imply that there are two ways the church can "sell-out:" a liberal way and a conservative way, which are morally equivalent. I would argue that the liberal way leads right out of Christianity altogether. J. G. Machen, in his Christianity and Liberalism, argued this case and I think he is right. Look at the Episcopal Church today: only by excessive generosity and by ignoring reality can one call this organization a Christian Church. The fact that it has some genuine Christians in it does not affect the reality that it is firmly controlled by people who do not believe in the Biblical Gospel and who themselves need to be converted to Christ. Liberalism is an alternative to Christianity.

But conservatism is not an alternative to Christianity: it is the cultural expression of Christianity. It is Biblical discipleship in the non-religious areas of life. It was Christian influence that helped create some of the great ideals of Western civilization from limited government to freedom of religion to free markets to parliamentary democracy. Western Christendom is not beyond criticism but most of the legitimate criticism involves showing how it failed to live up to its own ideals. To seek to conserve those ideals is the essence of conservatism and it is a Biblical calling.

[In my next post, I will offer a definition of what I mean by conservatism.]


Gordon Hackman said...

Though I broadly agree with you on this, I'm not convinced that today's secular conservatism is always compatible with a Christian view of things. I'm convinced by the perspective of someone like Steven J. Keillor who argues in his excellent book "God's Judgements," that all of the positions on the political spectrum have their own ways of attempting to shield human actions from God's judgement.

I worry that saying that conservatism is simply the outworking Christianity could cause conservative Chrsitians to become unself-critical.

Craig Carter said...

Ah, Gordon, you are worried about Triumphalism. Isn't being self-critical only a little different from being self-indulgent - compared to knowing oneself to be a filthy sinner saved by grace?

If you feel the weight of original sin sufficiently keenly, you will never have to worry about superficial, triumphalistic, Utopianism. Of course, conservative Utopias are just as bad as any other ones; conservatives are just the ones who know how bad their Utopias are.

Life is tragic; it is what Tolkien called "the long defeat." Which is why we need salvation from the outside.