It is, fellow conservatives, possible to be too conservative. And moving too far to the Right can be just as destructive as moving too far to the Left.
Scot McKnight comments at Jesus Creed that evangelicals with “conservative” theological commitments have a “special radar” for those who are moving Leftward. He offers three points for discussion:
Among conservative evangelicals moving to the right seems never to be wrong.
Moving to the left, however, is either on the way to being wrong or is in fact already wrong (for the right).
To the left is a slippery slope, to the right is faithfulness (even if it is extreme).
In the first two statements, if you replaced the word wrong with the word dangerous, then they would be correct. Conservative evangelicals frequently act as though moving Right is sometimes wrong but basically harmless, whereas moving Left is not only wrong but dangerous. Or, put differently (and in this sense Scot’s principles could be correct), moving Rightward can be factually wrong but not morally wrong, whereas moving Leftward is both factually and morally wrong. Let me give two examples:
Example 1: Old Earth Creationists (who believe the Genesis account of Creation is mostly literal, but the cosmos is very old) will generally regard Young Earth Creationism (in which Genesis is literal and fixes the age of the cosmos at something like 6000 years) as an error but a basically harmless one; yet they will generally regard Theistic Evolution (which takes a less literal view of Genesis and believes God deployed the evolutionary processes that produced human beings) as not only wrong but spiritually treacherous. OEC’s will smile and nod at YEC’s; they will (generally) not feel a burning need to convince YEC’s of their error. Yet they will feel a burning need to convince Theistic Evolutionists that evolution and Christian theology are incompatible. Moving to the Right is harmless; moving to the Left is dangerous.
Example 2: Evangelicals who are moderately conservative politically will often view their more conservative brethren (say, dominionists) as wrong, maybe even embarrassing, but benign, while they view their more liberal co-religionists as not only wrong but dangerously wrong. If you are Center-Right, you may disagree with those who are very stringent on issues like crime and immigration, or who can go on for hours about the evils of Washington and government power, but you don’t feel obligated to argue against them. On the other hand, if you hear someone advocating open borders, or the legalization of marijuana, or someone who wants to massively expand the government (split infinitives are sometimes helpful), you think their ideas are trending in a dangerous direction.
So, why is this? Why do moderately conservative evangelicals (like myself) show little concern when someone goes too far to the Right, and lots of concern when someone moves too far to the Left? Let me offer three reasons.
FIRST, it partly has to do with the very nature of conservatism. One of the handiest ways of distinguishing conservatism and liberalism (and it’s false if taken to an extreme) is that Conservatism believes that the True, the Good and the Beautiful are in the past, while Liberalism believes that the True, the Good and the Beautiful are in the future. As a rule of thumb, conservatives are trying to conserve a heritage that was handed down — by God, by Moses, by the Early Church, by the Founders, etc.; liberals are trying to progress to an ever-better realization of always-evolving ideals. It’s conservation versus progression. While conservatives allow that some changes and developments have led to better expressions of the truths and values that were given to us, they’re instinctively suspicious. Sometimes one has to step down the slippery slope just a little bit — but those “old-fashioned” views (i.e., Young-Earth Creationism or unforgiving attitudes toward law-breaking) are higher-up the slippery slope, while the “progressive” views are further down the slope, gathering a momentum that may be hard to arrest.
SECOND, it (also) partly has to do with the very nature of modern evangelicalism. Modern evangelicals view the surrounding culture (and not without reason) as rife with temptation, sin and falsehood. It is generally (again, note that this is a generalization) believed that Jesus Christ suffered persecution and crucifixion not because of an accident of history. He didn’t just happen to find himself in a time and place when his message was rejected. Rather, there’s a fundamental opposition between the ways of righteousness and the ways of the world. There are basically different values, profoundly different believes, and thoroughly different worldviews that animate the Church universal and the world.
Since evangelicalism is generally more conservative than the surrounding culture, a movement to the Right is a movement further away from the world while a movement to the Left is an accommodation, and it establishes a harmful precedent of compromising with the world. Isn’t moving toward the world, becoming more like the surrounding culture, a surrender of our distinctness, a harm to our witness, and slinking in the direction of unfaith? So evangelicals would rather fall to the Right than fall to the Left.
THIRD, moderately conservative evangelicals are frequently warned of the dangers of straying too far down the slippery slope, of too much compromise with worldly values — that is, they’re warning about the dangers of growing too liberal, but they’re very rarely made aware of the dangers of being too conservative. The truth is, of course, that becoming too conservative can be just as damaging to faith, and just as damaging to our witness, as becoming too liberal.
I have to agree with biblical scholar Peter Enns, for instance, that Young Earth Creationism, especially when it argues that a Christian cannot accept evolution, is both “wrong and harmful.” The truth is: our minds and our hearts and souls all together can rejoice in the truth and redemption that are delivered by Jesus Christ. But this kind of attitude creates a false Either/Or for many young Christians: either they must accept what seems compelling to their minds, or they must accept what their parents are passing down to them. Many youngsters raised in the church, given this false and completely unnecessary Either/Or, will choose to leave their faith. Anything less, they’ll feel, would be intellectually dishonest.
I would also agree with sociologist Bradley Wright that when we insist on unquestioning conformity to traditional Christian teachings, we’re going to lose our young people. It is not so much faithfulness as it is fear when we encourage our children never to question the beliefs we’re passing down to them. It is damaging to our witness — hugely damaging — when we show fear of open inquiry and respond in reactionary ways to questions and criticisms about the faith. We are called to conserve the fundamental truths and values that God communicated to us through Jesus Christ, but always also to reassess how we understand and apply those truths and values in the light of the best knowledge available to us. That’s why we understand, today, that it is more Christian to oppose slavery than to support it.
The truth is, and this is where I agree with Scot McKnight on the deeper truth of the matter: the slippery slope falls away on both sides of faithfulness. On the Left side, we fall toward conformity and licentiousness and abandonment of the faith. On the Right side, we fall toward paranoia, legalism, and a cold and fossilized faith that is really no faith at all. We cannot trust in the systems of the Right or the Left. We cannot trust in systems at all. We have to trust in a Person, not in a Predilection or a Philosophy. That Person will lead us forward, along the ridge-top above the slippery slopes.
I am conservative, measured against the American median. But I don’t seek to be conservative. I don’t want to be conservative; I don’t want to be liberal. I want to be faithful. Sometimes that faithfulness will require me to hold fast to an ancient belief in the face of the world’s mockery; sometimes faithfulness will require me to let go of my hidebound forms of understanding, and venture forth into an unseen and unstable future.
I hate to say this, but I sincerely believe that Ken Ham does just as much damage as Shelby Spong. Neither one is harmless; both need to be corrected. One leads people away from the faith by repulsion. The other leads them away from the faith by attraction. But the outcome is the same.