I use the term “conservative” or “conservatism” a fair amount on this blog. But what do I mean by that? I’d like to define those terms in this post–and offer some food for thought along the way.
Not all conservatives fit every characteristic below. Indeed, conservatives can vary quite a bit in what they believe. In addition, I’m focusing on theological conservatism, not political conservatism (although the two tend to overlap). Also, this is not necessarily exhaustive.
1. Dictionary Definition
To quote the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, conservatism is:
belief in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society
dislike of change or new ideas in a particular area
2. Preserve the Past and Don’t Change
This is essentially the dictionary definition of conservatism. After all, the word “conservatism” comes from the word “conserve”, meaning to preserve what we already have. The Amish are an exaggerated example of conservatism. It’s been over 100 years since the introduction of the automobile, electricity and telephones, but they still live a somewhat 1800’s lifestyle. I say “somewhat” because they end up compromising with the 21st century by allowing things like cell phones and generators.
The rest of the conservative Anabaptist church has the same mindset as the Amish, but to a lesser degree. For example, moderately conservative Mennonites, such as the church that I came from, live in many ways like the rest of society, but still hold the belief that pants are men’s clothing, even though women have worn pants for decades. More conservative Mennonites, such as those who run Christian Light Publications and Rod & Staff Publishers, wear clothing styled after 1800’s apparel.
This behavior is based on another part of the conservative mindset:
3. Look to the Past to Guide the Future; or, We Cannot Improve Upon the Past; or, Somebody in the Past Has Already “Arrived” and We Need to Follow Them
Virtually all conservatives, both political and theological, believe that the past was better, more righteous, more holy, or more spiritual than today. They repeatedly urge a return to the principles of those who they look up to. For the politically conservative, this is the Founding Fathers of America. For the conservative Mennonites, this is the Anabaptists. For still others, this may be the early Christians. For some people, it’s the 1950’s.
4. Scripture Alone is Not Sufficient
Most conservative Christians would react hotly to this point. It may seem inaccurate. Conservatives believe that it’s important to follow God (very good!). But what if we aren’t sure how to obey God? The conservatives step in and define what God has not defined. For example, let’s take 1 Timothy 2:9:
In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel…
Great! God said it, and we’re going to follow it. But what is “modest” apparel? What if, in my church, Sister Mary decides that she will only wear long sleeves, Sister Ruth decides that she will wear short sleeves in the summer, and Sister Judy decides that sleeveless tops are all right?
Well, we have the church to help guide this decision. So we’ll…
5. Make Extra Rules
The church will get together and hash out the question of sleeve length. A guideline will be developed of what “modest” means in our church, in regards to sleeve length. So let’s say that we decide that short sleeves are permissible, but sleeveless outfits are not. The guideline is included in the church’s rules of conduct.
Esther becomes a Christian and is baptized. When she is baptized, she also becomes a member of the church. As part of her membership, she pledges to God that she will keep the rules of the church as long as she is a member.
In order to please God, she goes through her closet and throws out all of her sleeveless blouses. This is not something that God’s Word told her to do. It was something added on by the church. However, she ends up believing that a woman who wears a sleeveless top is immodest.
6. Disdain Those Who Disagree
Since sleeveless outfits are immodest, any woman who wears one is disobeying God. She is worldly and ungodly. We can be thankful that we are not like her.
As a man in this hypothetical church, I will teach my children that sleeveless tops are immodest, and that my boys should not look at women who are immodest. If a woman visits our church in a sleeveless dress, we will treat her politely and courteously, but we will wish she would dress more modestly, and we may question her relationship with God. How can she be in a good relationship with God while disobeying His command to dress modestly?
Obviously, some people are much more accepting of those who are different. Still, the “higher standards” tempt conservatives to look down on those who don’t abide by the higher standards.
7. Force, Fear, and Intimidation
In his excellent sermon, “The Fear of Man“, Del Fehsenfeld Jr. says that fundamentalists rule by “force, fear, and intimidation”. This is true of conservatism in general.
In the case of the hypothetical church I just mentioned, Esther will be taught that, since she has pledged to God to obey the church’s rules, it is a sin to break any of those rules. This adds fear to the situation, a fear of God’s punishment should she wear a sleeveless top.
What about the gray areas? Can she wear a sleeveless nightie? If she goes swimming in her backyard pool, can she wear a sleeveless garment? Will God punish her for breaking the church’s rules in private?
Since God’s Word is not the final authority, what if she is disobeying God by doing some action that God has not specifically prohibited, but someone has discouraged? More fear.
If Esther is found wearing sleeveless tops in violation of the church’s rules, various forms of force and intimidation (ministerial visits and “admonitions”) will be used to attempt to bring her back into line. If she refuses to stop wearing sleeveless garments, she may very well be excommunicated from the church.
Is my scenario far-fetched? No. Trudy Metzger, in her must-read book Between 2 Gods, tells how she was excommunicated from a Mennonite church for watching TV in the homes of elderly friends and listening to music with instruments.
8. How You Look is Important
This is most apparent in the conservative Mennonite church, with its distinctive dress protocols. However, it doesn’t stop with Mennonites. When I was in Bill Gothard’s ATI homeschool program, looks were supremely important. There were plenty of dress codes, and Gothard made much ado over the need for “bright eyes” and “bright countenances”. He ran stories in the newsletter about how officials would come from other countries and express their delight at the bright countenances of the ATI young people they met. Then they would say, “Please help us bring this to our country!” (At least that’s what Gothard reported.)
This characteristic may not manifest itself in actual outward appearance and dress standards, but a mindset of…
9.Concern About What Others Will Think
“Others” may be people inside or outside of the conservative group in question. For our hypothetical Sister Esther, her concern may be “What will the other people in my church think if they see me in a sleeveless outfit?” Or it may be, “What will people at Walmart think of me if they see me with my Mennonite headcovering and a sleeveless outfit?”
This is the Fear of Man that Del Fehsenfeld preaches against in the video I linked above. I encourage you to watch it if you have not. (My dad has called “The Fear of Man” one of the most powerful sermons he’s ever heard.)
A conservative person may also fear what others will think if they find out that some sort of sinful behavior has been going on in their church. They will be tempted to sweep the problem under the rug and not properly deal with it or expose it, because it would be embarrassing if those outside the church found out about it.
This article has primarily looked at conservatism from a Mennonite perspective, since that’s an angle with which I am familiar. Those with other backgrounds, such as fundamentalist Baptist, will probably find many ways that it fits their own experience. You’re welcome to chime in with your perspective.
Is this article a definition of conservatism, or an attack on conservatism? In the final analysis, an honest observer will have to admit that it does indeed describe conservatism. Some conservative groups will be different in certain ways. Conservative Baptists, for example, don’t dress in 1800’s style clothing. However, I believe that it more or less describes most conservatives.
The effects of conservatism are far-reaching. I simply don’t have time to address them all here. My dad’s book, The Failure of the Great Amish and Conservative Mennonite Dress Experiment, is currently around 400 pages, and you will be shocked at what he has uncovered within conservatism. Stay tuned!
God is not a conservative. God is God, and His truth is the only truth. Let’s follow Him!