What is Conservatism?

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. Amish BuggyThe 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?

Two little Amish boys with a wagonObviously, 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.

Final Thoughts

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!


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6 Replies to “What is Conservatism?”

  1. Very good! As a (relatively) conservative PK (preacher’s kid) and a husband, dad, grandfather, and Christian activist these themes and consequences have never been far from my internal debates. It is refreshing to see someone else label and define some of the things I am still struggling to categorize and evaluate. Thank you Joel, Stephen Wilcox

  2. Labels. They are useful, but for what? Landmines in that field.

    I see you plotting your map for the term(s), and you make reasonable sense. But as you seem to point out, there is fluidity in them. I noticed you distinguished theological conservative from political conservative. But you said they overlap too. And that makes sense to me.

    So… with all that danger and fluidity highlighted, I will feedback a bit from my perspective.

    I consider myself to be conservative too. In fact, I figure I am rather staunch actually. But that is a self designation that many in my circle of friends would agree with while others would argue against. And, as you noted, we are not all in lock-step with each other.

    I too, tend to be more theologically conservative. I suppose I am politically liberal by comparison. But then I don’t vote, so there is that too.

    I remember when I was young that I felt a deep stigma with the word conservative. I really did not like it, but I sensed I was more conservative than not. And there are hot button issues that make me cringe to discuss because of all the landmines in the conversation that soooooo easily can just be an ugly argument instead. AND which is ripe to make me out to be a jerk in the eyes of the average joe.

    But then I heard an old college professor say he was conservative – deeply conservative in fact – but he was in no way a fundamentalist. That designation seemed to help me breathe easier until I tried to explain it to my friends who mostly did not care really, and then I just sounded like a fundamentalist kook I did not want to be.

    So… I guess, I am saying, if you get it all ironed out. Explain it to me in simple terms I can understand, and you will have my undying gratitude.

    In the meantime, I am grateful you love Jesus and take seriously thinking your way through a life of that kind of love and faith and for your willingness to share it with others. Keep it up! It helps me.

    Blessings from Lubbock, Texas

    Agent X
    Fat Beggars School of Prophets
    Lubbock, Texas (USA)

    1. Hey, Agent X, thanks for the comment! I’ve been enjoying your blog.

      From my perspective, one big problem with classifying ourselves as liberal or conservative (or moderate, for that matter) is that we end up standing with others that we feel like-minded toward, while disdaining or somewhat looking down on those on the other side. This is easiest to illustrate with politics. Let a scandal happen in the Democratic Party, and the conservatives will make a huge deal out of it. But let a scandal happen in the Republican Party, and the same conservatives will try to make it go away quickly and will try to downplay how serious it was.

      When I listen to Rush Limbaugh (which I almost never do), his attitude seems to be that no liberal can do anything right. Most of the time, neither can a conservative do much wrong.

      In the process, our thinking becomes clouded. We ignore the good points that the “other side” makes. Instead of seeking to find the truth–whatever “side” that truth may be on–we hang onto what we have always believed.

      This is where the problem of traditionalism and hanging onto the past comes in. We don’t want drop our positions and change, because it isn’t the traditional perspective. This definitely can be the result of pride, but it also can be because we’re afraid to do anything different from the way they’ve always been done and the way we’ve always been taught and have believed.

      Some people may call me a conservative because of my beliefs, but I refuse the label. In order to follow God, we have to drop our labels and seek the will of Christ. It’s not enough to follow Christ 90%. The other 10% can be deadly. Just a slight twist to the truth can be enough to wreak incredible havoc on our lives. Believe me–I speak from experience.

      All conservatives are not made alike. What I’m trying to get at in this post is the underlying mindset of most conservatives. Some people definitely do not fit more than about a third or half of these points.

      Much theological conservatism is actually based on a desire to follow God and do what’s right. In the process, though, detrimental things get added in.

  3. Joel,

    Thanks for thinking for yourself and calling the rest of us to it too. There is a huge tendency to say we do, when really we don’t.

    I get your point.

    Labels are dangerous. They have a way of locking us into things we might not otherwise go with as we become part of whatever herd that label represents.

    In Sociology it is called the Us and Them phenom. It always becomes Us vs. Them in key ways that are unnecessary. Conservatives against liberals. It is invariable. Rush Limbaugh is an extremist, makes his money pushing his agenda. You may not remember when he actually said he wanted to see President Obama fail. That is just messed up. He should pray for President Obama to succeed even if it’s despite himself. After all, any failures of President Obama’s are shared with us all. But he is sooooo invested in his “us” that he has to stick it to “them” even if that hurts “us” too.

    In my experience, the use of labels is just too pervasive to escape. But I constantly find ways to mitigate their damage. It becomes a matter of constantly defining and redefining myself. They are a strange mix of meaning and meaninglessness, but I try to use them in ways that help me become all things to all people. Not easy. Always dangerous.

    Here is one thing I do to address the problem, but it is actually rather small… I refuse to compete. I don’t compete at anything. Not even a card game. Not a foot race. Not a spelling bee. And I have my reasons: If I win the contest, it would seem good for me – but it makes losers of my friends. If I lose, it makes a loser of me. Competition makes a loser of someone every time it is engaged in. The “Us” is always trying to make losers out of “them” in a never ending system. And in sports… “there is always next year” saving up the pain to unleash on “them” again.

    So. I refuse to compete. I try to engage in activities that don’t involve losing or the risk of losing. It is not entirely possible. But I am amazed at what is possible. For instance, I play puzzles and when it is finished, we all win – after a fashion. Dancing brings us together and when we do it well makes winners of both me and my partner(s). And whatever else, I certainly do not invent new ways to make losers out of others. Instead, I seek ways to serve them and elevate them – and hopefully me too. If the whole world caught on to this notion, there would be no more losers.

    Some of this translates to conservatives/liberals directly, some indirectly, and some yet to be discovered. Meanwhile, I continue to seek to join the Body of Christ and make that the ultimate “us” which seeks to serve and incorporate “them” when and where it can be imagined.

    Thanks for sharing…

    Agent X
    Fat Beggars School of Prophets
    Lubbock, Texas (USA)

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