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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Conservative: What is That?

In a recent post, I labeled a prominent Christian as a "conservative." A commenter gently disagreed, pointing out that, in the case of this individual, that was wrong, or at least too simple. I confess that I know little about the person I labeled. I do know that not defining terms, and assuming that others agree with you on definitions is a common mistake -- way too common. I've done it, and so have you. The "others," whoever they are, won't always agree with you, or me, on those definitions.

There are several ideas about being conservative floating around in our discourse in the US, most or all of them somewhat negative:
1) A Republican
2) A Christian, or at least a Christian who is associated with certain denominations or institutions (for example, a Southern Baptist) as opposed to other liberal Christians, who are associated with other denominations or institutions.
3) A person who believes that government spending, and the role of government, should be minimized
4) A person who wants to go back to the past, or who resists change
5) A person who is intolerant of other ideas, or of other types of people
6) A person who is careful, maybe stingy, with her personal finances
7) A person who dresses and acts carefully
8) A racist
9) A person who interprets the Bible, or constitutional law, in such a way as to honor what she believes to be the original meaning, and opposes new interpretations
10) A person who favors the interests of businesses, as opposed to consumers, taxpayers, or the general public
11) A person who supports the use of weapons, both by individuals, and by the U. S.
12) A person who believes that human embryos and fetuses should not be destroyed, even in medical experiments

Some of these are related, and probably there are some people who would be rated as conservative on all twelve of these. But, of course, there are people who don't fit into all of them. For example, some so-called conservatives 3) were quite unhappy with the spending habits of the Republican Congress and the President 1).

A similar list could be produced for Liberal, also with lots of negative connotations. For example, in opposition to 10) above, a liberal is often thought of as favoring labor unions, as opposed to businesses, taxpayers, or the general public.

The Free Dictionary says the following, about the adjective form of conservative:
1. Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
2. Traditional or restrained in style: . . .
3. Moderate; cautious:

One area where "conservative" is often used is in relation to biblical interpretation. The Wikipedia, in its article on Higher Criticism, says that conservative Bible scholars oppose the "rationalistic and naturalistic presuppositions" of Higher Criticism, and, instead, operate within "supernaturalist and confessional frameworks." A Google search for the words conservative Bible scholar seems to generate a number of web pages where these words are found, but, except for the source mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph, few, if any, definitions of what such a scholar believes.

I'm afraid that, as usual, someone using a word that can be controversial needs to define the meaning carefully. I didn't.

There are good aspects of conservatism, such as trying to preserve the good, or being careful, just as there are good aspects of liberalism, such as embracing new good ideas, and being generous.

The bible orders liberality, in one case, at least, and commends it in Proverbs 11:25. I don't believe that "conservative" occurs in the Bible, but there are commendations for being true to God's intent, for example.

A complex subject. Thanks for reading.


Julana said...

In the past, I've said I was conservative, and Christian, but not a Christian conservative. They're not the same thing. Any more, the terms have become so polarized, one doesn't like to be lumped too quickly into either category.
I've changed, and the perceptions of meaning have changed. The demise of precise language among the general public is a whole 'nuther issue. :-)

benji said...

Funny, I was thinking about this just yesterday. Indeed, it is a complex subject. My sister and I often joke about how our dad always refers to anyone who doesn't espouse his political or theological views as "a liberal."

As for Dr. Witherington, he is about as conservative a biblical scholar as they come. He has a few non-traditional views (such as his theory that the beloved discipled may be Lazarus -- an argument that I find fascinating and pretty convincing), but that hardly disqualifies him as a conservative biblical scholar. Then again, I guess that depends on one's definition of conservative!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Julana. It is much more important to be a Christian than to be a conservative (or liberal). But I'm not going to define "Christian" here. That's another subject.

Happy Mother's Day.

Thanks for your insight, Benji. Most views now taken as conservative started out as non-traditional, I guess. Christianity was, once.

Winter of WinterYogurt said...

Very insightful! I agree with pretty much all of that, lol. I think there's a lot of good and bad that can come from both sides--conservative and liberal. And there's a lot more than just those two terms that define a person yet it's so funny that people use just these sole words to define their political and life views. :3 Your posts make me think! lol. That's cool...

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, Winter of WinterYogurt. You have an interesting name! I haven't had the courage to write the post on "Liberal" yet.

Much needless controversy would disappear if we would just define our terms, but some of us prefer to yell at each other, I guess. (And there are real disagreements, of course.)