What Do Christians Mean When They Use the Word “Conservative”?

Last night we encountered some misunderstanding surrounding the word “conservative” during an open discussion after a community meal at The Birdhouse (the mentoring community Trudi and I lead for college students).

One of the students commented that I was the first “conservative” she had ever met who was not a cessationist. (Cessationism is the view that the first-century miracles died out with the passing of the apostles.) What she meant was that she viewed me as a theological conservative, but not a cessationist (she was accurate in both assessments). But almost immediately, the discussion got tangled, because another student, in an effort to clear things up, commented that she had always thought that “conservative” was itself a reference to cessationism (what I will call anti-miraculous conservativism below). During the conversation, two other uses of the word conservative also emerged: anti-worldly conservative and political conservative. We had to keep defining what we meant by the word “conservative” in order to have anything bordering on a fruitful conversation. Today’s post is to help anyone else who has been confused when encountering the word “conservative” during conversations among Christians.

Here are four ways that I have heard Christians in the past (and in our conversation last night!) use the word “conservative.”

  1. Theological conservative. During the past one hundred or so years since the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the word “conservative” has regularly been applied to Christians who believe that the Bible is true in all that it affirms, including such historical realities as the virgin birth of Christ and the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This label contrasts with “theological liberal,” which describes someone who challenges the truthfulness of the Bible, including many of the historical claims made in it.
  2. Anti-miraculous conservative. Sometimes the word “conservative” is used to describe Christians who believe that the first-century miracles found in the Bible, such as healings, prophecies, tongues, and the like, were limited to the time of the apostles and thus should not be a regular part of modern church life. At the furthest end of the spectrum, anti-miraculous conservatives attribute unexplainable miraculous phenomena to the work of demons.
  3. Anti-worldly conservative. (Of course, “anti-worldly” isn’t a real word, but I needed an adjective.) Sometimes the word “conservative” describes Christians who try to live lives separate from “worldly” activities. Anti-worldly conservatives are not just Christians who avoid engaging in activities prohibited in the Bible, such as committing adultery, stealing, and the like. At the further end of the anti-worldly spectrum, the term sometimes gets applied to those who disallow other activities not directly prohibited in the Bible, such as dancing, wearing bathing suits, and watching movies.
  4. Political conservative. Unfortunately, this is where using the word “conservative” becomes most problematic for Christians. A political conservative in the United States, as most of us know, is someone who agrees with many or most of the convictions espoused by those on the right wing of the Republican Party. The word in this setting functions in opposition to the word “political liberal,” someone who agrees with many or most of the convictions espoused by those on the left wing of the Democratic party.

The existence of these four uses can create confusion in any conversation in which the word “conservative” gets used. The whole discussion gets even trickier when we observe that not all Christians are “conservative” in all of the four ways mentioned above. Observe a few common combinations of the first three categories—limited to those who are theological conservatives.

Theological conservative + anti-worldly conservative + anti-miraculous conservative. Many fundamentalists fall into this category.

Theological conservative + anti-worldly conservative, but not anti-miraculous conservative. Many Pentecostals fall into this category.

Theological conservative + anti-miraculous conservative, but not anti-worldly conservative. Many evangelicals fall into this category.

Theological conservative, but neither anti-worldly conservative nor anti-miraculous conservative. Many charismatics fall into this category.

Of course, there are other possible combinations if you abandon theological conservatism, but I am not even remotely interested in that discussion in this post.

The fourth category, political conservative, however, is what makes this discussion really confusing—and, honestly, rather frustrating. Those identifying with any or all of the first three definitions of “conservative” have also—at least in recent years in the United States—been more likely than not to also self-identify politically as “conservatives.” There are some manifest reasons for this (the increasing support of abortion-on-demand and the redefinition of marriage by political liberals being two obvious ones—but that is not the point of this post).

The question that I am personally wrestling with today is whether the variety of ways that the word “conservative” keeps getting used in Christian circles should encourage us to abandon using the word for describing theologically conservative convictions. But theological conservatives (…oops, I just used the label!) need some way to describe their (our…I’m one of them) commitment to the truthfulness of the Bible and belief in what is written therein. There was a time when the word “evangelical” on its own communicated such theological commitments, but now it is common for people who do not accept the entire truthfulness of the Bible to use the word “evangelical” to self-identify. I have been describing myself as a “conservative evangelical” (by which I mean a theologically conservative evangelical!) for a long time to try to distance myself from those who waffle on the truthfulness of the Bible. But now, I’m not only struggling with how to use the word “evangelical” (which is a term that I think we still should try to retain), but how (or whether) to use the word “conservative.” It is hard enough disentangling the theological use of the word “conservative” from the anti-miraculous and anti-worldly uses of the word. But I really…really(!) do not want people to think I’m talking about politics when I’m simply trying to make a theological point.

Are there better terms out there? “Bible-believing Christian” is not bad in a church context, but is rather thin for theological discourse. Perhaps “inerrantist evangelical” could do the job, but, regrettably, most people I talk to do not even know the word “inerrancy” (=the belief that the Bible is true in all it affirms, including spiritual and historical affirmations).

I hope this post has helped you sort out different ways that contemporary Christians are using the word “conservative.” Alas(!), I wish that I could offer some helpful suggestions for how to clear up the ambiguities generated by the various uses of this word.

One thought on “What Do Christians Mean When They Use the Word “Conservative”?

  1. For the reasons you share in this article, I usually specify that I am talking about “theologically conservative” or “theologically liberal.” Admittedly, even those terms are quite broad. Also, “theological liberals” are now often called “progressives,” and that is confusing because so are political liberals. In the US it is probably true that the vast majority of theological progressives are also theological liberals, but I still like to be clear which I am referring to. I think there may be a fairly significant number of African Americans who are theologically conservative by most measures but are mostly progressive in their politics. So there is a difference.

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