Conservatives Love Authority, Until They Don’t

“Conservative,” in the ideological sense, refers to conserving ideas that human beings have in the past cherished, because they are good and useful. It’s hard to argue with this in principle. In morality, for example, most Christians would agree that the principles of the Ten Commandments don’t erode with time. Many cultural, family and social mores are likewise valuable. In the sense that all of us value continuity and security, all of us are to some degree conservative.

But not everything from the past is good just because it is from the past. It seems self-evident to me that it was good we did not “conserve” slavery. But we didn’t give that up easily: it cost us 620,000 casualties, followed by a hundred-plus years of continued mistreatment of black people, and a legacy of poverty and mistrust ever since—all to avoid a new paradigm of relationships between races. While no one will say that slavery was a good thing, racism still exists, though now under a cover of a rhetoric that lets the racist feel that he’s not really racist at all, just a man who wants to hold “those people” accountable for their actions.

Because the conservative wants to hold on to the past, he often appeals to the authorities of the past. The conservative jurist insists that we follow the constitution precisely. The conservative Christian insists that we follow the Bible precisely. The conservative religionist expands that to include the principles that his religion has extracted from the Bible.

Talking once to a pastor who believed the Bible was against women in ministry, I brought up that the Bible also in some of its parts approves of slavery, and never unambiguously prohibits it. “Then I would allow the return of slavery,” he told me, “before I would admit women in ministry.”

Always there is much reliance upon authority. A study by Matthew MacWilliams found that those who voted for Donald Trump differed from the general population mostly in that they were people who valued authority. “He’ll rule with a strong hand,” friends told me repeatedly. “He’ll get done what we need done,” always with the implied but unspoken “to those people.”

The one thing the conservative does not seem to trust is human nature—at least others’ human nature. Other people don’t know what is best for them. The homosexual cannot be allowed to think that his sexual preference is normal, because the Bible says otherwise. The black man can’t have the benefit of the doubt at a traffic stop, because experience has shown that black men are up to no good. The woman can’t know that she is called by God to preach, because churches disagree. In the same sense that the conservative jurist believes in a static constitution, one that does not adapt to change, the conservative religionist believes in a static Biblical standard—or at least his interpretation of it—no matter our changing world.

The conversation becomes most strident in times of rapid change, which is why we are where we are now, both in the nation and our church. Robert Reich wrote a few years ago, "Prolonged economic stress could open the door to demagogues who prey on public anxieties in order to gain power. ... When people feel economically threatened and unhinged from their normal habits, they look to authority figures who promise simple remedies proffering scapegoats" (Aftershock, p. 122). Alas, he was right. Trump’s confidence and authority eclipsed his unfitness to lead.

The vote against women’s ordination in 2015 actually changed nothing—a fact that even Elder Wilson was forced to admit. The vote had not done away with women ministering to churches. Women can still be ordained as elders, he said, and still be commissioned. This remains the voted policy of the General Conference in session, the authoritative voice, as he repeatedly tells us, of God on earth.

Yet Elder Wilson, while participating in ordinations, does not participate in commissioning services. The one time when he was invited to, he dodged it. When he visited China, observers noted, he was careful to be seen meeting with male clergy, though there are hundreds of female pastors leading the largest churches in the country. Several well-known Adventist anti-woman groups on line love to cite the authority of the church, yet rail against women elders and commissioned pastors, even though allowing them is the voice of the church.

Which is to say, conservatives love authority, until they don’t.

I’m not quite sure what Elder Wilson would say if asked, but I suspect he’d either say that he has a personal conviction that women’s commissioning is unBiblical (it differs little from ordination in what it allows, after all), or that he doesn’t want to inflame the opponents in the larger church by appearing with women in commissioning ceremonies. Yet commissioning is, in fact, the policy of the church, no matter if he dislikes it, and one would think he would want to stand for it. But in this case, he chooses against the authority of the church in favor of some other principle.

PIcking and choosing among the available authorities is the necessary methodology of the conservative. One may slide from one authority to the other, from policy to the Bible and back to policy again, searching for the one that best meets your needs. You may disagree with Roe v. Wade, but you cannot say you stand by the authority of the law of the land and still prohibit it, as many states have done. You must choose another authority to go by, such as the law of God, which they believe places them in a higher seat than their opponent. Yet the authoritative law of the land is, in this case ignored.

Authority serves on all kinds of levels, when needed. When the Adventist church was sued by women at the Pacific Press the case against paying the women fairly was never on particularly strong moral or Biblical footing. In the process a phrase was coined for the president’s authority to speak on behalf of the church: that he was the “first minister”. The implication was that the church did not need a strong case if our first minister was speaking against it, which can’t but remind one of Richard’s Nixon’s statement that “if the president does it, it isn’t against the law.”

The now-infamous Unity and Mission document skipped between, as needed, Biblical teachings, policy, voted actions and fundamental beliefs as though they were all the same thing. This selectivity of authorities is a great weakness in the conservative methodology, and one that should never go unchallenged. Elder Wilson originally asked for a Biblical position from the TOSC. When the Biblical position was shown to be ambiguous about ordination in general and without any specific prohibition against women pastors, that study was set aside before the San Antonio meeting, and the decision turned over to the the personal beliefs of the delegates.

Now that there has been a General Conference vote, Elder Wilson leans completely on its authority. Biblical and Ellen White arguments have been minimized, along with those showing the historical development of church organization, in favor of “the church has voted.” In a recent Q&A, he counters the argument that the GC is practicing “kingly authority” by saying that in fact those who would oppose a vote of God’s highest authority on earth are the ones who are overstepping authority. He, as the CEO of the church, must enforce what the General Conference voted, and so it is he who is the victim of the rebellious unions against whom he must defend the church, not they by the General Conference.

Which is a reminder that rearranging victimhood is another important part of being a conservative. Gay people aren’t victims of discrimination: being asked to treat them fairly discriminates against the person who disapproves of them. Impoverished people aren’t victims: the victims are those who are taxed to help them. Women who are raped or molested aren’t victims, but taxpayers who might pay for their abortions are. Immigrants aren’t victims: citizens are the victims, because they are culturally threatened and job-deprived by immigrants. Conservatives will always find a way to diminish a primary victim, in order to make the case for their own secondary victimhood.

Just as authorities are carefully picked, so are issues. A friend recently wrote me that he supports Donald Trump because Trump will end the murder of unborn babies, of which God disapproves. Abortion is something he’s never had to deal with himself, but neither is a conservative faith: he is a drinker, never sees the inside of a church, sponged off his parents when he wasn’t living with one of several girlfriends, and will defend that lifestyle as his right. But he has carefully highlighted that one bit of his moral résumé—his opposition to abortion—that shows him on God’s side. Were someone to point out his inconsistencies, he would be offended.

A judicious inconsistency is vital to maintaining a conservative viewpoint. Bill Clinton was unsuited to the presidency because he was an adulterer, claimed James Dobson, but when it comes to Donald Trump, “We are electing a commander-in-chief, not a theologian-in-chief.” Similarly, Mitch McConnell wants conservative jurists and a law and order administration, except when he tells states to disobey federal law made by an administration he hated.

Conservatives have a good case for many issues, but it is crippled by an inability to see the big picture. Abortion is, in fact, morally problematic, and in a perfect world would never happen. (In spite of the propaganda you hear, no one is pro-abortion.) But the conservative must avoid ever taking a bigger view of the situation, which would show that the pro-life movement is only pro-unborn life, but has almost no interest in the quality of life once children are born, and contempt for them when they grow into impoverished adults.

Yet remember that people are conserving what they want to keep, what makes them comfortable and that may well mean working from a picture of the world as patchworked as a disassembled jigsaw puzzle.

Hypocrisy is always the conservative’s blind spot. It is not that he does not see contradictions. He cannot, for it would threaten his certainty. He may say that the liberal has soft principles, and he has solid, certain ones; but he needn’t live them, only profess them. Conservative politicians always seem puzzled when someone catches them at adultery, wondering why they aren’t immediately forgiven, as though their endless judgmentalism of everyone else’s morals has gone unnoticed. As long as the principles a politician or preacher claims to believe are conservative ones, conservatives can forgive or ignore nearly any breach of those principles.

The liberal has his inconsistencies, too. The environmentalist who drives an SUV, the pro-choicer who doesn’t see that getting to choose for or against an abortion is a meager consolation for a larger tragedy, the pro-women’s ordainer who mostly criticizes the church rather than supports it, the politician who claims to fight for the working class while in the pocket of Wall Street, the immigration supporter who wants underpaid lawn care. Yet the liberal view has at least two self-correctives. First, by having principles rather than rules, it leaves room for discussion and self-examination. The liberal doesn’t claim to have the final word, nor does he claim to be perfect. His approach to the world is challenging the traditional, rather than defending it. And second, there is built into the liberal view a flexibility, a constant search for new and better answers, though knowing that a final answer will never be found, only attempts at solutions.

Many conservative positions are good ones. But there is no special righteousness to the conservative in spite of the religious tone, no unusual discipline, and no particular consistency. In my experience, the Adventist conservative is often the most chaotic of people, the most likely to have huge gaps between his beliefs and his life. Find a family in the church who is the most dysfunctional, and you will often (not always) find them to be the ones who hold the most conservative doctrines. Find the political conservative who is least tolerant of others, and you will find someone who is utterly lacking insight into his own life and privilege, and lacking empathy for the suffering of others.

Fortunately, the story only requires that rules be applied to others; one may pick and choose among them as concerns oneself. Our transgressions are peccadillos, beneath notice, and quite forgivable; those of others are about to cleave the world in twain.

That is why the conservative is easily duped by someone who plays upon his feelings concerning loss or change. His discomfort is someone else’s fault, someone who is altering the landscape, and the solution must begin by exercising authority over the other. He easily falls into line behind a strong voice that claims to be able to do that. The process doesn’t necessarily have to be completed: it is only necessary that it is said by an authority that he will do it.

The conservative has what has proven to be an effective answer to anyone who wants to discuss change, an answer that will fend off not only change but there mere discussion of it: words like heretic, disloyal, unpatriotic. These are words that discredit others without having themselves a precise agreed-upon definition. Add a little sad tut-tutting for the lost and misguided, and you can dodge substantive conversation altogether.

In the end the conservative always loses to change, though not before his dragging feet have done tremendous damage. It is surprising how often organizations will choose to fail and die rather than adapt to a dynamic world.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The most conservative people I know are not against immigration.

They are against illegal immigration.

Maybe “liberals” love authority until they don’t also?

Really? :wink:

Your phrase “the conservative” sounds an awful lot like “you people” to me, Loren.



What an astute description of our political world today. You covered the waterfront; no one situation seems to have been forgotten. Ouch! whether liberal or conservative, we all have our blind spots and you helped to show us where they are and that we all search for our own confirmation biases in most any situation in order to justify our position.

Who will make sure that our “kingly” leaders in the church reads this? Just because someone’s name is not Trump, he feels he can trump whatever rules there are and “when the President does it, it’s not against the law.”


Yes, there was that “study” which tried to paint Trump supporters in poor light by calling them “authoritarians”. Among most of his supporters I know (possibly not a representative sample) however, they liked the fact precisely that Trump did not bow down to authority. He didn’t bow down to the RNC and its establishment. He went to Liberty U, but didn’t fawn over them. He didn’t bow down to Fox News and CNN and their rules, and even skipped a debate during the primaries (unheard of). It’s the antithesis of respect for established authority.

For me, it is not so much what leaders like a Wilson or a Trump actually are–I’m certain there are redeeming or admirable qualities both men possess. It is much more about what they engender with their populist rhetoric. The 2010 “hold them accountable” line from Wilson was a shot heard round the Adventist world. It emboldened all manner of “non-state actors” seeking to unmask, criticize, diminish and disrupt various church leaders and organizations. For all of his apparent love of the church and its policies, Wilson has spawned a whole host of these autonomous agents, who work feverishly from the outside to reform Adventism. The real anarchy in this church lies not with two NAD unions but with a whole host of individuals who have sought–with the help of digital and social media–to circumvent the established church channels and set up their own “shadow church.” It amazes me to see the rapid expansion of independent Adventism within North America, its success in exporting itself to other parts of the world, and its inroads into the politics of the church.


How soon will we see the companion piece to this biased, not to mention inaccurate, overgeneralized rumination on conservatism? You know, the one about how perfect liberals are, and how none of these over-generalizations apply to them…


Loren, this is beneath you.
Naming to shame is not part of the Gospel.

Lord, have mercy.


Is this a part of the gospel?
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Matt 3:7

thank you for the picture of both conservatives and liberals.
Many Liberals have Conservative leanings in some areas.
Many Conservatives have Liberal leanings in some areas.
You took a big chance of sticking your Pen out there so we could bite on it.
You did a wonderful job of insulting everyone, and making every one respond in thoughtful ways.
Looking forward to your next piece.

The omission of “illegal” before the word immigration when critiquing conservatives is becoming prevalent. I imagine that condemning a group for being outspoken against something illegal sounds too odd, so the term is just dropped.

Speaking of terms, I had never even heard the term “white nationalist” until a week ago and yet everyone is using it as if it is some standard phrase. Is this a self-designation? Where is the definition for this? Perhaps the editor can help me out in light of using it in another post.

An alternative to consider besides conservatism and liberalism is developmental progression and fixation. The task of a developing child on his way to adulthood is to find a balance between egocentric thinking, which is a normal product of mother-child dyad relationship, and allocentric thinking which is a product of experiencing various meaningful interpersonal relationships. Major factors involved in hindering progression are 1) when the child fails to develop psychological skills to move from one stage to the next or 2) invests enormous amounts of psychological energies in a particular stage and depletes himself for further energy for mental growth whereas premature progression can be fueled by allowing the child to convert his mental fantasies to reality by poor mirroring or feedback. It is a constant struggle in life which is carried through adulthood and it is not abnormal for a person to go in and out of these stages during his life span. However, a credible measure of mental growth is to ascertain how this psychological battle affects the person’s morality. A person who can only think of himself can be considered as being fixated in a particular stage, whereas a person who can only think of others can be considered vulnerable to being taken advantaged. Between those two dimensions can be found conservatives and progressives but who is “normal” could be best described as when a thrown ball gets to a point where it is neither rising nor falling. A fleeting moment.

So when we pride ourselves in being the remnant church, what do we convey to the world, egocentrism or allocentrism? And the theme pervades globally to influence Male Headship and WO, among others.

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Some people are too physically tired,
or too sick,
or too naive . . .
to be able to even care what is ‘Liberal’,
or what is ‘Conservative’.

The ‘thief on the cross’ . . .
Jesus on the cross . . .
the man lowered through Peter’s broken roof . . .
the little baby that Solomon said to cut in half. . . .

Maybe the world’s Conservative v.s. Liberal playing fields will be cleared
when more people choose to be naive,
because they are too sick and too tired
– physically tired –
to care about wasting physical energy playing that game.
We could use ‘leaders’ who are too tired, that way, couldn’t we ?.
‘Leaders’ who might even be ‘pitied’ by us.
‘Leaders’ like the tired, young ‘rail-splitter’, Abraham Lincoln, who later wearily fought his own personal battles with depression, even as he ‘liberally’ fought to preserve – or to ‘conserve’ – the ‘Union’ of the American ‘States’.
Leaders more like the weary ‘Man of Sorrows’.

Until we choose such war-weary, ‘tired’ leaders, we’re doomed to be led by partisan warriors with too much unused energy too waste on ‘labeling’, such as those described by the ‘historic’ ‘Rhodes Scholar’, Kris Kristofferson, of my own, previously ‘Liberal’, generation which is now, I suppose, to be labelled ‘Conservative’, merely for not having the decency to be dead just yet :

Jesus Was a Capricorn
Kris Kristofferson

Jesus was a Capricorn
He ate organic food
He believed in love and peace
And never wore no shoes

Long hair, beard and sandals
And a funky bunch of friends
Reckon we’d just nail him up
If he came down again

‘Cause everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on
Who they can feel better than at any time they please
Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on
If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me

Eggheads cussing rednecks cussing
Hippies for their hair
Others laugh at straights who laugh at
Freaks who laugh at squares

Some folks hate the Whites
Who hate the Blacks who hate the Klan
Most of us hate anything that
We don’t understand

‘Cause everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on
Who they can feel better than at any time they please
Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on
If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me

Songwriters: Kris Kristofferson
Jesus Was a Capricorn lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC


I think it conveys really poor exegesis!


“So when we pride ourselves in being the remnant church, what do we convey to the world, egocentrism or allocentrism? And the theme pervades globally to influence Male Headship and WO, among others.”

Perhaps we can excuse other’s lack of understanding of the psychodynamics of the Us/Them, Conservative/Liberal paradigm. However, pride is the Adventist issue…and how does the church fix that? I can appreciate Loren attempting to point out the “problems” but it does little or nothing to dissuade others from their own points of view especially using the analogies of politics.

The Adventist church is at a place of impasse where many other churches have been before. I think that there can only be one way that it moves forward and it will not be pretty. I don’t think that Loren may realize that he is pushing this forward…or maybe he does.

Que sera, sera. Dios todavía está presente.