“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 http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7762