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What does it mean to be “conservative”?

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series

"Defining Conservatism"

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The term “conservative” gets thrown around a lot, but do people really know what it means?

We’ve progressed to the point, even among those who have a heritage in fundamentalism, where “conservative” is considered a bad word; something extra-biblical, un-biblical, and even anti-biblical.

For example, a pastor from Arizona wrote the following on September 26, 2009 on a popular fundamentalist blog:

Let’s shoot in the head the desire to be conservative. Let’s be Biblical and where that leads to doing things in a traditional way…..well “rejoice.” Where that leads to a more contemporary approach…..Selah!

I thought his comment well-reflects the sentiment today of most people. He sets conservatism over and against being biblical, but it does raise an important question: Is conservatism the best way of viewing life and ministry as explained and prescribed by Scripture? What are the basic principles of a conservative philosophy, and is it biblical?

At its essence, there are two pillars of conservatism. If you read all the philosophers who articulate conservatism, there is usually consensus on these twin pillars.

The first is affirmation of transcendent, absolute principles, a belief that such principles are knowable, and a commitment to align one’s self to those principles. Now the three big transcendentals are truth, goodness, and beauty. Most evangelicals will readily affirm the absolute nature of truth and goodness; the controversial point is with beauty. Is beauty absolute and are there knowable principles by which we may judge earthly beauty? A conservative answers with the affirmative.

The second pillar of conservatism is a commitment to conserve those institutions and forms that best reflect a recognition and respect for this transcendent order. Conservatism recognizes that culture is nurtured within systems of values, and that it is not created in a vacuum. Every culture-maker builds upon what has come before, and so a conservative is going to choose to build on those forms that have been nurtured within the community of faith to best express the transcendent character and nature of God.

So as we discuss what it means to be “conservative,” we must resist the temptation to think about this in terms of being simply anti-contemporary. In other words, in discussions like this, it is common to point to extreme examples in contemporary culture and evangelicalism and just talk about how bad they are without being willing to be self-critical.

I raise this because there is a huge difference between being truly conservative and being merely anti-contemporary. My fear is that there are a lot of people, especially within the fundamentalist heritage, who are certainly anti-contemporary in their practice, but they do not really have truly conservative underpinnings for their practice. And so they often end up defending traditions that are certainly not part of the current pop culture, but neither are they really conservative either. What they defend is not conservative, it’s just old.

One of my strongest burdens is to urge us to consider a full-orbed conservatism that will affect every aspect of our local church practice.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.