Conservative, Liberal, or Christian?

A note from Randy: I first wrote on this subject years ago when evangelical Christians were getting heavily involved in conservative politics. It’s the same article, just with fewer comments about Rush Limbaugh and Jesse Jackson, or Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. While it was controversial to some at the time, I think it’s as important now as it was then.

Conservatism is popular among American evangelicals. In the moral realm that encourages me. In the political realm, I have mixed feelings.

When it was unpopular, conservatism offered many necessary correctives to the liberal status quo. I’m not sure, though, how it has stood up under greater power and popularity. Conservative politics as usual has not proven much better than liberal politics as usual.

When liberalism was popular it became arrogant and presumptuous and sunk to its lowest levels. I fear the same is happening to conservatism. And I fear it not only in society, but in the church.

The largely liberal philosophies that have dominated American media and politics for years have failed us miserably. Some past elections have testified to the fact that America was fed up with the lies and half truths of liberalism. While the media are still much more liberal than the country as a whole, even they have been penetrated. Rush Limbaugh, originally almost a lone voice, has been joined by a host of other conservatives who jam the airwaves with their ideology. Millions of Americans, including many Christians, are taking notes and saying “Amen.”

But what about conservatism? Does it have its own dangers? Or is “Conservative” simply a synonym for Christian?

Many people I have talked with and many articles I have read seem to equate conservatism with the Christian faith. I remember the mid-nineties when “Rush is Right” bumper stickers shared space with “Jesus is Lord” bumper stickers, as if both were undeniable truths existing on the same plane.

I get the feeling from excited politically-oriented Christians that voting Republican is equivalent to falling on your knees at a revival meeting and getting your life right with God. It’s like if America gets more conservative it’s the same as drawing near to God.

Though they are too slippery to allow simple definitions, the words “conservatism” and “liberalism” contain hints as to their essential nature. Conservatives want to conserve for society what is right. Liberals want to liberate society from what is wrong. To this extent, both philosophies are in theory right and biblical. Unfortunately, in their practice both are capable of being thoroughly unbiblical.

Liberals want to change the status quo. That’s good when the status quo is wrong. Liberals desired to change from the status quo of racism in the ‘60s and they were right. Even though I oppose most of what it does today, I thank God for what liberal groups like the ACLU accomplished in the racial arena.

But liberals didn’t know where to draw the line. They seemed to want to change everything, as if the notions that society once held (including that abortion, adultery, and homosexual relations are wrong) are restrictive and unhealthy, demanding liberation.

But it is wrong to seek liberation from all norms. Marriage used to be more sacred, divorce was much more rare, and abuse was much less common. Children learned how to read, achievement scores were much higher. Life was more sacred, religious values more respected and upheld.

Liberals have done much to “liberate” society from what is right, removing the guardrails that kept Americans on the road. In so doing, they have enslaved while claiming to liberate.

Too often, politically liberal Christians end up being liberals first and Christians second. They redefine compassion according to current political correctness. They act like you either have to hate and vilify homosexuals or you have to say their behaviors are right, as though these are the only two options.

They need to read Ephesians 4:15 about “speaking the truth in love.” We are not to choose between being loving and being truthful. We are to be both. Jesus loved the woman who committed adultery. He loved her the way she was, but loved her too much to let her stay that way. His love didn’t compel him to say “adultery is okay, you don’t have to change,” but “Go and sin no more.”

Conservative Christians, on the other hand, like to conserve and hold on to the existing or past norms. In a society they believe to have been ruined by liberalism, they want to go back to the way things used to be, i.e., the old status quo. They want to go back to when America was a Christian nation, when there was prayer in public schools, when abortion and homosexual behavior were illegal and known to be immoral.

Conservatives seem to want everything the way it used to be, like it was when kids weren’t bringing guns to school and killing each other in gangs and dying of AIDS and when television wasn’t filled with garbage (which many of them watch, despite their complaints).

Well, that all sounds good. But you have to qualify what you’re talking about. “The way things used to be” includes women being unable to vote. “The way things used to be” includes slavery. In the post-slavery era it included notoriously racist Jim Crow laws and segregation. And frankly, to their shame, many—even most—conservatives wanted to conserve these unjust practices.

Many conservatives today want to go back to the days when prayer was allowed in the schools. But they forget the same schools that allowed prayer did not allow black children. To be nostalgic without qualification about times that were racist and demeaning to many Americans is unjust and insensitive. Politically conservative Christians can end up being conservatives first and Christians second.

As undiscerning liberalism tries to liberate us from not only the bad but the good, undiscerning conservatism tries to conserve the bad along with the good. Liberals live under the false notion that change is always good, conservatives under the equally false notion that change is always bad. (“Who do those northern agitators think they are, comin’ down here and stirrin’ up our niggers?”)

So when conservatives talk about going back to our godly roots, theologically conservative but socially liberal Christians (both black and white) are understandably skeptical.

“You mean go back to those godly roots where black people were enslaved and beaten and raped and had their families torn apart by plantation owners who were deacons in their conservative churches? Or back to those days of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver, when you wouldn’t let black people in your restaurants and theaters and schools, and you wouldn’t let us drink out of your water fountains?”

I know conservative evangelicals who are selective in standing for what’s right. They may want the schools to be more hospitable to truth and Christianity. But they may not bother intervening on behalf of the unborn. They may be active in prolife work but ignore or minimize the issues of poverty and racism and responsible care for the environment. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, while defending the Scriptures—a very good thing, they defended institutional racism—a very bad thing. As some liberals have no discernment as to the fact that some people are poor due to laziness and need to be required to work, likewise some conservatives seem to have no heart for the truly poor, those who are not at fault for their poverty and who, given opportunity and training, would work hard to escape it.

Some conservatives seem to think that free enterprise (in which I believe) solves everything. They appear to have no ecological concerns, as though a sense of stewardship of the earth God entrusted to us is restricted only to “environmentalist wackos.” Of all people, shouldn’t Christians lead the way in being good stewards of the earth God entrusted to our care in Genesis 1 and 2?

Some conservatives serve the god of patriotism. Their Christian faith is dangerously intertwined with their faith in America. Ours is a great country, as countries go. But countries only go so far. Despite its flaws, America deserves our respect and loyalty. But it doesn’t deserve our uncritical endorsement or our worship.

I know politically liberal evangelicals who are as quick to disregard the rights of unborn people as many conservatives were quick to disregard the rights of black people. To them, prolife efforts are just another “white middle class right wing agenda.”

Some liberals, even professing Christians, equate animals and trees with human beings and defend preborn eagles while advocating wholesale destruction of over 1 million preborn humans each year.

Sometimes liberal solutions to economic problems are stealing (via taxation) from other citizens and indiscriminately passing out the money to the poor, creating a permanent underclass riddled by no sense of personal responsibility and by bitter resentment. Often liberals are more concerned about appearing to be racially sensitive by throwing people’s money―others’, not their own―at ineffective programs for minorities, including the largely―though not exclusively―debilitating welfare program. As black economist Walter Williams said, “If I were the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan and my goal was to destroy black Americans, I could not have come up with a more effective plan than America’s welfare system in our inner cities.”

I have a copy of the evangelical but socially liberal magazine The Other Side. It professes to believe the Scriptures. Over the last thirty years The Other Side spoke out against racism and advocated racial reconciliation in America when most conservative Christian magazines had nothing to say, and by their silence perpetuated injustice. Yet in this issue of The Other Side there’s a full page worth of books endorsed by the magazine, which advocate “Christian” homosexual relationships. One book, which I’ve read and reject as blatantly unbiblical, is described this way: “From an evangelical Protestant perspective, the authors argue for the validity of faithful, permanent, same-sex relationships.” In their attempt to be compassionate, the editors of The Other Side sacrifice the revealed truth of the Scriptures.

Jim Wallis, founder of The Other Side and one of the most prominent evangelicals in the Democratic Party, claims to be prolife, but in a meeting with fifty people, he emphasized the plight of the poor, minorities, and the environment, but said nothing about the plight of unborn children. When I asked him why he had not spoken up for the unborn who are being slaughtered, he said that he favors policies that reduce abortions without making them illegal.

But would we favor attempts merely to modify or restrict slavery, or would we have followed William Wilberforce in actually abolishing it?

Does Wallis avoid talking about the rights of unborn children because it is not popular among Democrats? In the same way that some evangelicals have been used by the Republican Party, others are being used by the Democratic Party. But shouldn’t we seek to be used by Christ alone?

I get tired of being told I have to choose between conservatism’s emphasis on truth and liberalism’s emphasis on compassion. Why can’t we oppose injustice to minorities and to the unborn? Why can’t we embrace biblical stewardship of creation and the primacy of human beings over the rest of creation? Why can’t we oppose the greedy destruction of the environment by some businesses and the anti-industry excesses of New Age environmentalism?

Why can’t we affirm the biblical right to the ownership of property (along with the command “thou shalt not steal”) and emphasize God’s call to his people to voluntarily and sacrificially share their wealth with the truly needy?

Why can’t we uphold the truth of God’s condemnation of sexual immorality—including homosexual practices—and reach out in love and compassion to those imprisoned in this degrading lifestyle, as well as those dying from AIDS?

The answer is, we cannot do all these things if we are first and foremost either liberals or conservatives. We can do all these things only if we are first and foremost followers of Christ. We can do them if—and only if—we are governed not by temporal political affiliations, but by eternal allegiance to Almighty God. Our governing document must be neither the Humanist Manifesto nor the Contract with America nor even the U.S. Constitution (as great a document as it is), but by the authoritative Word of God.

Neither the judicial, legislative nor executive branch of our government is the ultimate solution to America’s problems. Isaiah 33:22 tells us the solution” For the LORD is our judge (judicial), the LORD is our lawgiver (legislative), the LORD is our king (executive), it is he who will save us.”

May God preserve us from a liberalism that is hell-bent on liberating us from what is good. And may He preserve us from a conservatism that is hell-bent on conserving for us what is bad.

Let’s change the bad and preserve the good. In doing so we will sometimes look like conservatives, sometimes liberals. But what we look like to men shouldn’t matter. What we look like to God, the Audience of One, should. (He is neither Republican nor Democrat. He rides neither on elephants or donkeys. He is the ultimate independent.)

God doesn’t care about conservative and liberal, he cares about what is true and right and just and compassionate and biblical. That’s why He cares about political party beliefs, platforms, moral positions and policies. Before standing behind any Party, we’d better be sure these harmonize with His Word. That’s part of being a Christian first.)

So, when the status quo is right, let’s conserve it. When the status quo is wrong, let’s get liberated from it.

Is Bill Maher right about some things? Sure. About everything? No way. So if you defend Bill Maher, you better qualify your defense. If you attack him, you better qualify your attack.

“Rush is Right” cries out for clarification, so does “Bill O’Reilly is right” or “Sean Hannity is right.” Right about what? Some things? Sure. (Keep this in mind if you’re a conservative basher; you better qualify your attack.) Many things?  Probably. All things? No way. So if you defend Limbaugh and Reilly and Hannity, you better qualify your defense. After all, they are no more God than they are the devil.

I happen to believe that despite its limitations, conservatism is right more often than it is wrong. Still, it is sometimes wrong, it often does not resonate with the compassionate heart of God, and it never saves the soul.

“Rush is Right” is only true sometimes. “Jesus is Lord” is true always. “Rush is Right” requires qualification. “Jesus is Lord” does not.

Photo by Ben White on

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries