Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Don't call me "conservative"!

It is very annoying constantly to hear the term "conservative" used by people who don't really care to parse the subtleties of someone's thinking. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to take a couple of leading examples, were both radical theologians but are constantly being reduced and tamed by being called conservatives. Similarly, the Founding Fathers (and mothers) are appropriated by the Christian Right with very little reference to the actual complexity of their thinking. (I was taken to lunch at Pat Robertson's Regent University once and was shocked to see larger-than-lifesize full-length paintings of various Founders dominating the huge entrance hall.)  

It is quite possible to be conservative in social and cultural matters while being liberal or, better, radical in politics and theology. The real question is about foundational beliefs. One belief that does indeed lie at the heart of Christian theology and the best political conservatism has to do with the nature of humankind. David Brooks represents this, much of the time. In his column today he quotes James Madison:

"As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualitites in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence."

Depravity! Isn't that what the much-maligned John Calvin called it? But was Calvin a "conservative"? Yes and no!

In any case, David Brooks concludes his column in his usual measured and balanced way, saying this:

"People used to believe that human depravity was self-evident and democratic self-government was fragile. Now they think depravity is non-existent and they take self-government for granted."

Those are two superb sentences! And Brooks finishes:

"Neither the United States nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionize our impulses."