The Two Kinds of “Conservative” Christians

There is a difference between politically conservative and religiously conservative

Older liberal Christians have assumed that a younger generation of evangelical Christians, who are clearly more liberal politically than their generally Republican parents, will join them on the theologically liberal, desacralizing side of the church. What is actually happening, though, may be more complicated than this. Younger Christians who are keeping the faith are often dissatisfied with elements of their parents’ churches, but the shift seems to be moving them in a more ’catholic’ direction, toward a more liturgical, roots-oriented Christianity. While their politics may not be those of the Christian Coalition, their religion may actually be more ‘conservative.’

 
Young Christians today are in the middle of a sea change of opinion and practice in the church. The rhetorical tropes and divisions of a previous generation (Spiritual vs. religious? Reformed vs. fundamentalist? Liberal vs. conservative?) are beginning to fade in people’s perceptions, and new categories are taking their place.

With 20th-century theological liberalism faltering, along with the cultural “Christian” consensus, abandoning the faith of your parents no longer means social marginalization. Consequently, those who remain in church are more likely to be those who actually maintain a sincere and heart-felt belief in a real experience of God. This does not mean that all will think alike. We can feel new generations of young adult Christians dividing along new lines.

This shift has occasioned a good deal of confusion. Older liberal Christians have assumed that a younger generation of evangelical Christians, who are clearly more liberal politically than their generally Republican parents, will join them on the theologically liberal, desacralizing side of the church. What is actually happening, though, may be more complicated than this. Younger Christians who are keeping the faith are often dissatisfied with elements of their parents’ churches, but the shift seems to be moving them in a more ’catholic’ direction, toward a more liturgical, roots-oriented Christianity. While their politics may not be those of the Christian Coalition, their religion may actually be more ‘conservative.’

This movement is not unique to evangelicals. David Bonagura writes that within the ascendent ‘conservative’ camp of the Roman Catholic Church there begin to be seen important distinctions between what he calls the “new orthodoxy,” concerned with maintaining and restoring authentic Catholic teaching, “outspoken opponents of abortion [and] same-sex marriage” whose “theological standard is the Catechism of the Catholic Church”; and what he calls the “Benedictines” after Pope Benedict XVI, whose ultimate value is the restoration of a more reverent, traditional liturgy. These two groups within the rising ‘conservative’ Catholic movement may find themselves opposed in certain ways even as they are in agreement on the major theological and moral doctrines of the church. The newly-chosen Pope Francis seems to belong, as it were, to the “new orthodoxy,” and under his rule it would not be a surprise to hear of discontent among the “Benedictines.”

Significantly, there seems to be a generational dynamic to these divisions. The “new orthodox” tend to be in their “late forties and fifties,” according to Mr. Bonagura, while the “Benedictines” are somewhat younger.

The rising generations of conservative Protestants exhibits, I think, a similar division, which breaks down also along generational lines.

We begin to see, especially among Gen-Xers, what I would term “evangelical” conservatives, who are primarily concerned with maintaining authentic Christian doctrine; and Millennials who tend to be “liturgical” conservatives concerned with a more authentic way of worshiping than what they experienced growing up.

Both of these are, in a sense, “reactionary” movements. Evangelical conservatives react against a lukewarm, rote “traditional” religion they remember from growing up, or else against a sloppy, undemanding, cheap-grace form of baby-boomer evangelicalism. Liturgical conservatives react against a church that has forgotten the importance of form and beauty in worshiping God, which tries to be relevant by eliminating any and all distinctions between itself and the world, whose deracinated warehouse Starbucks aesthetic has rejected altogether the beauty of historical Christianity.

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