Should a Christian be a political conservative or progressive? Let’s set aside the fact that this question itself cedes far too much ground to the power hoarding of the ruling class—economic, cultural, and governmental alike, all hard at work to impose from the top down an agenda that has no quarter for human diversity and which demands monomaniacal allegiance—and let’s just answer the question. Should a Christian be a conservative or a progressive?
Neither. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah pointed out that even our good deeds are filthy and stained. Rags. Who, taking that to be true (and there is some evidence), can look at history and find a moment truly worth conserving? Who can look at the imagined future extending logically from the trends of an era and see progress worth making? Goodness has always proven to be limited in breadth and depth, only good for a few and only done by people equally capable of doing bad. Even good intentions, aphoristically, pave the way to hell. This is cause for mourning, not bootstrap optimism. Blessed we’d be to mourn.
As an aside, I’m told that when Isaiah called our good deeds filthy rags, he was actually using the word for menstrual rags. Quite the bracing image, and one that makes you sort of wish modern translations were less skittish because it paints such a rich picture of our efforts. The stained rags being a sign of present infertility, of no new life where there could have been life. A painful sign for one trying to make life—and what are our good deeds but an attempt to create some kind of life?
There was no golden age and there is no steady, upward march. The human landscape is flat, never having peaked or gullied, but only having swirled and churned, perhaps seeming more rosy at times, if you stand in the right spot and squint just so, while all the time being lifeless and impotent. If a Christian takes seriously the notion of a fallen world, there is nothing to conserve under the sun and no progress to be made.
But this is no way to live, in despair. A Christian can’t be a conservative or a progressive so one has to be both. First, we must conserve what has been given. Namely the natural world and its creatures, but also our human relationships because, like it or not, God gave us each other. What decision will care for the created world without robbing Peter to pay Paul? What decision will foster more relating between people, better relationships not in warring monocultures but in the plurality we will never escape? These are two good questions to ask. Second, we must progress away from the wreckage of our attempts and repeated failures to build replacement Edens. Turn back from every ‘means to an end’ we’ve ever attempted. Of course, progress far enough along that retreating path and we will find ourselves required to stop building replacement Edens altogether, to admit that’s and end to which we just don’t have the means.
I don’t know how this translates into policy and, to be honest, I don’t think that matters. It is in the interest of that powerful ruling class to maintain the illusion that all negotiation and citizenship must flow through them and their monomaniacal platforms. If policy is our only hope for reform, then the government is our god. We can certainly see—in this era of impossible discourse and trigger warnings—the outcome of us giving politicians so much rein, surrendering too much of our neighborly duties and pleasures to institutions. I think it’s time Christians stepped back from policy, or rather stopped hiding behind it, and lived among their neighbors conserving the given things and progressing away from the damned-fool expectation that Eden can be rebuilt. If we do it right, they’ll have to outlaw neighborliness to keep their platforms propped up, but if it gets so far along that they’re that scared, well, let them just try.