The Decline of Conservatism

October 19, 2007

I entered “decline of conservatism” into Google this morning to see what would happen, and interestingly it seems to be a topic widely discussed over the past year or so.

I watched this video by entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Conservative Empire,” which is long but fascinating.  In it, two pundits from thinktanks discuss the rise and fall of conservatism starting with Goldwater moving up to the disastrous Bush administration.

I also wrote a post yesterday on the generational gap between baby boomers and “gen-y,” describing a cultural movement away from capitalist motivations on a basis of scarcity to work for greed and towards humanitarian motivations to work perhaps on a basis of abundance.  Very different theologies these two generations, whether stated or not.

I’ve also been following a post from Fr. Jake entitled “Brutal Honesty,” where Jake with Tobias Haller’s help outlines a position arguing that perhaps it is easy to perceive the Episcopal church as being more progessive than it really is.

What I am going to argue in this post today is that:

  1. the decline in conservatism is real and present in this country;
  2. there is reason to believe we could be emerging into an age with roots for a very strong base for intentional and theologically sound Christian values– based on an inclusive and loving gospel message
  3. we are slow to realize the shift in the church because we are preoccupied with other issues/disconnected from culture; as a result we have the wrong conversations

Reading through the material from a variety of sources on the decline of conservatism was fascinating to me.  I do not watch a lot of television, but the television I do watch still portrays issues in a very “left/right” way that does not fully represent either the full complexity of the issues of the day nor does it represent the changing nature of the culture.

Some of the arguments I’ve seen, discussed a little in the video I referenced, compare Reagan to “W” and William F. Buckley to Ann Coulter.  They say that the only difference between the pairings is that the veil of conservatism has been pulled back so that we see the “true nature” of what was begun a few decades ago, and now the true character of the beast that was unleashed has been revealed.

Others– also liberal voices– counter that those comparisons are not fair; that there is an inherent difference between Reagan and Bush; that Reagan adjusted his policies when they did not work while Bush does not, and that Buckley was never as vile as Coulter even in his most racist moments.

But all seem to agree that there is a shift.  That despite having taken control of the presidency, the congress, and the judiciary– all of the branches representing the government for American life– conservatism has gone bust.  The conservatives are worried about it, too– they acknowledge it just the same as the liberals.  Newt Gingredge has even said that the next Republican nominee does not have any chance of winning, no matter who he is.

All of that underlies a changing cultural shift, I think, I hope.  This poll, from August, 2007, shows that socially conservative Americans are on the decline.  Acceptance of homosexuality is up, as is acknowledgement of an economic system that drives a large wedge between the rich and the poor, and, interestingly, there has been a decline in the intensity of “religious beliefs.”

One wonders if the poll ++Katharine quoted recently plays a part– where religion was seen in a Barna Group Study, particularly by 16-29 year olds, as judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%) (which, as pointed out by the video I linked, is understandbly a negative association since at this young age their only association with politics is the Bush administration/political pandering of the Religious Right).

What a generational gap.  91% of young people believe that Christianity condemns homosexuality.  No wonder religious intensity is diminishing while acceptance of LGBT people is increasing.  We have to redefine Christianity.  That is our charter– we have a huge educational effort in front of us– not only for those in the aging baby boomer generation, who tentatively embrace inclusion, but also (and especially) for the next generation of prospective Christians– to show them that being a Christian really is not different from their core values; values of love, inclusion, acceptance, and treating people rightly and kindly.  AND working to make the institutions better.

It seems to me that Fr. Jake’s post is right-on– we may be behind the times in the Episcopal Church.  The church usually is out of touch with culture.  We don’t find ways to stay engaged with culture: to be in the world, not of the world, while also challenging the world to move forward, being in relationship with all whom we meet.  We fall behind.  We long for days gone by, for things to stay the same, for memories that perhaps never really existed.  So even as our own institutions may have called us into a level of inclusion that we may not be able to live up to today, we fall behind when voices around the globe beat us over the head using the power of community as a stick.  Instead of using our own power of community for support we fall into codependent relationships, allowing others to manipulate, to control, to let fear dominate instead of love.

So we end up with dualistic conversations just like the media does.  We fall into their trap.  We dialogue between the left and the right.  The conservatives and the liberals.  The revisionists and the reasserters.  Any dualistic terms just aren’t helpful- they are reductionistic and do disservice.  I am more than “gay,” although that is absolutely a part of my identity.  But by describing me that way you know very little about me- what do I like?  What do I think?  What do I believe?  You may project some things onto me from a label but they remain projections of the label, especially if you have a heterocentric viewpoint.  How much of a disservice do we do “the other” by lumping them into any polar category.  There are just more dimensions to this current condition of ours than two.  Diana Butler Bass does an excellent job of describing some alternative dimensions of the state of the church in her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us and particularly in The Practicing Congregation.

But either the church will turn back to its core values– the values of Jesus, the values of love, of “other-ness”, of inclusion, of embrace, of nurture, or she will become irrelevant in a world where institutions that use power for manipulative means always end up failing, whether after 10 years or 100.  The churches that are thriving are doing it because they are becoming intentional.  They are making their case and losing their attachment to the building; they are going out into the world and defining themselves by the pressing issues of our time, not by the questions of ages past.  If we translate that up the chain into the institution, then we just might make the whole of the Episcopal Church a relevant institution, too.

There is a voice crying out in the wilderness.  Will we heed it?  In my experience the voices of Canterbury, Washington, 815, and the other powers and principalities of the church, state, and world, are not very telling– unless they sound very much like the voice in the wilderness.  I’m not sure they are aligned at this moment.



3 Responses to “The Decline of Conservatism”

  1. Jeff Says:

    OK – I can see what search terms people use to find my blog. Since posting this piece, someone found me using, “2008 candidates and homos.”

    Well, it proves the point about heterocentrism I guess.

    Come on into this homo’s backyard, and welcome, breeder!


  2. Christopher Says:


    What do you mean by conservatism? I consider myself moderately conservative in many ways, so I’m curious.

    There are different kinds of conservative and liberal for the matter, and some of them meet in having a relatively realistic (some would say pessimistic) understanding of the human condition while also having an sense of the importance of forms for society and a need to be flexible in their application.

    Some of our founding principles as a country are deeply conservative in the sense that they are suspicious that human beings given the chance will abuse power, hence, checks and balances.

    So, do you mean the radical reactionarism of the Bush administration? These folks are not conservative in the best sense of that word. Do you mean the family values folks? Again, this is more reactionary and populist than necessarily conservative.

    I’m just as suspicious of liberal or progresssive “bring in the kingdom” utopianism; it’s the same side of the coin as that espoused by our present administration and doesn’t adequately consider in my opinion the reality of the human condition and the presence of sin.

    In terms of homosexuality, conservative arguments for making accomodation can and have been made, and I often find them more compelling than simply stating the need for justice, which is true, but only part of the case. It isn’t clear to me that “love your neighbor as yourself” is liberal, it’s found within the framework of Jewish law amongst myriad conflicting matters, and one could say quite contrarily that to do so is conservative in the best sense of that word.

    I think we need more focus on the gospel and less focus on inclusion, unity, and purity which seem to have coopted the gospel in Anglicanism of late.

  3. Jeff Says:

    Thanks for posting, Christopher, that’s a fair question. I’m not sure any of the articles I read articulated a clear answer.

    By conservative, I mean primarily conservative in the social political sense. I think you are speaking idealogically and I am speaking pragmatically in terms of who actually has had power over the past twenty years- James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Jerry Fallwell, even Pat Robertson.

    I read the gospel as a call to live into a very high anthropology when , so I do not draw some of the distinctions you make. I believe we get into serious problems when we begin talking about only human propensity for bad without the gift of freedom for good.

    I guess the most concise answer to your question is that by “the decline of conservatism” I mean the decline of the power of the religious right in political life in America.

    I’m rambling a bit, but I definitely think that inclusion is a gospel value; particularly in Luke. Unity I do not see embodied in the gospel but in the epistles. In fact, I see far more division than unity embodied in the gospel when justice issues are at stake; breakup of power structures, claims against the Roman empire and its representatives in the Temple authority, and so on. Purity– I just don’t know what you mean by that. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard purity come up as a topic in a sermon or a class in seminary other than in purity codes, obviously defunct in a contemporary setting. If you mean some kind of moral decency, sure. But that’s a loaded word, purity.

    Inclusion, though– inclusion means that even though I may be a die-hard democrat and liberal (only for lack of something better to choose), I am dedicated to the availability of viewpoints divergent from my own. Diversity is key. Unity cannot mean uniformity– that is why purity worries me.


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