Can Conservatism learn from Christianity? Our friend Tom Krannawitter suggests that Conservatism might learn a great deal from Christianity.
The simpler a movement is, the more likely it is to be popular and successful. The more complex a movement is — the more parts, principles, criteria, ideas or demands a movement contains — the fewer people will be attracted to it and the less likely it is to succeed.
I’m thinking here of the current flap between Christian conservatives organizing another conservative conference and a gay Republican group that wants to be part of it: The Western Conservative Summit and the Log Cabin Republicans.
Christian conservatives are a particularly interesting lot, from a political point of view. While modern conservatism has been a spectacle of failure — when measured by its ability to slow down progressivism, stop the march of socialism, or actually dismantle the massive regulatory-welfare state that’s been forged from the furnace heat of suspicion, envy, and the appetite for control — Christianity has been the opposite: the model of a successful movement in terms of marketing, communications, numbers, and time. In all of human history, it strains the imagination to think of any movement that has been more successful, around the globe and for centuries, than the spread of Christianity.
So what lessons do conservative Christians today offer to conservatism? Or, more generally, what lessons might Christianity offer for modern American conservatism? Surely a movement as feckless and ineffectual as modern conservatism might learn much from a movement as big and universally and historically successful as Christianity, yes?
Let us not forget that simplicity ranks high among the marketable qualities of Christianity.
To be sure, one can spend a lifetime exploring the depths and debates of Christian history, theology, eschatology, epistemology, ontology, and prophetology, as well as Biblical exegeses and hermeneutics, if one wants. But one does not need to study any of those things in order to consider one’s self a Christian.
At the heart of Christianity is the simplest, clearest of ideas that all Christians share: Jesus was/is a god, and those who believe as much receive a special kind of good. That’s really it. That’s all that unites all Christians near and far, then and now.
From this simple core belief, every related theological idea is intrinsically disputable and has in fact been disputed, sometimes violently so. Beginning w the question of the relationship between and among Jesus, Yahweh, and the Holy Spirit, to many, many other questions, the more complex Christianity became, the more people divided into sects, branches, and rivaling theological clusters, often forgetting the simple belief they had in common, focusing instead on how they differed.
But Christians, for the most part, never abandoned totally that simple core belief, the idea that Jesus is/was a god and that belief in Jesus as God is the path to some kind of special good. And that simple idea — which can be understood by anyone regardless of education or intelligence or wealth, or the lack thereof — I believe explains at least some and maybe much of why the Christian movement has enjoyed so much success over the last two millennia.
What might that mean for conservatism? Conservatism is not, strictly speaking, a religious movement for the simple reason that government is not a church. If the purpose of a church is to save souls, the purpose of government is much more humble: securing the freedom and property of citizens. And if a movement as high as saving souls can have a simple core idea, then surely a political movement aiming for something much lower — to shape government and public policies a certain way — can have a simple core idea as well. In short, if Christianity can have a simple core idea that’s attractive to many people of many different stripes in many parts of the world over many periods of time, then perhaps conservatism too might have some simple core idea that many people, perhaps even a majority, find attractive? If so, what is that simple core conservative idea?
I can think of no more important question for conservatives to answer. And if they can answer it, perhaps conservatives of all kinds can rally and unite around the core idea they all share, just as Christians have in proselytizing others and building their numbers around the globe, rather than focusing on what divides them one from another. Until they do, however, I suspect this is not the last time we’ll see groups nominally within the conservative movement dividing one from another because there are currently so many points of complexity, they’re bound to disagree on one or more.