What Exactly Are Conservatives Conserving?

Conservatives have lost cultural battle after cultural battle over the decades, and now many of them want to conserve those losses.


August 28, 2023

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“Safe, Legal, and Rare.” It is glorious to remember that this statement was able to fuel enough outrage over abortion that it united all branches of pro-lifers under the conservative banner in opposition to such an insulting and dangerous position. This was over thirty years ago, and a few things have changed. The official liberal position on abortion has developed into a wholesale acceptance of abortion at any time and for any reason: no longer should abortion be “safe, legal, and rare” but “safe, legal, and everywhere.” 

This is bad enough. But to add insult to injury, the only ones who are proposing that abortion be “safe, legal, and rare” are conservatives! The terror of this is that they do so while also claiming the title of pro-life: “I’m pro-life, but I support exceptions for rape and incest”; “I’m personally pro-life, but abortion is the decision of the mother”; “I’m pro-life, but only after the fetus has a heartbeat.”

The same trend has occurred in the realm of marriage. Thirty years ago, it was the liberals who were advocating for the legalization of gay marriage. In 2023, there is now a sizable cohort of conservatives who actively defend gay marriage in the United States and worldwide. Like my dad used to say, “Liberals want change quickly, conservatives want change slowly.” All this means is that the current conservative platform is the liberal platform of thirty years ago.

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We shouldn’t be surprised by this phenomenon. The conservative movement is, in fact, a political movement; and as such, it conforms to the zeitgeist in order to survive. It wouldn’t be surprising to find the conservative movement of 2040 supporting the right to change genders, or to have a conservative trans man elected as president. The conservatives are not the de facto defenders of traditional morals or American Christianity. The conservative movement is a political party. It wouldn’t be surprising to find the conservative movement of 2040 supporting the right to change genders, or to have a conservative trans man elected as president.Tweet This

The dangerous position that we American Christians have found ourselves in is that we have equated orthodox Christianity with conservatism. There is a very strong feeling among orthodox Christians that we can only vote for conservative candidates—or worse, that we can or even should vote for a candidate simply because they’re conservative. Consequently, many devout Christians are electing conservative representatives under the false pretense that those representatives will serve in a Christian manner and support Christian values. They never stop to consider that those conservative representatives are changing their platform to conform to the spirit of the age, which is increasingly anti-Christian or pagan. 

We saw this most recently in the Ted Cruz debacle concerning Uganda’s laws against sodomy. Ted Cruz was elected by an evangelical voter base to promote Christian values and to bring the Gospel to the Federal government (supposedly). In reality, he used the mantle of Christianity and pro-life to gain the votes necessary to put him in power. He now uses his power however his donors will.

This reminds me of the familiar story of a scorpion who asked a frog for assistance in crossing a river. The frog was hesitant because he was afraid that the scorpion would sting and kill him. The scorpion managed to convince the frog to carry him across the river, saying, “I promise I won’t sting you, why would I kill you and drown myself?” Seeing the sense in this, the frog allowed the scorpion onto his back and began to swim across. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog, condemning them both to die in the water. As he was drowning, the frog asked the scorpion why he had stung him if he knew that they would both die. The scorpion replied that he couldn’t help it, that it was in his nature.

Why are we surprised when politicians seek after the zeitgeist? The Scriptures are very clear: “Don’t put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3). Earthly princes cannot and will not save you. These political movements are seeking after power, and they will do anything to achieve that power. Even the best among them only achieved their positions of power through compromising values, forgetting promises, and betraying allies. They can’t help it; it’s in their nature.

There is a further danger to this marriage between conservatism and Christianity. The essence of conservatism is to preserve the culture and mores that make up our society. With the rapid changes that have occurred over the past century, this means that the culture being preserved is different every 20 to 30 years. You can see this revealed in the doctrines held to by conservatives. Whether it be the Cold War hawkishness versus the early century isolationism, the Jim Crow segregationists versus the melting pot nationalists, or 1990s’ globalist economics versus 2020s’ national-based economics, the conservative positions change depending on the culture. 

The old adage “politics is downstream of culture” is particularly true of conservatives. On the other hand, Christianity is not downstream of culture. Quite the opposite, culture is downstream of Christianity. The danger is that a marriage between conservatism and Christianity will place the Faith in a position to be compromised, just as conservative politicians are compromising every day. This would result in a Christian faith which conforms to politics instead of a politics which conforms to Christianity. 

This is not to say that the conservative movement has never been Christian or never supported Christian values. It is very true that in past decades the conservative movement was where devout Christians of all stripes could find allies in the culture war. Catholics and Evangelicals found themselves side by side in the fight to protect the unborn. Presbyterians and Methodists found themselves in the same trenches defending the sanctity of marriage. This was only possible because a critical mass of American society was, in fact, devoutly Christian, and therefore the conservative movement was trying to conserve a Christian America. Politics was downstream of culture and culture was downstream of Christianity. 

Those days are more or less over. America is only nominally Christian, if that, and hence it is increasingly common for conservatives to identify as non-Christian or pagan. The campaign of Vivek Ramaswamy is a good example of this. While he may preach a familiar set of conservative policies, his social and religious views sound more similar to a mid-decade liberal than a traditional Christian conservative, as he is a vocal and devout Hindu. This is not to rail against his faith but to point out that he is a glowing example of how one can be uber-conservative and non-Christian. If it is the essence of conservatism to preserve and to change slowly, and our culture is no longer Christian, no wonder our conservative movement is less than Christian. There is little Christianity in our nation to preserve!

This leaves the American Christian in a familiar place: partyless, voiceless, and, in a worldly sense, powerless. What a glorious opportunity this is. If we are no longer shackled by the need to compromise our Christianity in the spirit of “preservation,” then we can finally engage the culture on an honest playing field. With no special interests, no ulterior motives, and no baggage, we can preach the Gospel to our nation. We will do politics the Christian way, by not playing politics! Not with votes, but with changed hearts. Not with policies, but with Truth.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]


  • JohnMark Cayer

    JohnMark Cayer is the Director of Faith Formation at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church and School in Greenville SC. He lives in South Carolina with his wonderful wife Lucy and their dog Santiago. He is a graduate from Franciscan University of Steubenville with a degree in Humanities and Catholic Culture.

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