Three Things for Conservatives to Ponder
July 28, 2002

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Last week's column suggested three areas for liberal self-scrutiny. It's time for the flip-side. What three areas might conservatives ponder?

1. Jesus' admonition that truth alone is not enough.

For Jesus, truth needs a certain aesthetics: "Speak your truth in parables," he cautioned, "lest people might look but not perceive, listen but not understand." Among other things, this means that the truth is not a sledge-hammer. It's not enough simply to have the right truth, we need the right energy and patience as well.

As conservatives, we sometimes forget that. In our itch to defend the truth and protect proper boundaries, too often we try to impose truth by law and subdue opposing voices by legislative force. Contrary to Jesus' advice, we aren't content to let the weeds and the wheat grow together, but are habitually over-eager to uproot opposing views.

Passion alone is not enough. Neither is truth. The occupational pitfall for us, conservatives, is this: Not infrequently we end up like the older brother of the prodigal son, doing all the right things, not straying, but standing outside the circles of the celebration, unable to dance because we are angry that someone else has strayed. Too often our passion for truth has us bracket Jesus' call for patience, wide tolerance, and a mellow heart.

2. One issue does not make for a whole gospel.

The litmus test, biblically, as to one's Christian orthodoxy is love of one's enemies.

This isn't always our position as conservatives. In our passion for truth, we too frequently judge others' orthodoxy and good-will on another basis, namely, on how they stand on a given moral or doctrinal issue: abortion, sexual ethics, homosexuality, euthanasia, feminist ideology, papal infallibility, intercommunion, or even liturgical rubrics. The point is not that these issues aren't important. They are. The point rather is that, too often, we are focused so exclusively on one issue that we no longer see the larger moral picture.

For example, as conservatives, it is easy for us to look at a culture such as exists in Holland and assess it very negatively from a Christian point of view: Holland has legalized abortion, euthanasia, prostitution, and various drugs. Church attendance is very low, many people no longer bother to get married inside of the church or even inside of a courthouse, and, from many points of view, things look very post- Christian.

Yet, on the other hand, Holland has established one of the most compassionate, peace-loving cultures in the whole world. They take care of their poor better perhaps than any other country in the world, are peace-loving, solicitous that everyone have equal rights, anxious about the environment, and display a wonderful religious and ethnic tolerance. These are no small moral achievements. Too often we don't see this because obsessive focus on one moral issue blinds us to the larger moral picture. Sadly, this is also true, in reverse, when we assess more conservative cultures.

Another example might be our reaction to feminism. Too often we blame it for our culture's struggle with marriage and family life, not seeing at all that many of its tenets are a direct challenge to certain principles in the workplace (which creates too little place for family life) that are the real culprits in the dissipation of so many marriages and families. It was Gloria Steinem, not the corporations we trust, who let her employees bring their children along to the work and let them be parents and workers both at the same time.

3. The social gospel is just as non-negotiable as the sexual one.

As conservatives, we can be proud that, in a culture not given to accepting much in the way of challenge in terms of sexual ethics and private morality, we have remained prophetic in terms of affirming a higher sexual ethos, the road less-taken. Our culture owes conservatives a huge debt here, not that it will ever pay it.

But sometimes our vigilance has been one-sided. We have been healthily vigilant about sexual morality and what it protects (marriage, family life, emotional stability, social order, personal integrity, proper transparency, the capacity for trust) without, at the same time, being equally (or at all) solicitous about the other half of the gospel, justice and feeding the poor. Like our liberals colleagues, we too are selective in our morality, able to compartmentalize, and able to feel comfortable with neglecting important parts of the gospel because of our passion for one area of it.

Jesus, however, makes social morality and private morality equally non-negotiable. In the gospels, we don't go to heaven if we break the commandments, but we don't go there either if we don't feed the poor.

Sally Bingham was recently asked how she adjusts herself in terms of speaking to either a conservative or a liberal congregation. Her reply: "I don't look at whether a congregation is liberal or conservative; I look at how devout they are." Sound advice for us all.