This Week’s Mtg: Must Religion Be Conservative?

I love these kinds of topics!  However, since we’ve had a lot of long opening lectures lately, I just thought I’d open the meeting with a very short framing of the issue.

Whether religion is inherently conservative is a big issue right now.  The U.S. Catholic Bishops have gone all in opposing President Obama, states are passing anti-abortion and anti-contraception laws, and the religious right organizes for another election.  Yet, anyone who knows history knows of times that religious institutions were at the leading edge of liberalizing social change.  Abolition.  Civil rights.  Anti-war movements.  Immigration.  And, of course, by conservative we could mean not just politically, but also doctrinally, culturally, or, in the case of individuals, even temperamentally.

So, how can we even ask if religion is inherently conservative?  Well, I see two points of view on this.

  1. Religion is bound up with culture, and tends to want to protect the status quo.  Thus, like most big institutions, religions are conservative most of the time because most people resist cultural changes, especially those that challenge hierarchies and patriarchal arrangements.
  2. Religion is just naturally conservative.  Religions are based on revealed truths from ancient texts, enforce particular doctrines and ways of thinking, and often are authoritative in  structure and governance.

(Notice I did not include as an option that God wants us to be conservative and to cleave to tradition.  You may believe this, but I think debating it would make for an unsatisfying discussion.)

However, religion can also be a force for resistance to entrenched beliefs and a bringer of progressive social change.  After all, most religions preach:

  1. A higher moral order; like loving enemies and such.
  2. Universal values; that all people are God’s creatures deserving of respect and (gasp) opportunity and succor.

And, many modern religions lack a central hierarchy as recvanchist and entrenched as, say, the Vatican or the Saudi clerical establishment.

On Thursday I’ll briefly review some of these theories, and then I really want to focus for a change on the Discussion Questions, below.


  1. What makes a religion the way it is?  Scripture and doctrine?  History and cultural inertia?  What about “outside” forces, like demographics, politics, or changes to the culture a religion is embedded in?
  2. Do these influences make religion inherently conservative?   Are some faiths more or less conservative than others; e.g., Catholicism vs. Islam vs. Judaism?
  3. What makes some religious people political conservatives and others liberals?  Why are different religious Americans and their churches responding differently to, say, (a) immigration, (b) gay marriage, and (c) government aid to the poor?
  4. As I hammer on every week, the basic American social contract is under attack with an intensity not before seen in our lifetimes.  What role are religious people and institutions playing in this battle?  How can they be on different sides?
  5. In your opinion, should religion be progressive or conservative?  For the side you don’t like, is that the fault of the religions themselves, or of the people who join them and the social forces that shape them?


  • Old mtg post:  “What is liberal Christianity?”  Click to see some great links, including a simple chart that groups Americans into 12 religious-political “tribes.”   Also, “What Would Jesus Cut.”   I Recommend.
  • A little, simple religion and society 101 Recommended.
  • Old link, recommended by minister Steve:  The Emergent Church, a present-day movement to “modernize” Christianity for the 21st century.
  • Old link:  A long, but way cool cover story in The Atlantic.  It argues, in 2002, that global Christianity will grow both more liberal and more conservative.
  • Andrew Sullivan, a conservative Catholic who has long since abandoned the Republican Party, sums up the most extreme – though hardly unanimous in the GOP – view of religion and politics held by some in the religious right.

    If you really like Sullivan, here’s his own view of what Christianity should mean and the role it should play in politics and public life.


I’ll be brief, I swear!  Let’s focus on the questions, above, unless you don’t want to.


One response

  1. Thanks for all the info David. Will study some of the stuff that you have suggested. Looking forward to this Thursday, however, I think we should think about a new venue. Chocolat place is too small and too expensive without that many choices of food.


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