Yesterday was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s start of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was launched and gained traction because of a belief that an institution, long beloved and promising salvation to its believers, had grown remote, confused, corrupt, and ineffective. Today another institution is facing a similar challenge: the conservative movement.
Virtually every charge laid at the feet of movement conservatism has its parallel in the Reformation. An insular and self-selecting group that proclaims the right to set intellectual orthodoxy and dogma for all its flock? Check. A collection of leaders who proclaim fidelity to one set of beliefs while doing little to bring them to fruition? Check. Accumulation of wealth and power in one city garnered from contributions from a widespread set of believers who are promised heavenly or political salvation for a donation? Check. Or should I say, checks?
The churches in Rome are beautiful, as are the ever more gorgeous and large homes of Washington’s most prestigious conservative think tanks and political action groups. But many outside the Beltway are left with the nagging sense that the people who populate those edifices care more about their wealth, status, and access than about helping their followers obtain what they seek.
This is surely unfair to many institutions and those who work there, much as many of Luther’s charges were unfair to the vast majority of priests, nuns, and bishops laboring on behalf of the Catholic Church. But smoke grows from fire, not thin air, and when millions of conservatives and populists sense that Washington, D.C. conservatism is the Whore of Babylon, attention must be paid.
Truth be told, conservatism is in a crisis. It is not one of personal corruption, although all of us here in the swamp along the Potomac know our movement is populated with its share of charlatans, scam artists, and those whose principles are ever changing just as their dances shift with the tune of the day. Instead the crisis is one of principle itself. Conservatism once knew what it was for as well as what it was against. Our crisis flows precisely from the fact this is no longer true.
Is it conservative to favor balanced budgets at the expense of tax cuts? It once was, but today it is not, although many conservatives outside of Washington still believe it is. Is it conservative to favor a large standing military and constant involvement in wars big and small across the globe? It once was not, but now it is even though many conservatives outside of Washington think the Soviet Union’s fall removes the necessity that sanctioned the large growth of our national security apparatus. Must one be a believing and practicing Christian to be a conservative? Conservatism did not have a religious test until it de facto did, even though millions of people who neither believe in nor practice any recognizable form of Christianity still consider themselves part of the brethren.
The list can go on, but every person remotely involved with conservatism intuitively knows that these dogmatic disputes are at the root of our internal conflicts and the inability of a conservative-dominated federal government to get anything done.
It is a good thing when so many people want to worship at your church that you have to expand the building to fit them all in. American conservatism has gone from a persecuted sect to a movement that millions seek to claim as their own. Our problem stems from the fact that millions within this church disagree about the nature of the tenets they worship, and many of those views are deemed heretical without debate or a sense of what Protestantism calls “the priesthood of all believers.”
As chance or Providence dictates, today is the anniversary of the conclusion of the Council of Chalcedon. This event in 451 brought leaders of the Christian Church from around the globe together to decide the fundamental tenets of orthodox belief. Thirteen centuries later, this council’s determinations remain accepted by Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and a host of other Protestant and Christian denominations that nonetheless disagree sharply about other matters. Is this not a better approach to resolving our differences than conflict and war?
The Reformation ushered in a period of intra-Christian warfare known today as the Religious Wars. Between 1517 and 1648, millions of people died as one sect after another sought to impose its definition of orthodoxy on what they termed nonbelievers. The result was the seemingly permanent division of the Body of Christ into ever more numerous and smaller groups. These wars, more than anything else, gave impetus to the rise of secular alternatives to belief, ideologies that ultimately gave birth to both some of the best (freedom of religion and speech) and some of the worst (Communism, Nazism, authoritarian socialism) impulses present in the world today. Today’s inter-denominational dialogues are a tacit admission that all Christian belief suffered by the Reformation-era failure to approach difference in the conciliar fashion of the Church fathers.
Ronald Reagan practiced this conciliar approach in creating what he hoped would become “The New Republican Party.” He never wavered in preaching his ideals, but he always welcomed those with whom total agreement was not yet possible. Disaffected Democrats, libertarians, social conservatives, and traditional Republicans all found something of their beliefs in his creed. United, all Reagan’s conciliar conservatism did was save America and the world.
“Let those of you without sin cast the first stone.” As conservatism prepares for yet another round of religious war (we call these conflicts “primaries”), let us recall the teachings of the Reformation and the councils. Reagan told his followers that any differences among Republicans paled in comparison to how they disagreed with Democrats. A healthy conservative reformation must start with the recognition that unity is the precondition to victory, and that such unity must come from the consent of the governed rather than be achieved through battle or the dictates of an unelected few in what Reagan called “the puzzle palaces on the Potomac.”
Some may disagree, but here I stand. I can do no other.