Some people balk at the use of liberal and conservative in a religious context. They argue that these are political terms only, and that questions of religious belief and practice are too varied, too nuanced, to capture with broad-stroke labels.
I’m not one of those people. Words can have different senses in different contexts, so there should be no problem re-purposing them from one to the next. And, sure, I agree that beliefs can be complex and so labels are necessarily imperfect. But they’re also useful: They help us, on a big-picture level, to categorize, to distinguish, to analyze group phenomena.
And so we speak of religious liberalism and religious conservatism as comprising certain characteristics:
Liberalism: Places limited importance on regular worship-observance and on strict adherence to doctrine and morals. Stresses God’s immanence and temporal religious goods (kindness toward others, stewardship of creation). Open to change in belief and practice as the times may require.
Conservatism: Sees regular worship-observance and assent to theological and moral dogmas as essential. Stresses God’s transcendence and eternal religious goods (sanctity, salvation). Resistant to change in belief and practice, preferring to “conserve” what it has.
According to this scheme, Catholicism is a conservative religion. Its principal aim is eternal, its doctrines immutable, its founding duty to hold fast to what it received. This analysis says nothing about Catholic politics, about the spiritual styles of individual Catholics, or about legitimate ways in which Catholicism also speaks of God’s immanence, preaches temporal works, and undergoes change over time. But it’s a handy way of making fundamental—and important—distinctions. It also reveals a natural affinity between Catholicism and other religious-conservative groups: the Orthodox churches, many Evangelical Protestants, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, Mormonism, and Islam.
Well, a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggests we’re all going the way of the dodo. In our place will rise religious “progressives” (the survey’s somewhat loaded term for liberals), their numbers young and waxing—“a more significant group than is usually assumed.”
The Millennial generation is especially rife with these young “progressives,” who say that religion is mostly about “doing the right thing,” deny that God is necessary to be moral, tend to favor legal abortion and same-sex marriage, and hold an “adaptive” view towards religious tradition. (Disturbingly, the single largest sub-group of progressives—29 percent—self-identify as Catholics.)
So, what conclusion do we draw? Is the demographic writing on the wall? Should the last one out of Mass turn off the lights?
Not so fast.
In fact, even though my natural level of pessimism generally rivals that of Eeyore the donkey, I think there are at least three reasons to believe that, contra the bone-rolling prognostication of the PRRI, religious conservatism has a bright future:
1. Younger generations are always more liberal, but not everyone stays that way.
Yes, younger people are more religiously liberal today than in ages past. They’re less likely to be raised in their parents’ faith; they’re more likely to profess atheism or moral therapeutic deism. But it would be a mistake to conclude that they’re all religious liberals for life. Aging has a way of leading us to God. Sin dulls our pride; suffering seeks comfort; marriage and children deepen our perspective; creeping mortality makes us yearn for permanent things. Eventually we all get mugged by metaphysical reality. So at least some, and I think no small number, of today’s unchurched twentysomethings will be part of the next generation of older religious conservatives that future polls will assure us are a dying breed.
2. Religious liberalism makes few converts.
It was Peter Kreeft, I think, who once observed that “Jesus the warm fuzzy doesn’t have quite the appeal of Jesus the eternal Logos.” There’s a reason why mainline Protestantism, eviscerated of its doctrinal and moral content, is replete with empty, echoing churches (and it’s not, as the Episcopal Church’s top lady, Jefferts Schori, has offered—because God is “pruning” its members to make them more individually fruitful). There’s a reason why liberal religious orders are de facto retirement homes. And it’s the same reason that the children of liberal believers grow up to prefer their own homemade spirituality: religious liberalism does not inspire. It does not challenge. It offers nothing but lost Sunday morning sleep.
3. Religious conservatives make babies.
It turns out that religious liberals aren’t replacing themselves in the ordinary way, either. We already know that they’re more likely to have no problem with contraception, abortion, or homosexuality, which creates a predictable demographic result. They don’t even view it as a bad thing. Schori again: Episcopalians are just too smart and eco-conscious to make more resource-hogging, ozone-depleting little rug rats. It makes sense, of course—if your approach to religious traditions in favor of large families is “adaptive,” and if your faith-focus is maximizing temporal happiness.
In contrast, religious conservatives are breeding up a storm—with Evangelicals, Mormons, and conservative Catholics outpacing their more secular counterparts in the U.S. by as much as two to one. Again, it makes perfect sense: Religious conservatives are more likely to believe in binding divine commandments, and to value above temporal goods the creation of new little persons to love God. My own scientific analysis of the back seats of my minivan confirms the theory.
So, predictions of a religious-progressive future may be a touch premature. I foresee a not-too-distant time when only religious conservatism and pure secularism remain, with a long-term advantage to the religious folk. Will we then become a great witness to the secular powers, or will we, like the fertile Israelites in ancient Egypt (Ex. 1:9-14), be made their slaves?