Commentary: Evangelicals and the future of conservatism

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Cars and pickups used to have bench seats stretching uninterrupted from the driver’s door to the passenger’s door. In those days, it was common to see a young lady sitting in the middle of the front seat as the guy drove.

One day, a husband and wife married many years were riding in a pickup truck with a bench seat. The wife, seated next to the passenger door, remarked, “We used to sit close together in this old truck.”

“Well,” her husband replied dryly from behind the steering wheel, “I ain’t the one who moved.”

I thought about that story recently when some friends and I were lamenting the chasm between our personal convictions and the present-day conservative movement: I ain’t the one who moved.

Conservative and evangelical

I’ve been a conservative since I heard Ronald Reagan speak in college. But the conservative movement has “moved.” It has become crude and histrionic. It is flirting with the alt-right and obsessed with conspiracies. It is driven by fear instead of vision.

In mid-2020, Gallup showed a steady decline in Americans identifying as political conservatives. That’s what the stats tell me. My gut tells me we have lost our moral compass.

Which brings me to the evangelicals. We were complicit in the digression of political conservatism. I’m hoping we play an important role in its redemption.

The evangelical movement emerged more than a century ago as a positive answer to both the impotence of religious liberalism and the venom of religious fundamentalism. We were born in the gap between extremist ideologies.

Kenneth Hersh got my attention in the March 28, 2021, Dallas Morning News with his plea for “a strong, compassionate conservative voice to provide a rational alternative to the alt-right sentiment and a counterweight to the progressive left, which, left unchecked, endangers our freedom and economic viability as a nation.”

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Affirming critical truths

Evangelicals can offer just such a voice. It’s in our DNA. But evangelicals are going to have to affirm several critical truths.

Good ends do not justify bad means.

Wrongdoings like intimidation, degeneracy, corruption and sedition never are defensible. Fred Smith was right: “If I can’t win in the spirit of Christ, I should lose.”

We sometimes act like the Creator needs our help so badly, he won’t mind if we mistreat inconvenient people and ignore boorish behaviors. But, surely, deep in our hearts, we know better than that.

Democrats are not the Anti-Christ.

Our Sunday school teachers would be disappointed to see some of their former students vilifying people just for being Democrats. It’s true Jesus renounced many religious leaders of his day, but he didn’t slander the Romans just for being Romans. Neither did he slander their political opponents, the Zealots, just for being Zealots.

Blanket demonization of political rivals is not only immoral; it also hardens those who disagree with us and removes opportunities for consensus.

There is only one Messiah.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond declared he and his fellow Dixiecrats provided “the only genuine obstacle to the rise of socialism or communism in America.” Yep, he claimed the fate of the free world rested solely on their shoulders.

In an effort to scare up votes, some conservatives still are using such red herrings as “anti-Christian socialism” and claiming they are the only bulwarks against our nation’s imminent demise. Are there genuine threats to our nation? Absolutely, and so it is appropriate to be vigilant. But it is megalomaniacal for people to claim they are the nation’s last and only hope.

I believe conservatism is the absolute healthiest political way forward for my community, my state and my nation. But there is only one Messiah.

It’s time to regroup.

Back on course

In 1830, Daniel Webster noted if a ship is blown off course by a storm, the crew regroups when the sun finally peeks from behind the clouds. They determine how far off course they have been driven, and they get back on course.

Storms have pummeled our political ship, but I see a hint of sunlight on the horizon. I’m not the only conservative dissatisfied with the present state of our movement.

It’s time to remember who we were before the tempests, to remember the core values that bind us together, and return to our course—united, stronger and more effective even than before.

It’s not too late for conservatism to make a comeback. Evangelicals can help.

Travis Collins is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., a former missionary and author of What Does it Mean to Be Welcoming?: Navigating LGBT Questions in Your Church. A version of this article appeared first on The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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