Saturday, February 17, 2007

Conservatives Without Conscience

At the recommendation of a commentor on this blog I am reading John Dean's new book entitled Conservatives Without Conscience. Dean dedicates the work to the late and former United States Senator Barry Goldwater, whom some have called the father of modern conservatism. Senator Goldwater wrote a thrice-weekly column on conservatism for the Los Angeles Times for almost four years, but is best known for his book The Conscience of a Conservative (1960).

John Dean says that Goldwater is known for his ability to define conservatism, a task that is far more illusive than some might imagine. Goldwater became a student of Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover, two of the more well known conservatives of the 1920's and 1930's, and then began to articulate the foundations of conservatism for Dean's generation and beyond. On page 17 of Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean writes of Goldwater:

He defined conservatism as the belief that "the solutions to the problems of today can be found in the proven values of the past." As for the conscience of the conservative, he wrote that it was "pricked by anyone who would debase the dignity of the individual human being."

Dean said Goldwater later told him he should have written that the conservative conscience was 'pricked by anyone or any action that debases human dignity." And for the true conservative, human dignity is found in the Declaration's phrase, 'All men are created equal . . . "

"Politics is the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order," Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of the Conservative, "and the conservative's first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?"

John Dean's thesis is his book Conservatives Without a Conscience is that since the early 1990's an authoritarian conservatism has infiltrated American politics. Rather than maximizing freedom, authoritarians demand conformity in all nuances of ideology. When fellow conservatives refuse to tow the line, the authoritians go into 'attack' mode and will use all means, both foul and fair, to bring down 'the enemy.' These authoritian conservatives are so sure that they are not only right, but holy and pure, that they are bursting with indignation and a desire to smite down their enemies.

Dean says that conservatives hyperventilating about liberalism is surprising, because it is so unnecessary. Liberalism is a straw man conservatives love to attack, in fact, there are not enough liberals to be a true threat to conservatism. A recent Harris Poll found that only eighteen percent of Americans called themselves liberals. In truth, says Dean, conservatives attack liberals, or those they label or perceive as liberal as a means to rally the troops. The exaggerated hostility also apparantly satisfies a psychological need for antagonism toward the 'out group.'

I am not through reading John Dean's book, and I am not necessarily saying I agree with everything that he writes, because I don't, but I have read enough to know that there seems to be a striking parallel between the American political landscape in the last fifteen years to that of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Conservative governance within the agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention is the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for autonomous churches that is consistent with the fundamentals of the gospel of Christ and Baptist distinctives as we cooperate for the purpose of missions. The question that every true conservative Southern Baptist should ask is: Are we maximizing this freedom?" Wade Burleson

Think about it.


Kevin Bussey said...

Nice quote!

Are you related to him? :) said...

He's my clone.


Bill Scott said...

The comparison is striking. I think there is a masters thesis in the making somewhere in all of this.

Jeff Whitfield said...

Are we confusing ourselves by using the word "conservative" in both our politics and our theology? Maybe the real problem is when we combine politics with our church governance and our theology. The Republican party is not going to change the world. The only real freedom is in Christ. Maybe we need to spend more time sharing the Gospel and a whole less time on politics.

Strider said...

Jeff, I would change 'Are we confusing ourselves...' to 'Why have we confused ourselves...' The point that I get out of this post is the rather scary notion that as the conservative political landscape has changed so has the Church landscape. Why? Who is capable of influencing both very separate and different spheres of society? I keep hearing SNL's Churchlady in the back of my mind whining "Could it be.... Satan?"

Bob Cleveland said...

Wade: Gee, doesn't the Holy Ghost bug us about stuff too, and couldn't He be likened to a "God-conscience" in the believer?

The Holy Ghost goes way beyond the obligations of the conscience, but how could we ignore the conscience in even lesser matters without also trampling on the directives of the Holy Ghost?

Oh, that's right. We can't speculate on someone else's spirituality.

davidinflorida said...

Pastor Wade,

I believe the answer to your question: " as conservative Southern Baptists are we maximizing this freedom?"

I would say no.

Here is why...2 Cor 3:17 Where the Spirit of the Lord is , there is freedom. Maybe we need more Spirit of the Lord,

Anonymous said...

Great point, DavidinFlorida, and in that same vein there is no fear in love, but we fear so much those who would fake the Holy Spirit that we just interpret scripture to make it so that all woh would exercise spiritual gifts must be fakes.

It seems to me one of the main differences between those who believe in soul freedom and those who don't is the focus. Those who are more authoritarian in their approach to doctrine and belief are focused on the evil of humanity. Those who want freedom maximized are more focused on a sovereign and amazing God. Aren't we told to fix our eyes on Jesus? Aren't we told to meditate on God's words day and night? Shouldn't the object of our attention be God and not man?

Given that, and given God's character and nature, I am pretty sure we would be well served to maximize freedom and not our own control.

Stephen Pruett said...

It is interesting that the most extreme example of authoritrianism in a religious context today is the Muslim faith. As I understand the small amount of the Quran that I have read, Muslims believe that we are weighed on a balance and if our good outweighs our bad, we go to heaven. If not, we fry (except for martyrs of course). It seems to me that authoritarianism is a natural outgrowth of that belief. If I believed that one sin too many or one good work too few would doom me, I would favor rigid social norms and laws and being forced by severe penalties to obey. Better to be somewhat miserable now that extremely miserable for eternity, right? Please understand, I am not trying to imply that anyone in the SBC has the same mentality as Muslim extremists, but it is worth considering whether the things that motivate them amy also be motivating us more than should be the case.

Maybe authoritarianism or conservatives without conscience results when the focus is on being right rather than being forgiven; works more than grace.

It can also result when someone justifies immoral means if they lead to an end which that person regards to be more important. For example, when a promise is given that a person's job is safe, but that promise is broken in the name of a disputable doctrine, I have difficulty seeing the means as morally correct. Whether I agree with the end (doctrinal purity) and its importance or not, I do not agree that the means can be justified. This is interesting, because one of the major themes of the leaders of the resurgence is the existence of absolute truth and an absolutist view of ethics (some things are always wrong and the ends can never justify the means if the means are intrinsically immoral).

JayLee said...

I heard a quote on the radio years ago that said "you're increasing your voice when you should be reinforcing your argument". This is what comes to mind when people (including me) start labeling and calling people names. It shows we have lost objectivity and moved into a speculative realm where personal attack overtakes reasoned discussion. It takes both the ability and the willingness to think to participate in true debate.

RKSOKC66 said...


The word "conservative" has taken on a somewhat different "working definition" depending upon the context. In terms of the "conservative resergence" in the SBC it relates to the way one understands and relates to the Bible.

In terms of politics in the USA it relates to "freedom" as you say -- specifically freedom to pursue your own path without excessive government restraint or hand-holding. I would say that in politics "conservative" is the opposite of "socialism".

I don't know if most conservatives in Evangelical Christianity would say that "freedom" is a defining aspect of "Conservatism" or not.

I think "freedom" may flow from conservatism in Christianity but for me the bedrock of conservatism in Chistianity is based upon fundamental truth claims as revealed in scripture. To the Christian, freedom is derivitave not foundational.

In SBC life the word that most nearly defines the opposite of "conservative" is not "oppression" but "humanism".

Roger Simpson
Oklahoma City OK

Alyce Faulkner said...

Stephen, I'm sure glad I usually agree with what you say, cause I sure wouldn't want to debate you :)

Great, thought provoking post and comments so far :)
Alyce said...

Roger, I believe that historically a conservative Baptist would be one who held, without compromise, to soul comptency and church autonomy. That's what I mean by freedom.

Steve said...

While Ronald Reagan's conservatism holds out much more freedom and personal responsibility than Franklin Roosevelt's interventionary government, I see American religious conservatives as historically fearing freedom. If Southern Baptists break apart in as many directions as what used to be the Presbyterian Church, that movement will be led by legalistic fundamentalist separatists thinking they are simply being conservative.

While I agree with Wade, I have the feeling the conservative resurgence was partly built on a rejection of the believer's priesthood relationship with The Lord through the action of the Holy Spirit. Conservatives blamed the weak theology they saw in the seminaries following the 1960's on too much freedom. If quashing that freedom means ridding ourselves of the historic Baptist soul freedom idea, conservatives trusted themselves to know when to quit their reforming and narrowing of the parameters of our faith and cooperation.

So, who gets elected to tell the fundamentalists that they have done enough, or gone too far? The leaders of our sgencies have already expressed their, um, "freedom" to go beyond anthing the SBC has agreed to in the BF&M in their pursuit of perfection.

Unknown said...


Was not the BFM2000 a document birthed by the “Conservative Resurgence”?
I already know your answer… (“YES”)

So my point is that “Religious Liberty” is a Conservative Doctrine… Do these guys not understand this?

XVII. Religious Liberty
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it.

Coerced Conformity is deadly… “Religious Liberty” is Conservative.

Grace to all,

Charles R said...

So much of the broohaha of Baptist blog wars is the perceived battle between conservatism and liberalism.

From where I sit, the true conflict is between authoritarianism and autonomy.

Authoritarianism is rooted in a belief that only a few are sufficiently competent to make decisions and wield power,for the good of the few and for the good of the many. Autonomy is rooted in the competency and responsibility of the many to make good decisions.

Authoritarianism in the context of a liberal philosphy results in an organizational structure akin to communism. Communism is system in which an authoritarian power claims to make progress toward a higher order in which all benefits are equally shared.

Authoritarianism in the context of a conservative philosophy results in an organizational structure akin to fascism. Fascism is a system in which an authoritarian power exerts stringent controls, and suppresses opposition through belligerence and censorship.

I have been accused of using inflammatory language when writing of fascism when making this point in the past. It is not my aim to be inflammatory. I simply am saying that I hear a duck quacking, the thing quacking looks like a duck, too. Is it a duck I'm seeing? said...

East Texas Pastor,

Thanks for your understanding. I will need to remove your comment.



Anonymous said...


Let me try again. I think you are right on the mark. We need to be conservatives with a conscience.

God Bless,:)

East Texas Pastor

Anonymous said...


John Baugh, the founder of Sysco Inc. and Baptist philanthropist, has tried for years to inform Baptists of the true motives of the politicians who have used the fundamentalists in the SBC to further the goals of the political far right. The Religious Round Table was founded by people like Paul Wyrich, Joe Coors and Paul Pressler for this specific purpose. Mr. Baugh's primary concern is their promotion of Gary North and his ideas regarding Christian Reconstruction which calls for a Theocracy in the US which would completely eliminate the concept of the separation of church and state.

In the early eighties, a tape of Pressler discussing his strategy to take over the SBC and turn it into a conservative political force, was made available for wide circulation. You may recall it was labeled the Fire Storm tape. It was ignored by fundamentalists, but it did change the minds of a few. Daniel Vestal, for one, recognized for the first time what was really behind the takeover effort.

It is notable that Newt Gingrich, a Southern Baptist layman, was so impressed with the effectiveness of the Pressler/Patterson strategy of labelling moderate pastors "liberals" and disparaging them in a relentless journalistic attack by hand picked editors, that he adopted the idea for an attack on Democratic legislators. You may be familiar with his instructions to Republican House members to always refer to Democrats with disparaging language. It is no coincidence that the downfall of the Republican political machine is being paralleled by the lessening influence of the Fundamentalist power brokers in the SBC. The rot in the Republican Party is mirrored in the rot of the Theocratic dictators in the SBC.

RKSOKC66 said...

I have to really think through the extent to which "conservative" squares with "autonomy".

The problem is that as it relates to SBC life a pastor/seminary president/agency leader could invoke "automony" as a justification of advancing a "separate agenda" that is anti-establishment without having to engage the underlying issue. After all, there is something "exciting" about challenging the hidebound status quo by railing out against it. To the extent you can frame the debate as being against the "organization" you get a free pass without having to engage the issue held by the organization with which you disagree.

I think "autonomy" and "soul competency" could just become a handy facade that would allow one to do his own thing.

During the conservative resergance some hid behind "soul competency" and/or "priesthood of the beliver" rather than engage a dialog about the nature of scripture head-on. I think all this stuff about "soul competancy" and "priesthood of the believer(s)" is largely a debating technique to give one leverage against established order.

I don't think Baptists are going to sit around and allow a debate about, for example, inerrancy to be hijacked into a debate about "soul competency". That argument has already been tried without success.

Similarly, I don't think there is much headway to be made trying to cloak the agument about PPL, believer's baptism by immersion at non SBC churches, etc. as an argument about "autonomy".

More headway is possible by showing (a) these are secondary or tertiary issues, and/or (b) debating "your side" of each issue on its merits.

Roger Simpson
Oklahoma City OK

Bill Scott said...

That is a very interesting supposition. I can see the similarities in the post. I, however, think that you have narrowed in on an interesting point.

Is the liberal vs. conservative debate really camoflauge draped over the real battle (authoritarianism vs. autonomy)?

Another question would be are these subsets of one or the other?

Good stuff to ponder Brother.

RKSOKC66 said...

Bill Scott, Charles, et. al.

Maybe it is the other way around.

Authority vs. Autonomy is a camoflauge draped over the actual substantive issue.

Bill Scott said...

Perhaps the two are not inter-related per se. I do see your point. However, I think that the opposite of what you wrote can be argued.

You said:
"The problem is that as it relates to SBC life a pastor/seminary president/agency leader could invoke "automony" as a justification of advancing a "separate agenda" that is anti-establishment without having to engage the underlying issue."

I contend that the same pastor/seminary president/agency leader could also invoke "authority" as a justification for advancing a "separate agenda" that is anti-establishment without having to engage the underlying issue. I would further contend that this is exactly what has happened.

Has there not been a separate agenda (exclusion of women, exclusion of PPL, Landmarkism...) that is contrary to mainstream thought in the SBC?

When these separate agendas have been engaged, silence has been the result. Thus, the underlying issues have not been addressed.

I think that the definitions of conservative, moderate and liberal each to some degree overlap. This depends on who is defining each.

I would love to see a post on the current definition(s) of conservative, moderates and liberals in the SBC.

I think that you would find that conservatives would have a much different idea of autonomy and authoritarianism than liberals and vice versa. Who know what the spectrum would be for moderates?

That is why I posed the question, "Is authoritarianism vs. autonomy simply a subset of the debate on conservatism and liberalism.

What say he my Silicon Valley Okie Brother? :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks alycelee! Steve a: I think you are right, and I wonder who will be "elected" to make those decisions and how it will be done.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Ha ha Alyce, I was thinking the same thing.

RKSOKC66 said...

Bill Scott:

OK, I get your point.

I agree with you that "authority" can be misused just as much as "autonomy" can.

What I should have said but didn't is "I don't think that invoking either 'autonomy' OR 'authority' (or an argument that is anywhere on the 'control' spectrum) is going to win anyone over to whatever side you are espousing.

You eventually have to engage the REAL issue (i.e. PPL, administrator of baptism, etc) instead to make progress.

However, invoking the autonomy/authority argument might be helpful to rally your own troups.

I don't think invoking "authority" will have much milage in the long term because those invoking it don't actually have any "authority". As we saw in the CR, when push comes to shove those who don't like a given implementation of authority are free to take a hike and they will do so. In the SBC, no one has any tools to implement "authority". So any attempt to invoke it will ultimately be exposed as a house of cards that will splinter the organization.

Hopefully, both sides of the debate will not invoke agruments that are anywhere on the continuum of the authority/autonomy spectrum because doing so just leads to fragmentation. Both sides need to approach the problem with a presupposition that they are going to work together and actually debate the issues or their merits.

Roger Simpson

Bill Scott said...

Well said Brother. The issues at hand are indeed more complex than a cursory glance might reveal. I enjoyed the exchange of ideas.
Bill Scott

Jim Paslay said...

anonymous said:

The rot in the Republican Party is mirrored in the rot of the Theocratic dictators in the SBC.

Spoken like a true moderate and democrat. I love the objectivity of your posts. Let's blame Patterson and Pressler for all of SBC's problems. Those two mighty juggernauts hijacked the whole convention from us weak-minded and easily duped pastors. How naive we must have been!

But of course moderates and democrats have never used politics as a means to get what they want. They are above that. And of course, Johnny Baugh was only interested in restoring the SBC back to its original state. He never tried to spend thousands of dollars to influence people to take back the convention from those "funny-damn-mentalists." His motives were pure just like all moderates.

It's too bad that I didn't get a double degree in grief counseling. I could have made a fortune with disgruntled moderates.

Bob Cleveland said...

If we're gonna mull over autonomy and auhtority and all that, it might be timely to point out that NO ONE in the SBC has as much authority over stuff as Jesus did, and everyone's leadership should be modeled after Jesus'.

And His was 100% self-sacrificial. If our leadership is not solidly built on Jesus' model, then we're little better than a secular business. And perhaps worse, as we're masquerading as God's own employees.

Bob Cleveland said...

Oh yes ...

the word "Leadership" in paragraph 2 above is a reference to our own actions, not to folks with that word in their job description.

Steve said...

“The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts.” —Edmund Burke

I always thouight that Jesus made us free to do the right things, His things, without a worry of what the world, or the Romans, or the Pharisees, would do.

Here enter, on behalf of the world, our fundamentalist overseers of the agencies of the SBC. Yes, we can fix what they are doing to our convention, but how many missionaries will be chased away, and how many souls thus lost?

Here's a thought:
I hear, in some locales, drivers speed, or in other places creep along, in order to prompt raising or lowering of the speed limits. Maybe our Forward Thinkers of these agencies are trying out their new faith & message statement (regarding restricted womens' roles, temperance, PPL, Calvinists, Landmarkism on baptisms, etc.) so that when they bring what they are doing written down (a new BF&M) to an annual SBC, we won't be surprised by it.
Them they can say that it is working fine already!!

Debbie Kaufman said...

Steve said: "I always thought that Jesus made us free to do the right things, His things, without a worry of what the world, or the Romans, or the Pharisees, would do."

My thoughts as well although your wording is so much better.

Anonymous said...

Wade, I have off and on checked your blog and have wondered just how much time you spend on this and also wonder how wise your time is being spent. My wife and I served two years in the IMB Masters program in South Africa and never had time for more that prayer letters once a month. Serving Him together, Tom

Debbie Kaufman said...

Tom: With all due repspect, I always wonder why some are so concerned with how little or much time one spends on something. Being a member of Wade's church I can assure you that the church has not suffered in the slightest. We're still as blessed as every by Wade and Rachelle as a church. :)

Having Rachelle Burleson as a Sunday School teacher, I get the feeling that she is proud of what her husband is doing in following his convictions. This can be seen in the post she wrote recently.

Debbie Kaufman said...

That should be blessed as ever, not blessed as every. My apologies.

Rex Ray said...

“Conservatives without a conscience” is a good description.
Stephen pretty well sums it up: “Maybe authoritarianism or conservatives without conscience results when the focus is on being right rather than being forgiven; works more than grace.”

Does this sound like today? (Galatians 2:4 Living): “Some so-called ‘Christians’ who came to spy on us and see what freedom we enjoyed in Christ Jesus, as to whether we obeyed the Jewish laws or not. They tried to get us all tied up in their rules, like slaves in chains.”

Some chains today:
1. Women cannot teach men.
2. Women cannot be pastor.
3. Wives submit to husbands.
4. Must believe ‘Inerrancy.’
5. Must sign BFM 2000.
6. Cannot drink wine.
7. Missionaries cannot be overweight.
8. Missionary applicants cannot have private prayer language.
9. Missionary applicants must be baptized in a Southern Baptist church.
10. Missionary applicant must win one soul within the last year.
11. Trying to prohibit going to public schools.
12. Trying to establish birth control rules.
13. Trying to change the name of Southern Baptists.
14. We have permission to go to Disney.
Rex Ray