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The Long and the Short of Latitudinarian Conservatives
by David Mills
As the Los Angeles Raiders’s Napoleon McCallum planted his right leg to cut towards the line, a lineman drove down into his shin. His thigh snapped forward 90 degrees, tearing apart the tendons and vessels in his knee. He was carried to the bench, where he almost died, because bodies are made to bend, but only in certain places and only so far.
A body must bend, and bend a great deal, to move at all. An unbending body is a corpse, or about to become one. But a body that is bent too far breaks, especially when it is hit too hard, or hit in the wrong places. Even when it does not break, a body that is bent too far too often will be slower and clumsier than it should be, unable to dodge tackles or outrun pursuit, too crippled to attain the goal.
This is true also for religious bodies, and religious people. I am talking about those I call “Latitudinarian Conservatives.” They are not skeptics or rationalists or unbelievers. They believe the Bible and want to be orthodox Christians. They will call themselves “biblical Christians” or even “traditionalists.” They simply bend much farther than they ought, and not on any articulated principle, but in response to cultural changes and personal temptations.
The Latcon Life
“Latcon” parishes are often the largest and liveliest in their churches. They take more seriously than almost anyone biblical imperatives like evangelism and Bible study, and are often more convinced than “traditionalists” of God’s presence and work today. They must be understood if the future of the church in America is to be understood, and to prevent their obvious sincerity and success from seducing traditional Christians desperate for an effective opposition to increasingly secular churches and society.
As far as I know, the distinctiveness of latitudinarian conservatism has not been recognized before. More traditional Christians dismiss them as liberals, and liberal Christians dismiss them as fundamentalists. Both are wrong, because latitudinarian conservatism is an unstable mixture of traditional Christianity and liberalism, and being unstable can very quickly become more fully one or the other.
A Latitudinarian Conservative is a Christian whose faith is for the most part traditional or conservative in form and content but held emotionally and instinctively. This faith is not exactly classical Christianity because it is undogmatic, both in being unsystematic and imprecise and in having no settled belief in the authority of inherited doctrine and practice. It is not simply liberalism because it includes belief in a definitive revelation and therefore asserts the truth of certain illiberal beliefs.
The Problem with Latcons
The largest group among the consciously biblical in the mainline Churches, the Latcons produce many of the fruits of faith, and with a passion and commitment lacking in many more traditional Christians. They run soup kitchens and food banks and “ex-gay” ministries, pay for missionaries, homes for unwed mothers, and the like, go around the world to build schools or dig irrigation ditches, give up hours of their lives to tell others about the Lord. They convert people and change their lives.
And their numbers will grow, not only because the fruits of their faith are so evident, but because more and more people are searching for a supernatural religion conformable with middle-class society. This is the problem, and the reason they are worth examining. The Latcons succeed because they are orthodox and offer people a life-changing Gospel, and also because they are inconsistently or rather selectively so, and offer that Gospel with some of its costs removed.
Thus their theology is not completely or precisely orthodox, and to some extent their appeal depends upon their not pressing certain discomforting demands. And even were I wrong about this, because they bend much farther than they ought, and not on any articulated principle, they will find it very difficult to hold to Christian orthodoxy in a rapidly secularizing culture, especially when certain orthodox teachings offend the self-interest of their members or the required doctrines of civil society.
Charismatics & Converts
Latitudinarian Conservatives can be found in every church, and I suspect become so for many different reasons. In the Episcopal Church, as far as I can tell, they are mainly cradle Episcopalians whose hearts but not minds have been strangely warmed by charismatic experiences, and converts from Rome and Evangelicalism running away from “dogmatism” or “rigidity” or a church that claims any right to tell them what to think and do. (Others, I suspect, simply found the comprehensive faith of traditional Christianity too difficult and decided to concede its most unfashionable demands.)
The Charismatics did not stop after their conversions to relearn Christian doctrine but exchanged one sort of experiential theology for another. They think insisting on dogma a retreat from renewed life in Christ or a sign of a merely intellectual religion. The converts often knew Christian doctrine but did not like particular doctrines or the idea of a settled and binding doctrine. They think insisting on dogma a restraint on their freedom in Christ or a reactionary refusal to accept new truths and insights.
These are generalizations, but not unfair ones. I am writing of circles I know, and people I often admire. I often hear Charismatics repeat some version of the popular and high-minded line, “doctrine divides, but experience unites,” or declare of an open heretic that “he really loves the Lord,” though that heretic does not believe the Lord to be God the Son. I once attended a parish composed mostly of converts and at coffee hour they would explain their conversions by saying, “The Episcopal Church doesn’t tell you what to believe,” or “The Episcopal Church lets you think for yourself,” or “The Episcopal Church is so open,” or tell stories of how closed and narrow, how simply unaffirming and life-denying, was their fundamentalist or Roman Catholic upbringing.
Of the two, the Charismatics are the easier to reclaim for classical, dogmatic Christianity. They are moving toward something, and something good, and can sometimes be brought to see that traditional doctrine expresses and guards the good thing they have found. The converts are moving away from something itself good even if the version they knew was distorted and perverted, and can only with difficulty be made to turn around.
Latitudinarian in Doctrine
Latcons are not doctrinal liberals. They do hold most orthodox doctrines, but the problem is that they do not hold them doctrinally. What doctrines they hold are mostly instinctive or retained from their past, and thus tend to be lost if their lives or culture changes. They hold quite strongly to the “authority” of Scripture, but will not call it inerrant or infallible. They dislike exegetical sermons, particularly those on the theological subtleties of St. Paul or the doctrinal demands of all the New Testament writers, and prefer devotional sermons from the sunnier parts of the Gospels.
They rarely have any theological system, so that at one moment they speak the language of therapy or community or inclusivity, and the next the language of fundamentalism. Being instinctive and unsystematic, their doctrine tends at some times to turn into a form of moralism, at least about sexuality, or rather sexualities to which they are not themselves tempted, and at other times into a kind of therapeutic antinomianism in which an avuncular God helps people find happiness and contentment on their own terms.
A Latcon will bring out Romans 1 against homosexuals, but five seconds later speak glowingly of change and growth and renewal—and sometimes the guidance of the Holy Spirit—to justify multiple marriages. They will insist that homosexuals must be celibate, and that God will help them be so, but also that we must be “pastoral” and accommodate the needs of divorced heterosexual people. I have never yet succeeded in convincing one of them that he had contradicted himself, I think because he feels good about appealing to the Bible, and feels equally good about appealing to growth and pastoral compassion.
Though hostile to homosexuality, they support “women in ministry” (as they put it, revealingly), have only a loose marital discipline, and sometimes treat the Bible as a sort of divinely inspired self-help manual for those with low self-esteem or a low self-image or any of the self-regarding maladies of the bourgeoisie. They like to speak to people “where they are” without saying too loudly or insistently where God would like them to be.
They assert very strongly what they call “the core” or “the essentials” of the gospel, but act as if these can be separated from the other teachings of the New Testament. These essentials are mainly the biblical statements and ideas bearing most obviously upon salvation. By this I do not mean that they hold to the traditional Western belief in diversity in adiaphora or “things indifferent,” of variety in the ways the New Testament revelation can be expressed.
What they mean is there are not only essential biblical teachings a Christian must hold, but also a number of teachings that some Christians believe biblical, and that in fact might very well be biblical, but may not be held, or may be set aside for the moment when the “essentials” are being challenged. The obvious example is women’s ordination, which they will usually admit seems to be against the biblical revelation, but is, they say, a secondary issue compared to the more pressing issue of the divinity of Christ.
Thus of dogma they have little, and of a submission to the mind of the Church they have almost none. The result is that the theology of the self-consciously “biblical” wing of the mainline Churches is increasingly an acculturated, mobile conservatism, with no fixed principles or boundaries, and only the vaguest and most flexible respect for the Tradition of the Church, or even the confessions of their own Churches. It is culturally selective in what it chooses to conserve and easily blown about by winds of doctrine, at least those that blow in the suburbs.
Two Sorts of Conservatives
A comparison with the classically orthodox will show the effect of the Latcon’s latitudinarianism upon his witness. Though he shares many commitments with the classically orthodox, the Latcon does not share their “dogmatism” or their submission to the mind of the Church, and finds reasons to accept what has usually been held intolerable, or at least to avoid taking a position.
The classically orthodox Christian accepts not only the orthodox doctrines but also the negations they require, and believes himself bound by the Great Tradition. The other, the Latcon, is happy to be orthodox as long as that will not earn him the label “fundamentalist.” He respects the tradition as a sort of wiser uncle, to be listened to, certainly, but being somewhat old-fashioned and set in his ways, not necessarily to be followed.
His approach to abortion shows how the Latcon defines being orthodox. He is happy to be “prolife” as long as he does not have to be publicly anti-abortion. He will help women with difficult pregnancies, but will rarely say from the pulpit that aborting a child is a sin. Those who say so, no matter how gently, he will tend to call “strident” and be careful not to be seen in their company.
The question of women’s ordination shows how Latcons treat the Tradition. It in particular is a problem for them. Not only does tradition insist on certain now unfashionable practices, but on some issues on which Latcons desire latitude, it is not as malleable as biblical texts taken by themselves. The Tradition says, “Scripture prohibits the ordination of women,” but Scripture never says explicitly, “Women shall not be priests” and therefore can be manipulated into allowing the innovation.
The Latcon will say how important tradition is, but is never clear how authoritative or binding it is. He will declare our need for roots and the wisdom of the past, and the importance of history in forming our communal identity, but will not reject a position merely because it violates the consensus of Christians since the beginning. At this point, he will usually take his stand upon the Bible alone, with perhaps a nod to “our developing understanding” or its “new answers to new problems” or his experience of the innovation being proposed.
He is eager to support the “ministry of women,” and will downgrade the Tradition by pointing to the effects of the clericalism and chauvinism of the past. He will often just say that he does not have a problem with it, and invoke the names of talented women priests he has known. He might grant that the weight of the New Testament seems to be against the innovation, but will treat the ambiguities in the New Testament as allowing it.
Not surprisingly, a more sophisticated version of latitudinarian conservatism is to be found among academic Christians. These I call “Post-Modern Conservatives.” By this I mean people, generally academics and well-read clergy, who are for the most part traditionally orthodox in private belief but speak the relativist, post-modern language of the academy and try very hard to avoid being labeled “fundamentalist” or “traditionalist.” As with the Latcons, belief in the headship of women and a laxity in marital discipline are their usual concessions to liberalism.
They often favor something called “dynamic orthodoxy,” though without defining it. (The intended sneer at the traditionally orthodox is obvious.) They do not mean the truth lived out with power, nor a changing truth, nor changing expressions of truth, but something that is not traditional orthodoxy but is not liberalism either.
They tend to treat the Bible as a story, for example, and to talk much about “narrativity” and “canonical reading” and “the whole of the biblical witness.” Against conservatives, they will denounce “proof-texting” and “literalism,” and argue that some inherited beliefs—male headship—are actually culturally conditioned and do not express the Bible’s real teaching. Against liberalism, they will stress the biblical narrative and the historic interpretation as establishing our identity as Christians, as being “our community’s common memory.”
In either case, what is avoided is the question of whether the Bible conveys binding propositional truth, and how that truth is to be known—whether, for example, the Great Tradition is to be trusted even when it contradicts contemporary convictions. A Post-Modern Conservative will rarely if ever say, “St. Paul said” to settle a question.
Post-Modern Conservatives tend to accept the protocol of academic discourse, in which one may not hold a question to be settled. They like to say that they “might be wrong” about moral teaching, without giving their grounds for assuming they might be wrong about that but not about the Resurrection, to which they hold firmly.
Some of this is obviously posturing, but it is worrisome posturing, because they concede the possibility of error on the point they are actually challenged by the culture and hold to the tradition on a point the culture does not care about. In our culture, one may believe in the Resurrection because that is religion, and thus a private matter, but one is not supposed to hold that homosexuality is wicked, because that is morality, and thus a public matter, on which you must not “impose your personal beliefs.”
In either version, Latitudinarian Conservatism has four effects on those who choose it. First, it weakens their witness to the gospel, which converts and changes people because it comes as a word—a definitive, unbreakable, and eternal word—from the Lord. The effect of their doctrinal vagueness is to make the gospel a subject for negotiation, in effect to offer God fidelity to most of his demands in exchange for freedom from others.
Second, Latcons fail to speak the word their churches and our society need to hear. Perhaps it would be fairer to say they do not speak the exact word we need to hear, though one that is still offensive enough—Heaven knows enough people reject even their gospel—to seem complete. It is good, but not enough, to tell men to be faithful to their wives; they must also be told to take authority. Many men today find chastity easier than headship, I think because chastity requires only control, but headship requires action and sacrifice. But if St. Paul is right, a man is not fully or truly a husband unless he is the head of his wife, as Christ is the head of the Church.
Latcons do much good, certainly. But I wonder how much of the good they do reflects not the power of the Gospel to change lives, but the suburban habit of volunteering and the effects of natural kindness and friendship upon hurt and lost people. And I also wonder how much bad they do inadvertently, by allowing so much latitude: how many marriages would they save, for example, if they held to a stricter standard and expressed the principle of male headship in their worship?
No Home to Defend
Third, they cannot effectively resist the liberalization of their Churches. This is especially true because most liberals—with the exception of such sixties traditionalists as the Bishop of Newark, who still use the “prophetic” rhetoric of the past—have now mastered the language of evangelicalism, and speak easily of “mission” and “spirituality” and “evangelism.” In battle Latcons have no fixed home to defend, and in fact are sometimes not even sure there is an enemy to fight.
Because their faith is mainly instinctive and emotional, they are easily fooled by those whose instincts and emotions seem the same. Liberalism almost always makes a plausible case for laudable ends—equality or reconciliation or unity or mission. Its errors lie in the way it defines these words and in the way it defends them, which is to say in its doctrine. Thus Latcons, with their unsettled attitude to dogma and tradition, cannot easily see the errors, and therefore tend to accept the sentiment.
And fourth, the practice of latitudinarian conservatism easily leads to the practice of unqualified latitudinarianism, when the culture changes or they are tempted personally. The Latcons have partly let go of a binding revelation and an authoritative interpretive tradition. In a rapidly secularizing culture, how long can they remain even Latitudinarian Conservatives without these? Without a fixed doctrine, they can easily come to conserve the bad, even the wicked.
Some will recognize the inconsistency of their position and convert to a more thoroughly biblical view, but the rest, I think, may continue a long time in their latitudinarianism, because they can bend a very long way without realizing they are bending. They are able to accept almost any doctrinal innovation, and nearly any moral innovation, while continuing to talk about “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” The problem, of course, is that they mean a relationship with Jesus that does not require faithfulness to the words of those he authorized to speak for him, and that is not guarded by the consensus of the wise and godly people after them.
Arguing with Success
It seems wrong to argue against people whose lives and ministries have borne such fruit. Because of them, men are raising families and telling strangers about Jesus Christ and leading Bible studies—men who once sodomized other men several times a night or drank themselves into a rage and beat their wives or lived only to make money. You can’t, it is said, with some biblical precedent, argue with success.
But of course you can, and often must. Strait is the gate, and few there be that find it. The details of the biblical revelation matter, all of them, and no latitude is given us to reject or ignore what God has revealed. We are asked to get right even the finest details, and believe and practice even the smallest doctrine. The doctrine has been well articulated, and there is no excuse for bending farther than we are allowed to bend.
We are also warned in Scripture that what we have gained—the personal and corporate successes, which are real and cannot be denied—we may yet throw away. The sodomite might return to his sodomy, the wife-beater go back to beating his wife, the robber baron once more plot to rob the poor. For the want of a nail, goes the nursery rhyme, a kingdom was lost. For the want of a doctrine a soul or a Church may be lost.
As readers may already have realized, we are all, with the exception of the occasional saint, Latitudinarian Conservatives. The very doctrines we find most offensive, the doctrines on which we would like the most latitude, are often the truths against which we still rebel. Latitudinarian conservatism allows us to continue in rebellion while telling ourselves that we are good and faithful servants. It lets us bend our bodies into the shape necessary for Hell while thinking that we are very good—very moral and very orthodox—people indeed.
Mr. Mills would like to thank Dr. Hutchens for his extensive help with this article.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.