Further Thoughts on Latitudinarian Conservatism
by David Mills
In writing “Meet the LatCons” I hoped mainly to introduce the phrase “Latitudinarian Conservatives.” My model was Richard John Neuhaus’ title “The Naked Public Square,” which is tossed about by people who have never read the book, because the phrase is a useful summary of the problem of a society in which religion plays no public part.
“Latitudinarian Conservatism” seemed to me to describe a type of conservative American Christian whose peculiar mixture of near fundamentalism and selective relativism has been misunderstood by more dogmatic Christians, liberal as well as conservative, who expect more consistency in principle and practice and therefore cannot understand such a mixture. Liberal Christians tend to notice only the fundamentalism, traditional Christians only the relativism, though both sometimes feel puzzled that LatCons agree with them on other points.
Once given a name, this expression of conservative Christianity could be analyzed and its promise and danger identified. I thought the movement important to analyze because it has and surely will succeed in drawing people into its churches, people leaving more dogmatic forms of conservatism, others looking for a faith more substantial than the ethical religion of skeptical liberalism, and others dissatisfied with the lack of authority and certainty in popular and New Age spirituality. As I suggested in the first article, I think it may well become the dominant form or style of Christianity in this country, because the fruits of the LatCons’ faith are so evident, and so many people today are searching for a truly supernatural religion that is nevertheless conformable with middle-class society. And, at the same time, a more dogmatic Christianity is becoming increasingly counter-cultural and eccentric, while skeptical liberalism is losing its power and effect.
Judging from their responses, which were much greater than I expected, Touchstone readers seem to share the same frustration with the LatCons in their Churches. Whatever Church they belong to, they are frustrated to find them so sound on some questions but so hopelessly muddled or ostentatiously wrong on others, and to be unable to prove to them that they are in error because their authorities and their way of thinking change with the questions.
If my respondents represent them, the “ecumenically orthodox” Touchstone readers are regarded by the LatCon as overly dogmatic, insensitive, and narrow, as people who are trying to sell old wineskins out of a misplaced and probably selfish affection for old leather. It is very hard to convince a LatCon that you assert the doctrine—the biblical marriage discipline, for example—because you believe it to be true, and because true, the source of joy and blessing, however temporally difficult and painful is obedience. They see people in pain, and think you are being unpastoral or insensitive in refusing to let them do what they feel they need to do. If LatCons feel charitable or like you, they will ascribe your arguments to a certain cast of mind or character, while nevertheless assuming that you are allowing your preferences to over-rule the needs of the Gospel today.
Since writing the article, I have had a few more thoughts about Latitudinarian Conservatism, some the result of conversations with readers.
LatCons Are Our Fault
First, the existence of LatCons is to some large extend the fault of more traditional Christians. The rigidity of “traditionalist” Christianity often creates LatCons among those who know movement to be a sign of life, but do not yet have the wisdom to know when to stop bending. LatCon parishes are often large because traditionalist parishes are small: because people who are serious about Christianity see it practiced in the first but not in the second. They would often prefer the second, did they have any hope of a lively faith being practiced there.
The normal Christian judges churches by their obvious fruits and for him traditional Christianity becomes something to be avoided because its obvious fruits are often so few and so small and so shriveled. They see lives changed in LatCon parishes, and traditional parishes which do not grow. They see the first offering all sorts of healing ministries, and in the other people who would faint in horror if someone (someone else, anyway) were actually healed. Traditionalist Episcopalians, for example, love miracle stories from the Middle Ages but are convinced that such things must never happen in their parishes.
I know many people in LatCon parishes would prefer a more traditional practice if only it were practiced with some life and energy. For their transformation into LatCons, and the effect of their witness in creating more LatCons, the rigid traditionalist is guilty, and probably more guilty than the infinitely flexible liberal.
Second, the fact that LatCons bend too far does not excuse more traditional Christians from not bending at all. Traditionalists tend to point to some obvious error made by a LatCon as an argument against any change in his direction. That a friend hurt his knee jogging is no excuse for settling more deeply into the sofa with a second bag of potato chips, a jar of cheese whiz, and a fourth beer.
One may sit at home and avoid the risk of injuring one’s knee only by inviting a heart attack, and by refusing the Lord’s direct command to go into all the world. The Christian who has never been injured by bending too far has either been very wise, greatly blessed, or, most likely, has never left home. His lack of injury is not necessarily a virtue.
For example, traditional Christians will dismiss the “church growth” liturgies found in many LatCon parishes just because they attract hundreds or thousands of people. Success is taken as evidence of worldliness. The traditionalist will not ask if the traditional liturgy he loves must be modified, even if his church is surrounded by hundreds of young families who would go to church if the cultural barriers to entry were not so high.
The liturgical experimenter may well make some serious blunders, and certainly some distort the Gospel to get more people to come to church on Sunday, but he may also make some needed changes which bring new people into the Church and enliven the faith of those already there but too used to the old ways to see their meaning. A church growth technique may be only a courtesy to the stranger (signs pointing parents to the nursery, for example) or a needed concession to human weakness (such as a place near the church to park), such as the Christian eager to win souls is called to make. Worldly success is not always a sign of compromise, as was proved on Pentecost.
Learning to Bend
Third, traditional Churches could learn to bend as they ought simply by doing what they claim to be doing with more seriousness and energy. One loses flexibility with age, which is why more traditional Churches are less likely to become LatCon Churches, but this is both a blessing and a danger. To run the race you do not want a sprinter who has blown out his knee, but you also do not want one who cannot stretch out to take the longest possible strides and whose wind gives out half way down the track. You want a sprinter who is both whole and in good training.
The needed flexibility can only be maintained by discipline and hard work, by constantly bending to do what Christians have been told to do. They have to bend as they act in obedience to God. Christians who support missionaries, for example, learn to appreciate other cultures’ ways of living as Christians, and to hold their own forms a little less tightly, and they should then begin to ask how to reach the cultures outside their own door. They may be taught and convicted by the example of the Christians they serve into changing something they would previously have held on to till death.
Like bodies, Christians and churches need constant exercise to bend as far as they ought. The disciplines of the Christian life are all ways of learning to bend, exercises which loosen our spiritual muscles and strengthen them to withstand the strains and stresses of running the race.
The regular, thoughtful, meditative reading of Scripture continually confronts us with revelations into our own behavior, which usually means into our inadequacy in following God and our covert rebellion against Him and His will—to the extent to which our rigidity is a refusal to bend ourselves to God’s will, not (as we tell ourselves) a refusal to bend to the culture. The fellowship of other believers and the confession of our sins to a priest brings us independent witness to the same inadequacy and rebellion, and encouragement and counsel in loving the Lord more perfectly.
And these exercises also teach us how far to bend. Only a trained athlete is quite sure what his body can do and what it cannot do. He knows how much stress his knee will take when turning quickly or how hard he can throw without hurting his shoulder. Reading the Scripture will teach us what latitude we are allowed, or rather what latitude God has allowed us. It will show us on what questions we must say “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that” and on which we can adapt the biblical principle to the person’s situation, and it will show us for which judgments he has given us responsibility.
Fourth, as I warned at the end of the first article, we more traditional Christians should not feel too smug about our own completeness and consistency, because we also demand for ourselves more latitude than God has given us. Even if publicly more committed to the Christian Faith as we have received it, we share the LatCons’ tendency to adapt it when it becomes difficult for us or for those we care about. Anglo-Catholics would often refuse to even consider remarrying a divorced person, while winking at homosexual affairs as long as they were “discreet” or, more subtly, rely on confession to absolve the sin while not expecting the sinner to try to stop.
But in addition to this sort of self-deception, which is easy to identify (in others), there is a whole category of sins on which many traditional Christians turn into LatCons, and these are economic. The most rapacious factory owner, who underpays his workers and lets his factory pour filth into the air and water, if a Christian is likely to be a leader in his church, no matter how theologically conservative that church is. He probably gives a substantial portion of the Church’s income and though his giving may be, for him, far less a sacrifice than the giving of many others in the parish, it gives him more power than they and insulates him from the criticism a mere adulterer or homosexual would face.
If an Elijah or a Chesterton were to denounce him for exploiting the poor or poisoning the river, his pastor and others would come to his defense with talk of “sound business practice” and the nature of the market and the problems with unions and benefits to the consumer of keeping down costs, rationalizations no different than those offered by the average LatCon in favor of “extending” ordination to women or treating the divorced “pastorally” by letting them remarry as often as they like.
As homosexual activists say so often (they are right sometimes), Jesus and the Scriptures in general spend much more time denouncing the powerful for their mistreatment of the poor and weak, than they do in defining sexual sins. Yet economic sins are too close to many of us to be seen as sins at all, and we know the rationalizations too well to feel convicted when they are brought to our notice, but a more consistent reading of the Bible and a greater trust in the tradition would reveal them to us as sins as offensive to God as our neighbor’s adultery.
Liberals Who Bend Too Far
Fifth, that traditional Christians do not bend far enough and LatCons bend too far does not excuse the more liberal Christian bending much farther. I have heard liberals of various sorts defend their belief in women’s ordination by pointing to all the evangelical and charismatic leaders who believe in it also. They argue that if those who declare their belief in the authority of Scripture can accept the innovation, it must be biblical, or at least not unbiblical.
These liberal Christians have no excuse for rejecting God’s Word, for saying that the New Testament teaching of male headship may be abandoned because it is no longer relevant to our understanding of men and women, or that “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply to the unborn, or that St. Paul’s prohibition of sodomy was merely cultural. At the Last Judgment they will not get by with saying “My evangelical neighbor Pastor Smith never said anything about it, so I figured it was okay.”
The LatCon shares the responsibility for the liberals’ end, because he failed to live out the biblical revelation completely and impartially. Some liberals would at least pause to reconsider their doctrinal and moral innovations did their self-consciously biblical brethren speak out clearly. Children will be killed in the womb because some liberal minister, encouraged by the silence of his LatCon friends, counseled mothers that they would be better off to have their children killed. For this, the LatCons will someday have to answer—and traditionalist Christians will also have to answer, for helping create LatCons.
Even the silence of the average LatCon on the controverted issues he does care about is an encouragement to others to innovate. Whatever he privately believes, most LatCons will be publicly silent on any issue labeled controversial, which means any issue on which the liberals in his Church have not yet triumphed. Controversy on these issues, he will say, will hurt his witness for “the Gospel,” because it will alienate people who might otherwise listen to him. LatCons talk a lot about choosing their battles and identifying the hills they will not die on, but the usually result of these discussions is that they rarely fight for any hill and never risk dying on any.
The effect of this silence is other than the LatCon intends. I have not noticed that they have been very successful in actually converting those they had tried not to alienate. On the other hand, I have heard liberal Christians explain their support for abortion “rights” or homosexual couples by noting that certain prominent Evangelicals had not protested, which, they argue, the Evangelicals surely would have done had the issue mattered to them. Silence is taken as assent, and in a way it is.
LatCons and the World
Sixth, despite the energy and commitment with which they pursue certain unpopular ministries, such as the healing of homosexual people, LatCons tend to think as the world does. They no longer trust the Christian claims to stand on their own and argue for their positions not as Christians but as secular, if conservative, Americans.
They have capitulated to what in his book Culture Wars James Davison Hunter called the “linguistic domination” of “modern rationality.” Modern rationality demands that arguments “stand on their own logic” and rejects any claim from authority. This capitulation is the worst effect of latitudinarian conservatism, because it is such a fundamental abandonment of the distinctive Christian claims, and indeed of the Christian mind, and leaves the Christian to fight for the truth of the Christian revelation in a field and with weapons of variable use, which may sometimes help but sometimes seem to destroy his case. As Hunter wrote:
The LatCons’ linguistic capitulation is more than an attempt to argue for the Christian positions using arguments and evidence non-Christians will accept, but evidence of a secular cast of mind and feeling. I don’t think one could prove this, but something of this secularism is revealed in the LatCons’ characteristic rhetoric.
There are least three characteristic LatCon ways of speaking of the Faith, all of which move away from biblical distinctives. First, they tend (like traditional liberals) to appeal to Jesus and treat His life and words in isolation from the theology and pastoral demands of St. Paul. An obvious example is their arguing for the ordination of women because Jesus treated women so well. Second, they broaden or soften the usual or traditional terms, so that they are less threatening to current behavior and ideas. For example, they replace “biblical” with “creedal” as a modifier for “Christianity.” This change—which seems indifferent or pointless—greatly reduces the number of facts one must assert against a secular society, and eliminates those, the moral law especially, most likely to bring conflict with the culture.
And third, they reduce the complexity and subtlety of the biblical teaching to simple and usually sentimental messages. They will proclaim Jesus’ call to all who are heavy laden, but they will rarely declare His warning that few there be that will find the gate. Similarly, in addressing public issues LatCons emphasize “positive” ideas but avoid their implications. They will preach about salvation—though the salvation they describe is often this-worldly—but will rarely if ever tell people about Hell and the possibility that they might go there. If they belong to a mainline Church, they will talk forever about “the Gospel” or “the mission of the Church” but ignore the fact that the Gospel created a fellowship, and that fellowship has rules and boundaries, and that those inside who will not obey the rules have to be disciplined or expelled.
LatCons speak this way, I suspect, because they assume that the Church must not lose its numbers, status, or influence, and therefore that some concessions have to be made to contemporary views in order to maintain them. Because their doctrine is so flexible, they inevitably tend to measure their work by more worldly standards, of which these are the most obvious. They seem not ever to ask if the nature of our society is such that the Church, a biblically faithful Church, is likely to lose numbers, status and influence. If this is true, the only proper response is not Latitudinarian Conservatism, but a more energetic and sacrificial witness to the world, and a much greater desire for holiness.
The Limits of Moderation
Finally, in our culture, with its worship of “moderation,” the LatCon often assumes the superiority of his position precisely because he is attacked from both sides. Americans tend to believe that the truth is always to be found in the middle of any disagreement, no matter where that middle happens to be.
As far as I can tell, Latitudinarian Conservatism is primarily a suburban phenomenon. LatCons apply to their religion the suburban craving to be seen in “the mainstream” and the suburban fear of “extremism”—by which they mean any principle that when applied will disturb the current arrangements. They want latitude in theological belief to hold more firmly to the real beliefs of suburbia, which may be crudely summarized as pluralism in principles and morals but absolutism in manners.
The dogmatic Christian (conservative or liberal) is always a risk to interrupt a pleasant dinner party to ask someone if he knows the Lord or to correct someone’s “sexist” language, or to go to church and miss his turn in the golf tournament, or to signal his displeasure when someone blithely admits to some immorality of makes a racist joke. The dogmatic Christian is always a danger to make people feel bad about their irreligion or their laxity in observance. He is not infinitely tolerant.
In comparison with them, the LatCon feels himself superior to the traditional conservative because he is (he thinks) more pastoral and understanding, and to the liberal because he knows the Lord, lives in the power of the Holy Spirit, stands under the authority of Scripture, etc. In both cases, he can see himself as “mainstream.”
To the praise and pursuit of the mainstream the late Bishop Stanley Atkins once said that he would like very much to be in the mainstream if he were not quite sure the mainstream was in fact the middle of the Niagara River. When it is defined by the culture and not the Scriptures, the mainstream is a very dangerous place to go boating, no matter how slowly and peacefully it may be moving at the moment. The cultural mainstream may be, indeed often if not usually is, that broad way that leadeth to destruction.
1. James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define American (New York, Basic Books, 1995), p. 306.
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.
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“LatCons Revisited” first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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