Is there room for conservatism in America? (Questions for America Part 2)

This week I am preaching the second sermon in a short series. These Sundays around the fourth of July,  I continue asking questions for America. Today I have just one final question, and it may come as a bit of a shock to you. Steel yourselves. Here it is:

Is there still room for conservatism in America?

I know that many of you think of me as a reliable liberal. Well, I have a confession to make to you. My father used to describe me as a “born Republican.” When I was a toddler, one of my first multi-syllabic words, thanks to a buddy of my uncle’s, was “Reaganomics.” I come from a long line of Western libertarian Republicans, the kind of folks who often say these days: “I didn’t leave the Republican party, the Republican party left me.” I’ll be honest. Preaching about conservatism makes me a little nervous, but these are my roots.

And so I ask: Is there room for conservatism in America these days?

Let’s take a look at Scripture shall we? In Genesis chapter 24, Isaac meets Rebecca, with the help of his father’s servant/matchmaker. After last week’s terrifying account of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father, this story feels relaxed. It’s a bit odd, by today’s standards, but the result is good. Rebekah consents.

As we were preparing for this week’s service, our Music Director Mary stopped me and asked, “What’s going on with the ring in her nose?” I teased Mary about being such a conservative. I guess it is surprising to learn that nose piercings have Biblical support. But here you go, any teenagers that are trying to win mom or grandma’s support to get your nosed pierced. One of the examples of Biblical womanhood received a nose ring as part of God’s plan.

I also feel it is incumbent to say: “A nose ring is also almost always, more than a nose ring.” You want to know what statement you’re making before you get a piercing. Jewelry signifies. A hunk of gold in your nose has meaning. In this case, the jewelry is a part of a series of gifts that includes those camels and other livestock. Abraham’s servant is assuring Laban, and Rebekah, that she will be provided for, she will have wealth. The nose ring is gold for a reason.

Now, that might raise your eyebrows. Is Rebekah being purchased? As I said above, the answer is no. Rebekah consents. But the waters are a bit muddy here. Your feminist meters should be ticking. You may think it is odd that in the same sermon I’m asking for room for Conservatism, and talking about feminism. But should feminism and conservatism be opposites? If conservatives are all about values. If they are “values voters,” isn’t one of our deepest values equality? Shouldn’t conservatives be concerned about whether women have an equal say in their marriage, or in the workplace for that matter. We’re in the 21st century. Can’t equality for women be a conservative value as well?

Today we are rankled at the idea that a woman might be bought and paid for in marriage. I hope that is true across the political aisle. But a hundred years ago, dowries were still very common. A hundred years ago, no one would have batted an eye at this story from Genesis. In our grandparents’ America it might well seem to an outside observer like wives were bought and paid for. I wonder, what do we buy and sell today that will shock our descendants?

I wonder whether the generations that follow will be shocked that we thought we could buy and sell natural resources so freely. We’re not factoring the true cost of burning so much fuel, and destroying species with pollution. I find it a little shocking that those who call themselves conservatives today have such little concern for conservation. Where are the conservative conservationists?

I’ve known at least one. Russell Train, a life-long Episcopalian and a federal judge was also one of the founding directors of the World Wildlife Fund. He served as the second director of the Environmental Protection Agency, The EPA. Russell Train was a Republican, a Republican’s Republican, he was a Nixon appointee. He called his political memoir “Politics, Pollution, and Pandas.” In it he wrote:

To my mind, to oppose environmental protection is not to be truly conservative. To put short-term financial gain ahead of the long-term health of the environment is a fundamentally radical policy, as well as being unethical.

Train points out that it was Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) who began the system of national forests and wildlife refuges. He spoke softly, carried a big stick, and designated National Parks left and right. Consider these words about America from one of our most admired Republican presidents:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.

Is there room for this kind of conservatism in America today?

If conservatism means moving slowly, particularly in areas that will effect the economy and the well-being of the population generations down the line, where are those conservatives? Where are the conservatives who will say, “slow down, we don’t really want to kick 22 million people off of healthcare, do we?” Where are the conservatives who will say, “wait, you want to make a quick buck now and then stick the American people of the future with a huge environmental cleanup bill, I don’t think so.” Where are those conservatives? Is there room in America for conservatism today?

Now, I know that some of you are squirming every time I say the word “Conservative.” I see you. But we’re going to have to, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, Episcopalians and Catholics, all of us, are going to have to learn how to build bridges again if we’re going to do something the environment, or healthcare, or gun violence, immigration reform, you name it. We have gone beyond politicization. We have demonized the “other side.” As long as “conservative” or “liberal” remain dirty words, we’re stuck with a politics that amounts to hostage taking.

The politics of today has a lot of us feeling weary.

I’m not sure this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I’m not sure, but I think the invitation still stands. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “come to me some of you.” He doesn’t say, “Come to me democrats” or “come to me republicans.” Jesus says “All.” He goes on, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The church used to call this verse “the comfortable words.” They are a comfort.

Those words make a little more sense if you know that in Jesus’ time, a rabbi’s teaching was called a “yoke.” Jesus calls his teaching “easy and light.”

Jesus was different sort of teacher. Compared to the rabbis of his day, Jesus probably laughed a great deal more. Make no mistake, Jesus engaged in the politics of his day. He questioned the power of both the Roman Authorities, and their Jewish client-rulers. He also stood up to the religious nut-jobs of his own time. Much of the Gospels involve scenes where Jesus is being questioned by rabbis or lawyers. Yes, sometimes he loses his temper, calls them vipers, but more often than not he comes up with a clever response. He finds a way to laugh, to lighten the load, and to point people beyond their polarities toward love and justice. You get a sense that this Jesus fellow was pretty grounded.

Taking up this yoke, following this way of Jesus requires, in a particular way, some personal conservatism. Jesus wants his followers to be religiously observant. In order to practice faith, you have to be a bit conservative, at least with your time. You have to say “no” to some invitations. The families with young kids who are here in our pews know this well. These days coming to church often means skipping a soccer game or a play rehearsal. But it’s true for those of us beyond the extracurriculars as well. More and more our Sunday mornings, our evenings, our early hours are quickly filled. There is less time for practicing faith.

To practice your faith means that you’ve got to sign off your email regularly. Practicing faith means making time in a rushed world. If you’re feeling weary and heavy laden, maybe try being a little more conservative with your time. I think the conservatives have something valuable to teach us about intentionally making time for family and for faith.

Honestly, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a priest identifies as somewhat conservative. We say prayers here each week that are thousands of years old. Tradition has value. I believe that slow, thoughtful, measured progress can be good, but I am also one who can be swayed by the argument: “We’ve always done it that way.” I’m an Episcopalian, I’ve made that argument. I believe wisdom accrues over generations. I believe there is a great deal worth conserving in our nation, and in our world.

There’s a basic teaching in Christianity that is inherently conservative. The teaching is simple: you can’t save yourself. You can’t. Paul gets at this teaching today in that difficult passage from Romans. “Oh wretched man that I am, who will rescue me?” This bit of Paul is tough to read, but I’d venture that many of us know what Paul is talking about. Most of us have come, at one point or another, to the end of our rope. And most of us have come their of our own volition. We know what Paul is talking about when he says, “I don’t understand my own action, for I do what I hate.” Paul knows. You can’t save yourself. As human beings, we need a savior. We need a teacher. We need to lay down our burdens, we need to come to Jesus. And we will hear those comforting words: “I will give you rest for your souls.”

I know it may come as a surprise for some of you, to hear me ask: “Is there room for conservatism in America?” But on personal levels, national levels, and global levels we could learn to slow down, to consider the ramifications of our actions. We could be less sure of our own capabilities and lean more on tradition, and more on God. If we can’t make room for that kind of conservatism, well then God help us.

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