Second-Hand Values


Can "Conservatism" Save America?

[Written in 1990]

It is disappointing when a plant dies. It is even more frustrating when a plant blooms, shows apparent health — and then keels over, limp and dead. What happened? Could be shallow soil, could be lack of nourishment, could be hungry bugs…. Regardless, the plant is gone.

Conservative values seem to be "blossoming" in a number of ways. We have a professedly conservative President [George Bush, at the time of writing]. Ads for William F. Buckley's stimulating National Review are hard to miss, on radio and television. Everyone and his brother is a Rush Limbaugh "ditto-head," and can quote the deservedly well-known (and notorious) talk-show host on many given subjects. Surely anyone who holds conservative values (as I do) would be beside himself with glee and optimism.

But I'm not. Not yet. Here's why:

Once upon a time there was a generation of Israelites who were delivered by God from Egypt. They turned out to be a terrible disappointment: whiners, rebels, closet idolaters almost to the last man. So God sentenced them to a few "laps" in the desert: forty years' worth.

The next generation showed more promise. Apparently humbled by their parents' bad example, they pledged and displayed loyalty to God's appointed leader (Joshua 1:16-18). This devotion even surpassed the "inconvenience barrier," as the males all submitted to the at-best painful rite of circumcision (Josh. 5:2ff.). With a few inevitable glitches, that generation basically performed adequately. As the inspired historian tells us, "the people were serving Yahweh all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who prolonged their days after Joshua, who had seen all the great work of Yahweh which He did for Israel" (Josh. 2:7).

So far, so good. Then what? Then Joshua and his generation died, and "a different generation arose after them, which did not know Yahweh, nor even the work which He had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10b) This generation had second-hand divine viewpoint values. And "second-hand" proved to be not good enough, as these folks proceeded to get involved in compromise, spiritual and moral gutlessness, idolatry, and the inescapable consequence: divine judgment (cf. Judges 2:10-15).

Now, none of this was necessary. God never promised to give "command-performances" of His miracles in the desert. These miracles, and what they taught of God's character and ways, were not to be re-produced, as the modern "signs and wonders" crowd mistakenly imagines. No, their lesson was to be transmitted through teaching from parent-to-child, parent-to-child (Exodus 12:26, 27; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 32:7ff., etc.) Future generations would internalize the same truth of God by the Word of God, and by faith in that Word (Ps. 78:3, 4).

The problem: though God's Word provided the answer, Israel did not accept that answer. The nation did not obey God. The result was that devotion to the truth perished with the first beneficiaries. And so the outward trappings of religion can survive the death of the inward reality, resulting in external religious form without internal power and conviction (cf. 2 Timothy 3:5). In short, we end up with people who hold a few selected religious values, without knowing why, and without an overall, deeply-rooted rationale and game-plan.

I think that this is what we see today. The "plant" appears to be blooming — and understandably so, given the manifest bankruptcy of liberalism across the board. But modern "conservatives" are rootless, and the prognosis is not particularly good. What symptoms are manifesting themselves? Take a recent issue of National Review (July 9, 1990). It contains a letter from a Mr. Liebman, who counts arch-conservative Buckley as his "best friend" (p. 16). Liebman says that he has been a Roman Catholic for ten years, an active conservative for over three decades, and a homosexual. Buckley's response (p. 18) is vague, tepid, and affectionate. Although he expresses misgivings about homosexuality, Buckley fondly embraces Liebman as a fellow-conservative, calling him his "dear friend" and "brother in combat" (p. 18).

Similarly, Rush Limbaugh has said in effect "I don't care who sleeps with whom," and makes it clear that he is bothered by organized homosexual politics and rowdiness, rather than by homosexual orientation and behavior per se. He has received and welcomed politically conservative "gay" callers. By contrast, Limbaugh angrily dismissed a caller who dared to suggest that "sodomite" would be a more fitting appellative than "gay." It seems that bad taste bothers Limbaugh more than questions of bad morality.

And so, on what basis can either of these public figures, or any others, register complaints about organized "gay" activities? To my knowledge, neither clearly appeals to any objective, unchanging, absolute standard; such an appeal might backfire. Neither clearly says, for instance, "My personal feelings in the matter are irrelevant. I am bound by Biblical revelation, which records God's attitude towards homosexual practices." Accordingly, the publicly "conservative line" concerning homosexuality appears to boil down to personal bias — which plays right into homosexuals' common counter-complaints of "hate" and "homophobia."

Other examples could easily be multiplied. Just think of the ever-waffling Republican party ( — "What do the polls say I should be today, honey?"). "Conservative" becomes more and more difficult to define; and "conservatives" in power are desperate to distance themselves from religion or religious people — except so far as to garner their votes. Overlap between "conservative" values and (say) Biblical teachings is fortuitous, but sheerly eclectic and coincidental. Therefore, a "conservative" today ends up being in effect someone with certain ideas about economics, politics, and morality, but no deep diagnosis of the cause of man's problem, no unchanging basis for his own values, and therefore no rationale as to why anybody else should embrace those values.

This is a prescription for long-term failure. It will result in a "plant" which may bloom brilliantly for awhile, but which is doomed to die for want of soil, roots, and nourishment.

The Bible provides what "conservatism" lacks, and what men and women desperately need. It gives an absolute, objective, revelatory basis for thought and life. (The phrase "Thus says the Lord" alone occurs in some 416 verses in the New American Standard Bible). It diagnoses man's problem as being twofold: his legal standing before God ("through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and through sin death, and thus death came through to all men, because all sinned"; Romans 5:12), and his nature ("the mind-set of the flesh is hostility towards God, for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so"; Romans 8:7). Too, the Bible puts man's crisis in its proper perspective: it is not the deficit nor the Dow, but "the wrath of God...against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18).

The Bible also prescribes the only solution which will abundantly address our fundamental problem: the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He takes care of believers' legal standing before God ("being declared righteous as a gift by His own grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus"; Romans 3:24), and He changes believers' hearts ("if one is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old things passed away; see, new things have come into existence"; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

As long as "conservatism" imagines itself as containing within itself the ultimate answers to man's dilemma, it is doomed to die like our "plant." But the man who trusts in Christ, and learns and obeys His word, has hope, has direction, and ultimately has the answers that this tired old world needs: "Jesus Christ...the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), and "the living and abiding word of God" (1 Peter 1:23).

If only we would listen.


Copyright © 1997 by Daniel J. Phillips; All Rights Reserved


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