Conservative Christians Who Aren't Conservative Christians

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Scot McKnight presents some survey results from a new book about conservative Christians. Since most people have an extremely fuzzy sense of what it might mean to be a conservative Christian (even leaving aside the politically conservative issue, which isn't what this is about), I was curious what it meant to be a conservative Christian according to this book. Here is the definition:

[Conservative Christianity] is a biblical religion in the tradition of the Reformation not only at the leadership level but also within the ranks of the faithful.
That's a pretty broad category. I would say it's much broader than evangelicalism. The biggest problem is that "in the tradition of" is extremely vague, in more ways than one. But I didn't have to read much further to know that I shouldn't bother to pay any further attention to anything this book might have to say. Consider the following completely absurd caveat (the introductory words are McKnight's:
But, and this needs to be observed: "only a minority of CCs embrace all of Cons Christianity’s essential elements"
I was sure I must be misreading something. Since I don't have the book, I can't check to see if he's misreporting things. But this just seems completely ridiculous. If someone doesn't meet essential characteristics for being in some category, then they simply aren't in the category. There's no borderline or fringe character to it. It's easy to find lots of categories with unclear boundaries, and it might be unclear whether certain potential members belong in those categories. But that's only true when it comes to non-essential or possibly non-essential characteristics. If we're talking essential characteristics, then not having it means you're not in the category. It's like throwing some triangles in the mix to see if all squares have four sides.

If they're doing this kind of thing, why should they think their results are useful for anything? What's worse is that it isn't just accepting some people to count as Conservative Christians who most definitely are not Conservative Christians. They've stated that a full majority of the people they're counting as Conservative Christians aren't Conservative Christians according to their own definition of Conservative Christians. It's really like taking triangles as most of your samples that you're calling squares and then doing a survey that leads to the conclusion that most squares only have three sides.

3 Comments

Huh, that is weird.

Here's a (feeble?) attempt to make sense of things: here's a list of official views, X, Y, and Z, that define the religion, Conservative Christianity. Any religion that didn't officially endorse these views would be some other religion than Conservative Christianity. 'Conservative Christian' might be shorthand for a definite description.

Now, let's define the term 'Conservative Christian,' to pick out a property of some people. We COULD define it in parallel to the definition of the religion, above: Conservative Christians are people who believe X, Y, and Z. But we needn't. Maybe instead, we'd define 'Conservative Christians' as 'people who go to Conservative Christian churches' (where that latter 'CC' is the one first defined, for religions). Or maybe you're a CC-person just in case you self-identify with the CC-religion. This could be compatible with disagreeing with particular CC views -- even views that are essential to the CC-religion.

This might not be a particularly attractive way of carving out religious affiliations. It may have the consequence, for instance, that it is possible for there to be Christians who are atheists, so long as they go to church and think of themselves as members of that religion. Maybe you won't like that. But it doesn't seem obviously incoherent, even though I'm not sure it doesn't sound wrong.

I suppose it's possible they mean something as strange as that, but I think it's unlikely that a majority of the people who go to churches identified as in the Reformation tradition (as vague as that is) reject essential components of being in the Reformation tradition (given that the essential components of such a vague category will be relatively few). It's probably true that a majority of those who attend churches in this very broad group will reject certain Reformation doctrines. But does a majority of the people attending the churches in this tradition reject things that are essential for a church to belong to this tradition? I would be very surprised if that were true.

There might be (and I think there *is*) a particular group in Colorado, of questionable authoritarian practices no less, called "Conservative Christians."

The quotes make sense if the writer is comparing a nominatively named group "Conservative Christians" with the essentially named genera, i.e., the rest of us, "conservative Christians."

But if the writer isn't making the contrast, I don't get it all, at all.

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